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Understanding Negativity Bias
Ever notice that your feel-good emotions tend to pass fairly quickly, while negative thoughts have a pesky way of hanging around? If you find yourself ruminating more than you’d like, the good news is that you are completely normal! This tendency is actually baked into the human operating system.
Negativity Bias is an evolutionary trait that inclines our brain to naturally notice, focus on, and become aware of the negative things in life rather than the positive.
Why do we have it?
The tendency to notice "what's not working" stems from the fact that as humans evolved, our survival depended on avoiding danger. Our bodies are beautifully designed to scan the environment for things that might do us harm so that we can live to see another day.
Even though few of us expect to encounter a tiger on the way to the grocery store, our underlying operating system hasn’t changed very much over time. Only now, modern day threats are more likely to include the person who cuts us off in traffic, or how we feel when the boss calls us in for a performance review. While our brains are built to "scan and flee," adults in today’s world can’t physically outrun most of the things that trouble us.
As coaches, we often find that negative emotions are the main driver of pain, suffering, and overall “stuckness” experienced by our clients. Negativity gets in the way of the ability to develop insight and find solutions to problems, and it also keeps people from focusing on whatever it is that they want to accomplish.
What do life coaches need to know about negativity bias?
- Positive emotions improve our prefrontal cortex (logic) functioning. Negative emotions impair it.
- Negative emotions are sticky. Positive emotions are slippery. What this means is that we have to work hard to keep our positive emotions with us, while negative emotions require us to work hard to overcome them.
- Mindfulness and positive psychology interventions can be useful in turning around negativity bias.
- Negativity bias is not the same thing as clinical depression.
From an emotional perspective, it’s important to recognize the power of negative emotions. Not only are they sticky and icky, but they have the power to shut off the thinking part of our brain!
When the limbic system kicks in due to the onset of a negative emotion, the functioning of the prefrontal cortex is suspended. This was very useful when human beings needed to be able to drop everything and run from a wooly mammoth, but these days it’s an aspect of brain function that gets in our way more often than not.
Coaching Tips for Overcoming Negativity Bias
According to Margaret Moore with Harvard Medical School’s Institute of Coaching, the two main sources of negative emotion for us to take into account when coaching our clients are the internal and external.
We all have our own triggers and responses to outside sources – other people, traffic, noise, clutter, and so on. We also each have our own “setpoint” along the spectrum, with some people naturally more prone to optimism (or pessimism) than others.
One of the most important things you can do for your clients is to help them understand what pushes their buttons and brings on a negative cloud. This is an area in which you can really drill down and help your clients to see what affects them and why.
Explore with your client:
- Whatever it is that’s triggering them, ask: will this matter in one year from now?
- How much energy do you want to give that thought or emotion in this moment?
- What feeling or thought would you like to replace the negative emotion with?
One of the largest sources of negative emotion is a person’s own inner critic. This is the voice of the pseudo self. Getting your client to notice what that voice sounds like is essential to gaining control over negative emotions.
Explore with your client:
- Are all thoughts equal?
- How might you tell the difference between a helpful and unhelpful thought?
- What familiar words, phrases or ideas can you identify as coming from your inner critic?
Bringing it all together
While it's useful to learn how to put negative emotions aside, we are not suggesting people suppress them. When we banish our negative emotions, they will only pop up in other ways! Coaching is centered on learning how best to identify and work with negative thoughts and feelings as they arise, not on "getting rid" of them.
The key takeaway is that negativity bias is natural, and it’s also POWERFUL. When we understand the mechanics behind it, we’re better equipped as coaches to help our clients combat their natural inclinations to turn towards fear and worry. We can offer validation for what they’re experiencing, as well as alternatives.
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