“How do I keep the contagious effect of negativity from rubbing off on me?” That’s the question I’m most often asked by seminar participants. My reply: The Three P’s — inspired by the work of Dr. Martin Seligman, who has extensively studied what makes some people positive despite the most dire circumstances and what makes other people consistently negative no matter what positive things come their way.
The Three P’s for Staying Positive
Is it personal? When the company downsizes, when the boss throws a tantrum, or when the coworker in the next cubicle grumbles in response to your morning greeting, ask yourself, “Are any of these really about me?” Most of the time you’ll discover that in fact you cannot—and should not—own that negativity. A comment in a popular women’s magazine was quite telling: You would be depressed if you knew how seldom people were really thinking about you. In other words, it is not about you as much as you might think it is.
Is it permanent? The popular expression, This too shall pass, applies here. The extent to which you can see light at the end of the proverbial tunnel is the extent to which you can remain positive. Those who dwell on the negative are likely to think the light they see at the end of the tunnel looks like an oncoming train.
Does it matter in the big picture? A man in one of my seminars told me that, unlike his colleagues who had been sent to my seminar to get their negative attitudes fixed, he was attending to learn how to fix his boss. When I inquired about the boss’s shortcomings he said, “My boss chews me out in the hallway daily, just for sport!” I asked how he managed to stay positive in spite of this daily Dilbert-style dressing down. He explained, “When my boss is screaming, turning bright red with veins bulging in his forehead, I think, ‘When they record the history of time, will this event be documented? NO!’”
Counteract the Negatives
In the mid 1980’s I was working as a department director at a medium-sized state university. At that time, most of the staff felt that universities were immune to the downsizing trend that had begun gaining momentum. So you can imagine our shock when a newly hired university president began slashing jobs campus-wide. Fear and panic set in. A dark cloud hung over the campus. I recall that everyone I encountered seemed to have an undercurrent of gloom and doom in their tone.
It occurred to me that this was a situation where I could not change the negativity. My only recourse was to counteract it. You can do the same. Find ways to counteract the nonnegotiable negatives. Better yet, find a positive option that might provide financial fallback if you lose your job.
I started moonlighting as a part-time Mary Kay Cosmetics consultant. I remember my academic colleagues teasing, “You’re peddling lipsticks? Everything is so pink! And so perky!” My reply: “I need pink and perky to counteract the negativity. Plus, it’s my backup plan. What’s yours?”
Even though my colleagues might not have chosen the same alternative I did, they did understand that it was about having options. That’s what keeps you from feeling like your back is against the wall and you have nowhere to go. Have you ever noticed that the most negative people are those who feel that they have no choices? They feel stuck. Think about an unsatisfactory situation that you are currently facing. What are your options?
Get a Life!
Several years ago I had an opportunity to conduct training for a large organization known for its conflict and workplace drama. “Take names!” my client told me. I was puzzled by this request. Apparently he wanted me to take down the name of anyone in the training who seemed particularly volatile. I didn’t fully embrace this idea, but proceeded with the training.
About halfway through the day-long workshop, one of the men in that day’s group of 30 participants said, “You know, Sarita, when I’m laying awake at night, I think about this place … When I’m at the grocery store, I think about this place … When I’m walking down the street, I think about this place.” As I’m listening to him I’m thinking, where’s my pen and paper? I need to write this man’s name down. As my 16-year-old daughter would have said, he was creeping me out.
Just as I was contemplating my next move, the other 29 workshop participants shouted at this man in unison as though they had choreographed it: GET A LIFE! I could not have said it better myself. Speaking as a recovering workaholic, I know firs-hand that when all you do is work, every little job-related problem or disappointment looms larger than life. You end up like this man, thinking about your work in the grocery store because you have nothing else to fill your thoughts.
By the way, I did not write the man’s name down. The group was quite generous in helping me engage him in a discussion of possibilities for broadening the scope of his life beyond work. The goal is to not have all of your emotional eggs in one basket.
In fact, research has shown that people who have balanced lives—family career, hobbies, friends—fare better because when one area is not going well, they can look to another area to bolster their confidence, self-esteem and sense of well-being.
So, if you are experiencing negativity at work—or elsewhere—don’t be contaminated by it. Instead, remember to ask yourself the Three-P questions, counteract the negativity with positive experiences, and get a life.
About the Author
Sarita Maybin is an award-winning speaker whose audiences have funlearning to stay positive, handle communication challenges and work together better. Contact her at
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