Overcoming negativity can boost bottom line: Realistic optimism is a skill worth learning

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Negativity is an increasing problem in the workplace, costing U.S. companies about $3 billion a year in lost productivity, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Whether it’s due to downsizing, budget cuts, lack of participation in decision-making, or co-workers who are simply pessimistic, negativism hurts everybody.

Suzanne Metzger knows this firsthand. She said strong faith helped her weather a life-threatening setback-breast cancer.

A major obstacle in her life was dealing with difficult people instead of holding her anger or f r u s t r a t i o n inside. She had to learn how to keep negative people out of her life, and when she has to interact with them, she makes it “short and sweet.”

“I’m an 11-year survivor [of breast cancer],” Metzger said. “I took one day at a time and dealt with what was most pressing. I studied the women of the Bible, wrote my own motivational book and co-authored “Living with Breast Cancer.”

All this was her way of changing her lifestyle from a negative to a positive attitude and now, as president and CEO of Corporate Masters Inc., an Indianapolisbased motivational and training company, she helps others deal with negativity.

Accepting change, dealing with setbacks, and dealing with negative or cynical people in a positive way are skills and strategies that Barbara Braunstein, a White Plains, N Y- b a s e d motivational s p e a ke r, teaches clients that include Coca-Cola Bottling Co., Lockheed Martin and others. Braunstein is a featured speaker at the 2005 Speaking of Women’s Health Conference on Sept. 23 at the Indiana Convention Center hosted by WFYI Public Broadcasting.

Braunstein said overcoming negativityour own and others-is a critical skill for success. Dealing with whining, pessimistic, negative people is difficult but not dealing with them can lower productivity and employee morale.

Optimism isn’t something that just happens, she said. “What I call ‘realistic optimism’ is a learned skill,” Braunstein said. “It’s not something that happens to you. You do very specific things to learn the skill of remaining realistically optimistic no matter what’s happening in your professional or personal life.”

Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., a psychologist and clinical researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, has been studying optimists and pessimists for 25 years. In his book, “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life,” Seligman said pessimists believe bad events will last a long time and are their own fault. Optimists, on the other hand, see bad events as temporary setbacks and challenges to overcome.

In today’s world, change is the norm, Braunstein said. “To think that things will just settle down and be the way they used to be is just fantasy. Downsizings, mergers and layoffs-all of that is just going to happen. It’s really just a matter of understanding that change is OK.”

She counsels that people who are going to stay in business, be successful or get promoted are those who accept change and move forward.

Myra Borshoff Cook, a principal with Borshoff Johnson Matthews, an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing c o m m u n i c a t i o n s company, said keeping a positive attitude is important.

“I believe in the silver-lining theory,” she said, “however, I also have a punching bag in my basement. When I need to release some negative build-up, I put on my red boxing gloves and go for it.”

Metzger and Braunstein believe the key to being realistically optimistic lies in reframing situations. “Yes, gas is high-I’m glad I can pay for it,” Metzger said. “Yes, travel is tiring-I’m glad I have the energy to do it. For most things in our lives, there is a 180.”

There are a lot of reasons why people are negative, Braunstein said, but most psychologists agree that it has to do with several factors. One is early parenting.

“If you grow up in a family where you hear over and over ‘Don’t trust anybody.’ ‘Everybody’s out to get you.’ as a child you believe that,” she said. “Certain life experiences will teach people that negativity is accurate.”

When she started her own motivational speaking and training business in 1993, Braunstein’s father chastised her for giving up her secure position and told her she’d end up being a bag lady. “If you see his thinking through the eyes of [someone who experienced] the Great Depression, of course he thought it was crazy to give up financial security to break out on your own.”

So how can you deal with negativity and criticism? “If you hear comments like I did from my father, I tell people to say to themselves the word, ‘Stop!’ In your mind you’re erasing what you hear. Then repeat a more accurate message to yourself. For example, ‘My father is seeing this through his Depression-era filter.'”

Cook said remaining positive and upbeat has helped her deal with negative people. “I once worked in a small office with only four employees, one of whom was openly hostile to me,” she said. “I was positive, upbeat and deflected every insult and unpleasant comment she threw at me. I’m sure I drove her crazy.”

One of Braunstein’s favorite phrases is “Don’t walk away from negative people, run!” “I don’t mean run away physically,” she said. “What I really mean is run away mentally.”

Another strategy that Braunstein teaches is how to receive criticism. “We all know objectively that receiving criticism is an important part of moving forward in a career, but it’s very hard,” she said. “When you hear criticism, you start to feel your defenses going up. Before you do anything, I like people to say one of two words: ‘Oh.’ The other is ‘Hmmm’ … this slows down our defense mechanism to see things more clearly.”

She also recommends focusing on the information to take the emotion out of it. “For example, if a manager says, ‘This report is no good. I can’t take this to upper management!’ instead of thinking that this is an attack on your entire work history, just focus on the report. We tend to see criticism as an attack rather than information.”

A good phrase to remember, Braunstein said, is “I hear what you’re saying but I see it so differently. It doesn’t mean I’m arguing with you. You just can’t convince other people to see the world the way you do. You can influence someone but the way to do that is to listen to what they’re saying and then state your own point of view.

“There’s a wonderful quote from St. Francis of Assisi that says, ‘Seek first to understand rather than to be understood.’ It’s not just being courteous or polite, it’s pure business.”

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