College Preparatory School for Girls Grades 3-12

Head's Notes

Susanna A. Jones

In this final column, I am focusing again on the work of our commencement speaker, Michelle Gielan '96. We will continue our exploration of how we can improve our own lives and those around us through her book, Broadcasting Happiness: The Science of Igniting and Sustaining Positive Change.

Part II of Michelle's book, "Overcome Stress and Negativity," particularly caught my attention. I'm not a fan of negativity, but I contend with plenty of it. Meanwhile, let's just say that my job can be stressful – in part, because of negative people. We know from my previous column that we are bombarded with way more information than we can process, a fact that offers an opportunity to influence what we absorb. One way to do that is to ask questions. Another way is to "fact-check." When faced with what feels like an overwhelming situation, we can feel paralyzed. Effective fact-checking can lead us from "paralysis to activation."(111) Michelle defines fact-checking as "the practice of ensuring that you have the right facts to accurately portray the present, but also the process of discovering facts that lead to alternative and more beneficial future outcomes."(113) Identifying the right facts can shift one's outlook on a situation from pessimistic to optimistic, and, as we already know, having an optimistic attitude carries numerous benefits including better health and greater success.

So what does this mean? It does not mean ignoring the challenges the situation presents. It means exploring it to uncover facts that can mitigate the challenge – and paralysis. It means looking for what Michelle calls "fueling facts." Fact-checking is a three step process. We want to begin by "isolat[ing] the stressful thought." We need to get to the core issue that is making us feel overwhelmed. Then we need to "list the facts we know." This might seem counterintuitive; however, listing the facts as we know them provides a chance to vent, which is healthy, and as long as we list facts without emotion – and this is key -- we begin to understand the situation better. Also, if we're leading someone else through this process, asking them to list the facts shows compassion and makes them more open to considering the next step, "list[ing] fueling facts that illuminate a new story." We should seek fueling-facts in resources we have within ourselves, such as ways in which we've handled similar situations successfully in the past; or outside resources, such as other people who could provide assistance. Obviously, some situations, such as receiving a terminal diagnosis, legitimately offer few fueling facts (that's where "the next best" question can be helpful), but, if we look hard enough, we can almost always find other facts that will allow us to define a situation differently and more optimistically. Looking at the situation from this more positive perspective gives us strength to tackle the challenge. (123-4)

Fact-checking can help anyone in a challenging situation, including our children. Michelle uses the example of a child who feels as though her classmates are being mean to her. As we help our child fact-check, we would ask her to enumerate instances of classmates being nice to her or to list the number of people being mean versus the whole class. This exercise helps our child frame the situation differently, strengthening her to deal with bad behavior without feeling the victim. We're not telling her the meanness doesn't exist – and that's important: we don't want to minimize the way she's feeling. Rather, we're helping her to re-frame it to her benefit.

Even stress itself benefits from fact-checking. Stress, in fact, has positive attributes. Like so many things in life, we need to find the right balance: a modicum of stress heightens awareness, makes our minds sharper, our reactions quicker, and our immune systems more responsive; too much stress shuts us down, physically and mentally, especially when we experience high levels of stress for a long period. So, when a situation stresses us, we need to think about how that stress may actually make us more efficient and effective, turning the stress from a negative to a positive.

That was stress. How about negative people? We probably all contend, at least occasionally, with determinedly negative people. If such people are negatively affecting us, we may need to make a strategic retreat. Retreat can allow us to regroup and then reenter in a stronger position. It's worth noting that negativity, especially if delivered in highly expressive ways, but even if only communicated through gestures and expressions, is very contagious. We all know how one person's negativity can completely undermine a group. We should retreat if our defenses are compromised, if the negative person is "deeply entrenched," or if the circumstances are not appropriate for engagement with someone we know will have a negative reaction. (149-50)

Retreat, however, serves no purpose if we don't use it to regroup. Michelle uses this point in her book to present a series of activities that, employed regularly, boost our positivity. They should be used for regrouping, but, in fact, they represent good practices at any time. Trying any of these for 21 days can establish a positive habit that will improve our happiness state.

  • Begin each day by sending someone, anyone, a positive email, preferably stating how they have made a positive difference in your life. This sets a positive tone for the day.
  • Every day, record three unique things for which you are grateful. Doing this gets us in the habit of scanning for positive aspects of our lives (it works, I can attest from personal experience).
  • Every day snap a photo of a positive moment or something you care about. At the end of the week, taking a minute to scroll through the pictures will trigger the positive emotions associated with them.

Cultivating a positive orientation steels us against negativity and readies to reenter. We want to enter carefully, though, to increase the likelihood of positive encounters. First, think about the circumstances in which we will engage with the negative person. When will she be the least irritable? What space will discourage negative expressions? Is being in public better, for example? Think about how long the conversation needs to last and plan it: the shorter the better. If possible, have other positive people with you.

Michelle outlines a two-minute drill to use when we need to ask something of a negative person:

  • 1.Begin with a "power lead." Remember that from last week? Begin with something positive related to the person.
  • 2.Ask the question directly and simply. Listen attentively to the answer and minimize follow-up questions.
  • 3.Leave on a positive note: thank and compliment the person.

I think we can all think of ways that the two-minute drill could be useful.

Finally, Michelle has a prescription for delivering "bad news better": the four C's: social capital, context, compassion, and staying committed. We all have more support when we have to give bad news if we've accumulated social capital. We do this by building trust through actions and through relationships. Shared activities (as simple as having lunch with colleagues); celebrating others' achievements publicly – being the spreader of positive news and good will; taking the time for (brief) positive conversations with people, especially those we don't know well; acknowledging someone's strengths all build social capital. Michelle recommends spending at least 15 minutes a day on these kinds of social-capital-building activities.

Context means giving details that demonstrate understanding of the situation from the perspective of the person receiving the bad news, providing background information that explains the reasons for the decision, showing that we appreciate the impact of the news on the person, and finally framing it positively. This last relates to fact-checking in that it asks us as the deliverer of the news to think about more ways to solve the situation. Are we looking at the options too narrowly or in a binary, win-lose, way when perhaps the situation is more complex – and here asking questions will help reveal alternative frames. We often make assumptions about the reasons for people's behavior which questioning the person would reveal are off the mark.

The value in exercising compassion when sharing bad news seems obvious. The more compassionate we are, the more easily a person can hear the news. Compassion can even disarm the recipient of the news. However, staying committed, outlining and following through on a plan aimed at improving a situation, gives compassion credence. We must be explicit about our commitment to the people to whom we're delivering bad news; we can't assume that they recognize our commitment, especially since we just delivered bad news.

It's never easy to deliver bad news, believe me – I have done it enough. However, when we do it well, we help people and organizations through difficult times and ultimately can make them better. And this should be our goal in all we do: try to make things better. We begin that by helping people find the positive, in broadcasting happiness.

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