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Why Talking Nice Works

Most clients outside the leadership development/executive coaching realm call me because they have a problem. They are worried, stressed, unhappy, misunderstood and probably need a good night’s sleep. My first response is always the same, I realized in hindsight: connect. Connect with the human being on the other side of the desk. Empower them with attention and listening. Give them room to start to see a path forward. Now, the second thing I always do is possible: envision and talk about the scenarios that result from the problem being solved. In simpler terms, quite by trial and error, I noticed that people did better and brought more to the table if I served them with positive language and creative options. What brought out the worst in them was commiserating about the dirty, rotten competitor, the government conspiracy, or the root of all evil co-worker. It appears that we fight like heck to get people down in the mud, but, like teenagers, we’re just pushing boundaries and don’t really want to take that ride.

There is an incredible repository of work on positive psychology, emotional intelligence, and effective communication. One of my favorite examples is a study illustrating higher treatment adherence to doctor’s orders when a positive approach was utilized. The study, conducted by Masud Khawaja in his 2010 doctoral dissertation at Case Western University, involved Type II Diabetes patients. In short the patients who experienced more “positive emotional attractors” had higher rates of sticking to their physicians’ plans. When I break it down, a positive emotional attractor is simply the framing of a situation in a positive way: “Following your diet and exercise plan is going to make you feel energetic again. You’ll be back to your old self, playing with the dog, and enjoying great hikes with your friends.” Negative emotional attractors, on the other hand, focus on the Chicken Little School of Thought: “If I don’t figure out how to solve the production problem, I’m going to get fired. I have no way of paying for tuition, or the mortgage. My husband will divorce me for the neighbor, and take the dog.” In addition to being a total drag on quality of life, the evidence also tells us that this sort of mental hand-wringing happens in the wrong part of the brain for good solutions to be generated and sustained. (Turns out, the brain stem is great for helping ward of saber tooth tigers. Not so great for peace of mind.)

So there, it is. Bad news might travel fast, but good news sustains and changes us. How nice.