Practical Optimism

The Bull x The Horns: How do I tell my coworker they’re bringing me down?

Psychologists Art Markman and Bob Duke give advice on how to approach people whose negativity starts to get in the way.

Q: I am a veteran teacher who also happens to be blind. Another teacher from school gives me a ride to work every day. Our job is tough: it’s tons of work with challenging kids, but I love what I do. My driver does not—she complains about it all the way to and from work. I try to be supportive and point out the positives, but she argues with everything I say. She is starting to really bring me down. Any advice? 

—Always Finding the Bright Side

Dear Bright Side:

Let’s begin by recognizing that your positive outlook on the world is probably contagious when you interact with most of the people around you, perhaps especially your students. That shouldn’t change just because you’re sometimes stuck in the car with someone whose focus is different.

All of us tend to focus on information that is compatible with our motivations in the moment, and some of that information is specifically related to our goals. If you’re attending a concert by a particular band next week, for example, you’re more likely to notice one of the band’s songs playing on the radio or as background music in a store you’re shopping in. If you’re planning a trip to an exotic locale, you’ll be more likely to notice when you come across a story about the place or the culture you’re going to visit.

Some motivations relate to desirable outcomes. You might be excited to introduce an upcoming lesson to your students, because you so enjoyed the reactions of former students when you presented the lesson in past years. Other motivations relate to undesirable outcomes we try to avoid. A student who’s been particularly disruptive of late may cause you to worry about how the student’s behavior may affect the success of a lesson you have planned that relies heavily on student cooperation in small groups.

Here’s the most interesting part of this. Focusing on desirable outcomes actually broadens your attention to potential positive outcomes in your environment, a phenomenon the psychologist Tory Higgins labeled promotion focus. When you have a promotion focus, the entire world looks as if it is filled with positive potential, and you consider all the possibilities for what you might achieve.

Focusing on an undesirable outcome actually heightens your awareness of potential negative outcomes in the world, what Higgins called a prevention focus. When you have a prevention focus, many things around you may seem to embody threats to be avoided.

Some people tend to be generally promotion focused, waking up each day recognizing the positives that may lie ahead. Your question leads us to think that your outlook may be promotion focused. Those who are generally prevention focused are often on the lookout for potential problems, which seems to describe your fellow commuter. And because the negatives dominate her view of the world, she perhaps understandably argues for her way of thinking.

Focusing on desirable outcomes actually broadens your attention to potential positive outcomes in your environment.

It sounds as though you have tried to counter your colleague’s negative thinking with positive information. She raises a negative, and you counter with a positive. If she is prevention focused, though, the negatives always loom large for her. So, she will even see the negatives in the positive elements you bring up.

In determining how best to proceed, you should consider how well you know each other and how receptive your friend may be to feedback about her behavior. Most of us tend not to give negative feedback to others unless we’re emotionally energized (read: angry), although letting others know how their behavior affects the people around them is often beneficial to all parties involved.

Being candid—kindly, calmly—about your differences in outlook may alert your colleague to an aspect of her behavior that she has yet to fully recognize. Because her prevention focus leads her to see the world mostly in terms of negatives, she may not even notice how often she comments on the negative things around her.

Explaining the situation explicitly may serve to slow down your colleague’s go-to responses. Because she seems focused on the negative, her first, fast, gut reaction to almost anything will be to find the cloud lurking behind the silver lining you just told her about. By explaining your hope and your conscious intention to focus more on the good things in the world, you provide an opportunity for her to recognize automatic reaction and perhaps find something positive to say.

Another tangible path to improving your interactions is to create a shared goal. There are likely several opportunities in your work or personal lives for you to plan something positive for the future, perhaps purchasing a gift for another colleague in celebration of some event in their lives or planning a new experience for the children or parents in your school. By engaging a goal that the two of you are thinking about together, you may be able to shift your colleague’s focus toward information that will be useful in bringing that goal to fruition. And because the goal involves a desirable outcome, it can help shift her typical prevention focus to a promotion focus.

We should recognize before we end that the teaching profession presents many, many challenges, some of which are daunting. Having chosen a profession that can positively affect the lives of countless children and families in ways that will last a lifetime, you embody a sense of tenacious optimism that’s especially inspiring. We wish you the best for a happier commute.

—Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke

The Bull x The Horns advice column is authored by psychologists Art Markman and Bob Duke, hosts of the Two Guys on Your Head podcast. This column represents the advice of Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke and not the views or opinions of Frost Bank.

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