See the Good and Turn Around a Bad Deal

Do you see the young woman or the old lady?]“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” ~Henry David Thoreau



See the Good and Turn Around a Bad Deal

Do you see a bad deal everywhere you look?  If you do, you are not alone.  It turns out that, in the realm of perception, bad is stronger than good.  A comprehensive summary of research in how bad trumps good in our lives was published in The Review of General Psychology.

We remember a bad experience more vividly than a good one. We learn more quickly from punishment than from reward. An unkind word does more damage than a positive comment can repair. A bad first impression lasts longer than a good one.

Do you see the young woman or the old lady?]

Do you see the young woman or the old lady?

Overall, bad events produce more emotion, have longer-lasting effects and exert a greater influence on our behavior.  They are more enduring too.  Once you see the young woman or old lady in the image it is next to impossible to see the other.

Psychologists speculate that our species developed this bias toward the bad as a survival mechanism. In a world of predators and menace, reacting to the bad clues paid off. And when bad things happened, something needed to change; survival favored the adaptive, and so our ancestors became hyper-alert to the bad.

But we no longer live in a world of tooth and claw. Today, our bias toward the bad can inhibit our development, blind us to opportunity and interfere with our relationships. It can cause us to see a problem as a threat, rather than an issue to be dealt with.

Appreciative Inquiry reverses our natural negative bias. It focuses on the positive: first identify what’s working and then build on that. Rather than trying to fix what’s wrong, develop what’s right.

Sounds easy, but it requires us to unlearn the lesson passed on to us by generations of surviving ancestors. That requires effort and discipline. Sometimes a trained coach can help.

I have been coaching Jose to shift his negative view of his new boss.  Understandably paranoid about how his boss is treating him, Jose found himself vigilantly reacting to any perceived slight or power imbalance.  His boss on the other hand found Jose to be “controlling and jealous.”  They are on a collision course where Jose could end up being fired any moment.

Jose and I talked about the kinds of things that were happening that triggered bad feelings.  A simple email from the assistant to one of his reports put him in an emotional tail spin:  What did it mean?  Were they trying to go around him?   Were they planning to promote his direct report and demote him?  The stress of such negative second guessing was resulting in mistakes; with that kind of thinking, getting fired could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I asked Jose: What if he looked at the email from the assistant from a positive vantage point?  With that prompt, he could see that she might have been just trying to help and reacting to pressure coming from a tight time demand rather than from any other more pernicious agenda.

How could he respond if he acted on the positive spin?  “I would thank the assistant and appreciate my direct report for stepping up to the request.”  Needless to say, that is a different response from the impulse to act from the negative.   And, the positive response just might save him from losing his job.

Jose knows that this is exactly what he needs to do every day and all the time.  It feels good and is a lot less stressful.  “I had a great week with my boss he wrote me.”

“But it is hard.”  Yes, it is.

Coaching Questions to Ask Yourself:  Where are you seeing the bad when you should be seeing the good?  Ask three trustworthy people to point out your biggest blindspot?  How can you act from trust rather than paranoia?

If you would you like to be coached on how to become more positive in your experiences with others contact Dr. Lynn K. Jones for a free coaching session.

P.S.  Thanks in advance to anyone who chooses to share their stories of seeing things from the positive or who forwards this blog  link to friends!

Dr. Lynn K. Jones is a Board Certified Coach and an Advanced Certified Personal and Executive Coach based in Santa Barbara, California and a sought after coach and consultant for organizations and individuals across the US.   Her doctoral work completed at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University concerned organizational culture; she coaches, consults and trains organizations on what they need to do to create organizational cultures that are aligned with their vision and values using a process of Appreciative Inquiry.  She coaches individuals on achieving their reflected best selves.  A MSW@USC faculty member, Dr. Lynn K. Jones, MSW, DSW, CSWM, teaches Human Behavior and Social Environment and Leadership to social work students at the University of Southern California.

BCC Board Certified Coach #1487


  1. Ingrid Sarrat on April 25, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    Great article! I LOVE the ideal of focusing on the positive, and not dwelling only on what is wrong. Everything can be somehow fixed, but we need to develop the mental state to help us see that.

  2. Executive Coach on April 25, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    Ingrid, You are so right–the mental state is the key. It does seem so obvious, yet is so hard to do. This research from psychologists explains why. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Harbhajan on April 26, 2012 at 7:31 am

    Bad things are packaged in beautiful and attractive manners. They are propagated day and night in the media. Good things are rare to be taught and learnt. Take the case of Junk Food/unhealthy cosmetics/alchohal/tobaccoo etc. that are affecting health of billians of people. Day and night you hear beautiful girls promting people to use them. Where are organizations to promoto positive things? Where is the money to counter spread of negative ideas?
    Appreciative Enquiry is good idea. If we think inquiringly before responding to a situation,and we may act positively.

    • Executive Coach on April 26, 2012 at 9:10 pm

      Thanks for your comments! You have captured really well why inquiry is at the heart of turning around negativity to positivity.

  4. Calla Gold on April 26, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    This brings up a lot of great points! Our perceptions make a huge difference, it’s why eye witness accounts are so unreliable. 10 people witnessing the same event have 10 different stories to tell, sometimes complete opposite stories. It’s not much different in the rest of our lives. How we react, how we perceive the world around us, has a huge impact on us. If we see life as a constant struggle full of the bad stuff, we’re only ever really going to see the bad, even when it’s not. Conversely, when we see the world as a place of opportunity and possibility, the good stuff is everywhere.

    • Executive Coach on April 26, 2012 at 9:12 pm

      So true about how we find what we look for. It is so interesting how eye witnesses are so unreliable and yet we rely constantly on what we think we see!
      Thanks for your comments.

  5. Nancy Andriuk on April 27, 2012 at 6:42 am

    This reminds me of a great book which I’m sure you have around: The Story of Your Life — Becoming the Author of Your Own Experience by Mandy Aftel.

    She writes about how we each choose how to interpret and present our life’s story. The same set of facts can be described in a lot of different plot lines and conclusions. Are you writing a drama? A comedy?

    Your work as an executive coach to help the client reframe how he viewed his situation is a great example. We can rewrite our script with positivity!

    PS Hope Santa Barbara is as beautiful as ever!

    • Executive Coach on April 27, 2012 at 10:21 am

      Hi Nancy,
      I don’t know that book. Thanks for suggesting it… I am going to get it right away! I love that idea of rewriting one’s story. It is such an amazing experience to realize that you cannot only author your future but your past as well!!

  6. Christina M. Weber, MS on April 27, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    Lynn, what a great job of better understanding how we are wired and steps to take if we or a loved one is locked into this negative focus. For my husband, an attorney, looking for the negative and what could go wrong is an occupational hazard. Your article does a good job to help set realistic expectations for what change involves.

    Christina M. Weber, MS

    • Executive Coach on April 28, 2012 at 8:59 pm

      It is so true that attorneys are trained to see the risk in everything and that does indeed become an occupational hazard. Unfortunately we have all been trained to see the bad in things and needing help in turning it around is more the norm than not, as the psychological research points out. Maybe it is just more obvious in attorneys. Thanks for your comments!

  7. Maria Cordi on April 29, 2012 at 2:57 am

    Being alert to danger was really useful for our ancestors’ survival. Modern living does not generally pose the same risks to our lives from wild animals and other tribes. However, the limit to our potential growth is significant when you are overly stressed due to perceived threats, real or imagined. I loved your examples and the perceptive questions you asked to help Jose dispute his reasoning.

    • Executive Coach on April 29, 2012 at 8:13 pm

      You really hit the nail on the head! As a coach what I do is ask questions that help someone to question their own reasoning. I appreciated your reflection about that!

  8. anonymous on May 1, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    To see a dramatic expression of how negative bias dominates our minds, watch the political campaigns. They’re all about what’s wrong, even those of the incumbents who can claim credit for a lot of “what’s right”. Bad trumps good.

  9. Allison Babb Phillips on May 8, 2012 at 11:08 am

    “Rather than trying to fix what’s wrong, develop what’s right.” I love that.

    Loved the example with Jose as well. So often we stick with the story in our own heads not realizing there could be several reasons why something happened. And from my experience, it’s never the way we think it is.

    Excellent post! 🙂

    • Executive Coach on May 8, 2012 at 7:15 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Allison! It is so true that we have a hard time shifting a narrative in our heads. It wasn’t that easy for Jose to see it at first, but once he did he knew immediately that is the direction that he needed to go in.

  10. Lesa on May 10, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    Another way to begin to see the world differently is to recognize that other people do things without thinking about you at all — in the story above, the assistant likely never even thought about Jose when she sent out those emails. Sometimes it helps to ask yourself: what other motivation could this person have for this action? The one that doesn’t include you is likely the most accurate.

    • Executive Coach on May 27, 2012 at 11:12 am

      I think you are right, Lesa. I suspect that the assistant was trying to help and only had limited information to work from. That is such a good rule of thumb: if the motivation for the action doesn’t include you, go with that one!

  11. Charles on May 20, 2012 at 7:22 am

    The timing of this article is perfect for me today. I am a work in progress; however,, I am confident I can make the transition. I love it…Appreciative Inquiry! Plus I plan to embed Commentluv in my online resources. Thanks Coach!

    • Executive Coach on May 27, 2012 at 11:14 am

      Charles, It is a delight to introduce you to Appreciative Inquiry and Comment Luv–Appreciative Inquiry for bloggers 🙂

  12. Keith Jacobs on May 21, 2012 at 7:31 am

    Is it relevant that I could not see the young girl on your site… I copied the picture and flipped it right-to-left and then I saw the girl and could no linger see the woman. Now I’ve looked at both my brain accepts botha dn I can see either, either way – but still easier the way I first saw each!

    • Executive Coach on May 27, 2012 at 11:15 am

      Isn’t it fascinating to get a little window into how our brain works and to realize that we filter so much of what we see all the time! Thanks for sharing your experience–that was fun to read.

  13. DeBorahBeatty on May 26, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    We all have a choice of living proactively or reactively. Choosing to see the positive instead of the negative is a difficult skill sometimes, but one that can be developed. Excellent article. I look forward to reading more!

    Thanks for the comment on my site, too, by the way!

    • Executive Coach on May 27, 2012 at 11:17 am

      Deborah, Thanks for reaffirming the practice of looking for the positive in our experience. All the best to you and thanks for keeping reading!

  14. Debbie Dobbins on June 4, 2012 at 7:58 am

    Even a 1% shift in our perception every day will allow for an unfoldment of incredible change. I can never see the picture of the old woman and the young girl as a reminder that it’s only my percpetion that changes, not the outside picture.


    • Executive Coach on June 4, 2012 at 3:09 pm

      What a great reminder, Debbie, that we only have to make a small change because those small incremental changes lead to paradigm shifts! Amazing how that works! Thanks for commenting!

  15. prathima on August 31, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    I am extremely paranoid…I really believe it is difficult to be successful independent and productive. Paranoia and a negative attitude really get in the way. I look forward to changing. I can empathize w/ Jose. I hope he is happier and less paranoid now after choosing to see the positive.

    • DrLynnKJones on August 31, 2012 at 1:16 pm

       @prathima Prathima, I applaud your commitment to making a change towards a more positive attitude.  Making that commitment is the first and most important step in making the choice to see the positive.

  16. […] week’s blog, See the Good and Turn Around a Bad Deal prompted so many interesting comments that I decided to look a little deeper into the power that […]

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