Posted by: Liz Massey | January 10, 2008

Practical reasons to accentuate the positive–it works

Kathryn Britton over at Positive Psychology Reflections had two good posts this week about the benefits of focusing on the positive: one that explores the optimal ratio of positive-to-negative comments when trying to improve a team, situation, or process, and a second post that discusses the use of positive feedback in a writer’s workshop.

According to research, the optimal ratio “range” is from 2.9:1 to 11.6:1. That is, If there are not at least 3 positive comments for every negative comment, things founder under a fixation on the negative. And if negative/deficit-based thinking is almost completely absent, productivity or flourishing is also impeded, as the fixation on remaining “positive” may indicate denial of pressing issues that need real solutions. 

Part of my approach to creativity coaching is grounded in the change methodology of Appreciative Inquiry, which asserts that building upon a person’s, team’s or organization’s strengths is more effective than a primary focus on identifying and “fixing” deficits.

AI practitioners are very aware that one can’t ignore real, pressing problems–but given the omni-presence of the problem-solving paradigm in our society, it’s important to increase the ratio of positive/constructive comments and views, in order to unearth previously unimagined ways to mend broken processes or relationships, or to make something that’s working well, work better.

Kathryn’s second post takes the discussion of the optimal ratio and puts it into practical use by mentioning a favorite book of hers about writer’s workshops that emphasizes the importance of starting with positive feedback when critiquing another’s work. She notes that her own experience has been that hearing praise and constructive comments first helps her digest ALL of the suggestions offered about her work:

In my own experience having a paper reviewed at a workshop, hearing the positive comments made me open to hearing the suggestions for improvement that followed. They also helped me see what NOT to change when I made the next revision.

As an editor, I work from the same principle. When I send stories back to writers for revision, the first section in my “edit memo” is a section where I give them detailed feedback on what works about the piece.

Sometimes this is easy; sometimes I have to work very hard to find something constructive to say. However, it keeps my mind–as well as the writer’s–focused on the fact that they will eventually finalize the piece, and that we need to work with what they HAVE on the page to begin with, then proceed to what they HAVE NOT put there (that I am seeking).

Here’s an exercise in focusing on appreciating the positive:

Take a creative project that you are working on, one that you have completed a significant amount on, but don’t feel is “finished,” and go over it with this new, positively-focused perspective.

Start by looking for what works–your overall story structure? The colors in your painting? The way you’ve blocked the first scene in your play?

Write in your journal about what you feel is working, and return to this entry before continuing the reworking of your project. Chances are, however much you end up changing about the piece, you will be able to approach the work with greater confidence–both in the project itself, and in your ability to complete it to your satisfaction.

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