Maintaining a positive mind-set

“The trouble is...”

How to maintain a positive mind - set in a negative environment

“Think of something that you have done well recently in your work”.

As part of a learning set I facilitate for Health & Social Care practitioners, this first introductory question is designed to be straightforward.  It’s astonishing how few people are able to talk easily about what they have done well, whether as an individual or as part of a team.  Part of this is the struggle to quickly bring to mind something that is tangible and relevant.  Yet on closer listening to their conversations, each group drifts towards general chat about problems, difficulties and other negative stuff.

When I raise this with the wider group, I hear the same thing time and again.  “It’s not that we don’t want to talk about what we do well, it’s more that we’re not used to it, so it doesn’t come easily.”  They then acknowledge that what does come easily, is talking about difficulties because they’re more practised at that.  There is nothing wrong with this, but it’s important to notice –for example the habit of gravitating quickly to the negatives in meetings, in supervision, or in conversations about clients, customers or partnerships.  This can often result in everyone getting sucked into the vortex of negativity and circular conversations or leaping for a quick fix to the problem.  A strengths-based approach to problem solving helps us be more creative – it builds trust, helps us ask powerful questions and thereby spot the patterns of current behaviour, and how this might be resolved differently and for the long term.

The next exercise I set the group is to let them hear a seemingly negative monologue or stream of consciousness.  I then ask them to ‘pan for gold’.  This is a simple metaphor that involves listening out for any positives in what otherwise would seem totally negative.  For example, in a workplace setting, I often hear the following:


“Frankly, my [supervision] sessions are a waste of time.  It’s just a chance for the manager to tell me what needs to get done.  I want to be listened to, not talked at, but what can I do?  Two of my colleagues find reasons to put them off, they’re that bad.”

At one level, the individual is just having a moan.  But by recognising the positives that have been said, we can completely reframe the conversation so that they can begin to see the situation in a slightly different light, and then explore possibilities.  The positives are:

  1. Lucy knows what the problem is
  2. She knows what she wants
  3. She is making a choice to be there where others are doing the opposite
  4. She asks a fabulous and important question

This is not to suggest that I will always leap to the positives, but I have trained myself to notice them in passing, which in itself gives more options about where to begin.

Noticing the positives is the first step towards positive reframing.  It is a habit that can be learned anytime and anywhere, but becomes particularly helpful in a negative environment.  It also makes giving feedback easier because good feedback is always constructive, never destructive.  We try to ensure an individual receiving the feedback leaves the conversation at least feeling okay about themselves, and hopefully good about themselves and optimistic.  While we cannot take responsibility for how someone will receive what we say, we can ensure that by adopting a positive, strengths-based approach we can say the things that need to be said in ways that they don’t feel diminished.

If you don’t do so already, try finishing/ starting the week with a note in your learning diary or just to yourself/colleague about something you’re really pleased with what you’ve accomplished at the weekend or during the week.  It becomes a good habit, and we can then receive compliments more easily without brushing them off.   So, if anyone asks you what you’ve done well recently, you can respond swiftly, fluently and concisely.  This builds confidence in yourself and others and sets the tone for the conversation.

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Fantastic course [Motivational Interviewing]! Totally relevant, understandable, practical and interesting. I look forward to using the skills and tools I learned. I was particularly impressed with Alasdair Cant. He is a brilliant trainer, knowledgeable, patient, engaging and clearly skilled at facilitating groups ensuring fun and learning.

Youth Justice Worker