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Human beings evolved as much prey as predators. To survive, our ancestors had to be hyper-vigilant for threat – you only have to miss the sabre-toothed tiger in the grass once for your genes to leave the gene pool.* So, we have evolved to be constantly on the lookout for threats – that’s handy when you’re crossing the road, but most of the time we’re not really in that much danger. Unfortunately the unconscious processes of your mind don’t know that, so they react to minor criticisms, disagreements and mistakes as though they are threats to your very existence.
This is known as the Negativity Bias – neuropsychologist Rick Hanson describes our minds as having evolved to be ‘teflon for positivity, but velcro for negativity’. I’m sure you’re familiar with the experience of receiving feedback, and managing to pretty much ignore all of the appreciations, while focusing your attention sharply on the one thing that isn’t enthusiastically appreciative. All of which makes life pretty unpleasant at times – that’s because evolution doesn’t care whether you are happy or not, all it’s worried about is that you pass on your genes.**
Fortunately neuroplasticity allows us to reprogram our brains so that instead of constantly looking out for failure, rejection and threat we learn to look out for success, acceptance and possibility. This is the principle of Solution Focus approaches.
In a simple machine, knowing what the problem is can be a real help – you just replace the broken part and everything is sorted. In a complex system like the human psyche, a business or a community, learning all you can about a problem may make you an expert on problems, but usually won’t tell you very much that’s useful about the solution.
Solution Focused inquiries, like ‘when doesn’t the problem occur?’ or ‘where do things work best?’ bring a different perspective to situations, and start to open up possibilities. They also help the brain to work in a way that stimulates creativity, rather than triggering defensive fight/flight responses.
Learning to rewire the way you approach life isn’t an overnight job – after all you’re working against millions of years of evolution – but you can experience positive effects very quickly. Here’s a little exercise I almost always give to my coaching clients, and regularly do myself.
Give yourself 10 minutes and write a list of What’s working?/What’s better? make the list as long as you possibly can and include as wide a range of things as possible – from the cup of tea that you just enjoyed, to a major work achievement, to someone opening the door for you, anything and everything you can think of – keep asking yourself ‘and what else?’.
You can do this on your phone, tablet or computer, and it works even better if you use pen and paper. Once you’ve finished your Working/Better list you can write your To Do list – make sure all the items on that list are small and specific first steps ‘send an email to Bob to arrange a meeting’ rather than ‘renegotiate the Bob Co. contract’.
What this does is gets your brain firing on all the networks associated with success, connection, and positivity, so you feel well resourced to tackle the jobs ahead – and breaking those jobs down into bite-size chunks helps to avoid the tendency to get overwhelmed. And it sometimes helps you to notice opportunities that you might otherwise overlook.
Give it a try, all you’ve got to lose is your negativity bias.
* Disclaimer – I have no idea whether sabre toothed tigers did actually hunt hominids, but you get the point
** Disclaimer 2 – Evolution is a process, to describe it as caring or not caring about something is ludicrous – but you get the point.