Be a Stealth Conversationalist: Flipping Negativity to Positivity

Jan 10, 2018
Stuck in negative conversations makes it all but impossible to see possibilities. Positive framing is about “righting” your conversation - flipping to address what you want - intentionally shaping a conversation to focus on desirable outcomes and breathe new life into the dialogue.

Stuck in negative conversations makes it all but impossible to see possibilities, to see clearly all the options you might have. Positive framing is about “righting” your conversation—flipping to address what you want. Intentionally shaping a conversation to focus on a desirable outcome and to energize engagement to produce positive results is like coming up for air or breathing life into the dialogue. A positive frame draws people in and inspires curiosity, imagination, and interest. This should not be mistaken for focusing only on the positive. Quite the contrary, this is about dealing with even the toughest issues in a way that motivates everyone to find creative solutions and take action. We offer a tool, Flipping, to help you take any problem or challenge and create a positive frame. This is a simple three-step approach to move from a negative, deficit-based frame to a positive frame, allowing you to work towards solutions by engaging in conversations worth having.  The three steps are:

  1. Name It. What is the problem, complaint, or the thing you don’t want?
  2. Flip It. What is the positive opposite, the thing you do want?
  3. Frame It. What is the positive impact if the flip is true; what is the desired outcome?

Here’s an example taken from our book Conversations Worth Having of how positive framing can turn a potentially critical or destructive conversation into a conversation worth having! Mark, a mid-level manager in a Fortune 100 company, was preparing for a tough conversation with an employee who was very good at her job. There was one major problem. She was routinely late for their weekly meeting and sometimes missed deadlines. The practice of positive framing has allowed Mark to maintain good relational dynamics with his employees while resolving issues that are impacting overall team performance. The result is a department that has a strong sense of well-being and a team that is flourishing. Mark was in no way going to skirt the lateness issue; he needed to address it before it caused harm to the team and the department’s stellar record.  He thought through the flipping process to shift his original depreciative frame to an appreciative frame. He took the time to get very clear on the impact Melissa was having and what the outcome of her being on time would be for the department. His process went something like this:

  1. What is the problem? Melissa is routinely late and misses deadlines.
  2. What is the positive opposite of the problem? Melissa is routinely on time and meets deadlines.
  3. What would be the impact if Melissa was on time; what is the desired outcome? The team has a strong sense of cohesion: performance improves, trust, mutual respect, and collaboration are solid. All of these help us sustain excellence.

For Mark, reframing expanded his awareness and gave him the broader context for why it was important for team members to be on time. It also caused him to wonder if there were other things that could be done to build cohesion, and how he could better contribute to that. Were there things he might have done to set the stage for success and by not doing them, set Melissa up for failure?  That influenced his state of mind and openness when Melissa arrived for their meeting.

Mark started the conversation by saying, “Melissa, I want to ensure we have a strong team grounded in trust, responsiveness, mutual respect, and cohesion because I think it will allow us to be remarkably successful together. What do you think?” Melissa replied with some hesitation as she wasn’t sure where this was going, “I agree; I hope I am contributing to that.”

Mark responded, “I hope I’m doing all I can to contribute to that as well, but I’m not so sure I am. I’m glad you and I are on the same page with this. You do excellent work, and your input is very important to our team. You certainly are contributing to our success. I am noticing something that I’d like to address, and I need your help. I’m sensing that people are getting frustrated in meetings when you’re not there or when something isn’t turned in on time. It means they can’t move forward because you have important information to share. You are a valued member of this team. I’m afraid that their frustration will build over time and impact the team’s trust and cohesion. Do you have some ideas about how we can make sure we stay a strong team? Is there something I need to be doing that would make that possible?”

Melissa felt embarrassed, but it seemed Mark was open to her input. She shared, “The meetings I’m late for are scheduled at 8 AM on Wednesdays, and I have a very difficult time getting here on time on that day. That’s the only day I drop my son, Connor, at daycare. All other days my husband takes him, but he can’t on Wednesdays. If we could schedule our standing meeting for 8:30 or 9 AM or for any other day, I can assure you I’ll be on time.”

Mark looked shocked, “Is that all it will take? Surely, we can find another time. We’ll reschedule at our next meeting.” He realized he’d never asked people about the timing of the meeting. “And about deadlines,” added Melissa, “I hate it when I miss deadlines too; that’s not the kind of reputation I want to be known for. I’ll admit sometimes I’m just late, and I need to work on being timely. However, there are times when members of the team set deadlines without understanding what it will take to meet those deadlines. I should probably speak up when I know it’s not likely I can meet that deadline, but I feel like I’ll be letting the team down if I don’t try.”

Recognizing that his own leadership played a role in this dynamic he replied, “I want you to know, that each of us own a piece of the responsibility here. I need to take some ownership for not involving employees in decisions about meetings, and the team needs to make sure that whenever deadlines are set, everyone impacted by those deadlines is in on the conversation. I’ll take responsibility for addressing this at our next meeting. For your part, Melissa, in the future, please speak up if you think a deadline is unrealistic, even if it’s set, and you’re not there at the time. Doing that actually makes you a better team player. We can either change the deadline or the team can help brainstorm how they might support you in meeting that deadline. Will that work for you?”

You can readily see how intentionally creating a positive frame changes the tone and direction a conversation takes. We can all do this, with any conversation we are having. It simply means taking a few extra minutes to flip our own thinking and perspective so we can engage in ways that move us towards desired and beneficial outcomes.

Think about times you intentionally framed or reframed a conversation in order to invite real engagement and connection in order to resolve tough issues.  We’d love to hear what you did and what the outcome was. When you shared, even seemingly simple interactions, you’ll help all of us see how easy it is to move together toward that which we all want!


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