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Friday, 18 September 2009 at

Giving Yourself Some Options - Learned Optimism and the 'And' stance

It's far too easy call people names when they do things that you don't like, and it's very tempting.  There seems to be some kind of instant relief from saying
"He's just a bastard."
"She's just a racist."
"He's only behaving like that because he's very depressed"
"She's psychotic"

In fact, in my experience amateur diagnoses of mental illness are surprisingly common.  As with this casual diagnosis of Obessive Compulsive Disorder in an overheard conversation.

The problem with these labels is not that they aren't accurate – they might be, they might not be, but they aren't very precise.  Dealing with the difficult ways in which people behave in terms of character traits and diagnoses of psychological illness is the broadest of brushes and final and for all time. There is a certain kind of relief that you feel is from not having to think about the detail of the difficult situation now that person you've been arguing with, has been labelled.

This occurs to me having read Martin Seligman's book "Learned Optimism".  Seligman's definition of optimism is quite a technical one which covers some of the common sense concept of what we think of as optimistic, but not everything. Certainly Seligman's definition doesn't cover someone who regarded as "naively optimistic".  Who always imagines things will turn out for the best, irregardless of the evidence.  Rather Seligman's definition of optimism is concerned with the specificity of explanations of bad news.

For Seligman an optimist is someone who, when things go wrong, gives the most specific in time and specific in situation, impersonal answer that she can.

So, for example, if Sue goes to a meeting with her client Jim and before she even gets started on outlining the next steps in the project Jim yells at her, "I've just had about enough of you software people conning me at every turn.  Why can't you just do an honest day's work for an honest day's pay."

The central point of Seligman's book is that there are a variety of ways of dealing with situation and, in terms of what you think to yourself, these are better or worse for mental and physical health and welfare depending on how and to what degree you generalise over time and from situation to situation and to what degree you personalise.

So, for example, if Sue is to say to herself as a result for her conversation with Jim:

"Jim seems to be in a particularly bad mood today. Maybe it's this particular kind of meeting where he has to explain what he wants in technical terms that leaves him exasperated.  His complaints about 'software people' can't really be about me, I've only met him a few times before."

This would be regarded by Seligman as an optimistic response because it is local in time (it's just this time), specific in terms of occasion (it's particularly meetings like this) and it's impersonal to Sue (this isn't something about me, it could have been anybody who got this telling off).

On the other hand, if Sue were to say to herself:

"This is guy is just a nutcase." This is an explanation that's pervasive over time (people who are nutcases today, are generally nutcases tomorrow) and pervasive over several situations (nutcases behave strangely in a wide range of situations).

Or if Sue were to say to herself:

"I must be terrible at my job, I just don't have a professional demeanour.  Clearly there's something about my personality that's made him so angry." This is making it personal.

One of the problems of these kinds of explanation - which Seligman would term as pessimistic - is that they don't leave much room for progress.  If your boss really is mentally ill, or if there really is something about your personality that means people don't treat you with respect, there isn't much you can do about it.

This perhaps why Seligman's view is that, even if you would tend to come up with a pessimistic explanation is such a situation, even if you were to believe it were true, it still pays to try and see the optimistic view, because it gives you more options for action.

The "and" stance

In the field of negotiation and difficult conversations, there's a concept called "The 'and' stance".  It's outlined in Bruce Patton, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen's book - Difficult Conversations.  The idea is to dispel fears and emotional reactions to situations by accepting that lots of things can be true at the same time.  Have you ever seen a person deny that they've made a mistake, even when it is obvious to everyone who is observing that this person has made a mistake?

Let's say that this person is Ted the Java programmer and that he's in a discussion with his client Clive who's just found a bad bug in Ted's software. Why would this person deny that he's made an obvious mistake?  The study of difficult conversations teaches us that when people's identity is under attack they will react emotionally and defensively, and very probably not rationally.  If it is a strong part of Ted's identity that he is a guru-level java programmer, the reasoning in his head might run like this:

  • I am a guru-level Java programmer
  • Guru level Java programmers don't make mistakes
  • Therefore, if I admit to making this mistake, I will be admitting to NOT being a guru level programmer.

The result of this reasoning is that Ted refused to admit his mistakes.  This causes enormous amounts of difficulty, with clients, with his boss and with the rest of the team.  So much so that they no longer bother to point out his mistakes and fix things without discussing them behind his back.

Of course the truth of the matter is that the world is a very richly complicated and detailed place in which many things are true at the same time.  The approach of the and stance is to try to accept as many claims of the different parties to a difficult conversation at once using the magical word "and".

So, for example, in this case.

"Ted is a highly professional, guru Java programmer." AND "He has made a mistake."  We could perhaps add to this with a few more "Ands" - AND  "A mistake isn't the end of the world" AND "Now we've spotted it, it's easily fixed." 

In my experience, the effect of adopting the "and" stance is to take a great deal of the heat out of a difficult conversation.   Again, as with adopting an optimistic attitude to a situation, using the and stance opens up a set of options for solving the problem.

But remember, difficult conversations are hard.  You're not Chuck Norris - you will get your ass kicked (I got mine thoroughly booted just a couple of days ago).

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