Back in hunter-gatherer days, our brains evolved what scientists call a “negativity bias.” We are wired to be on the lookout for threats. This wiring can work against us when we are seeking consensus. The good news is that we can change this wiring to serve us better in modern life.
Negativity bias makes us more willing to believe something bad about an unfamiliar person than to believe something good about him, and can even cause us to judge familiar people too harshly, imagining nefarious motivations for which there is no real evidence. A coworker closes her office door, and we think she’s talking about us. Or maybe she’s lining up an interview for a new job, or plotting to overthrow the company.
Negativity bias is useful when facing a club-wielding member of a different clan. Not so useful when you want to build consensus.
This inborn bias makes us unjustifiably sensitive to criticism. As explained more fully in Chapter 4 of Bridges to Consensus, we perceive criticism, or wrong making, as a threat. But our instinct to argue or counterattack is counterproductive if we seek consensus with the critic.
The Oprah Magazine recently interviewed two coaches and a neuropsychologist about developing more constructive responses to these modern situations. Each of them suggested a practice that fits right in with good consensus and communication skills.
Marcia Reynolds, PsyD, a life coach and author of Outsmart Your Brain! Suggests developing a clear plan when making a major life change and continuing to “move forward when things go wrong—which of course they will.” Not every consensus-seeking communication is a major life change, but when we use our consensus skills to prepare, we are, in reality, making plans—plans for a particular conversation, as well as longer-range plans for satisfying our interests whether or not we are able to reach consensus with the other person.
Ben Dattner, PhD, an executive coach and author of The Blame Game, emphasizes the importance of creating a nonjudgmental atmosphere so that people are willing to voice the sort of unusual ideas that can lead to breakthrough solutions. We create this kind of atmosphere when we practice the Silver Rule of Consensus—“Avoid wrong making” (Bridges, Chapter 4). Once that atmosphere is established, we can use the “What would Spiderman do?” technique to move from unusual ideas to exceptionally creative results (Bridges, Chapter 8).
But the interviewee who spoke the loudest to me was Rick Hansen, PhD, a neuropsychologist and co-author of Buddha’s Brain. He suggests that we can actually wire up new, more positive, circuitry in our brains by spending as little as ten seconds savoring a positive detail, several times a day. This detail can be as simple as the yummy taste of a sandwich or the beat of a favorite song. I began a similar practice several years ago. I not only savor the good moments, but express gratitude for them, even if only in my mind.
A problem solver, and thus a problem seeker, by nature, I took positive thinking a step further. Now, once I have identified something I want to avoid (a problem), I try to think of the positive contrast—the thing I do want. If I want to avoid traffic, the positive contrast is a clear road. If I want to avoid an angry blow up with someone, the positive contrast is a calm conversation. Then I try express what I want in those positive terms, both in my head and with my mouth, whenever I can.
In ways that probably have scientific explanations, though they aren’t yet known (at least not to me), this practice has helped me actually achieve more positive results. I have found that I cope with criticism better, and in doing so, have become even more persuasive and better at using my skills to achieve agreements that satisfy my interests.
I believe I have actually improved my brain wiring. But even if the only thing that happens when you focus on the positive is that you feel happier in the moment, you have been well rewarded.