June 27, 2010

Negative emotions in a positive light ... what's the relevance for solution-focused change?

Joe Forgas, an Australian psychologist, has studied the differential impact of negative and positive emotions on thinking and performing. His research shows that negative emotions and positive emotions have different advantages: while positive emotions foster creativity, flexibility,  co-operation and reliance on mental shortcuts, negative emotions breed attentiveness and careful thinking and paying greater attention to the external world and makes people less gullible and better at stating their case through written arguments.

To some extent this seems consistent with Barbara Fredrickson's explanation of the role of positive and negative emotions. In her book Positivity, she says that positive emotions broaden people's ideas about possible actions by opening us and making us more receptive and creative. Negative emotions, she says, spark a narrowed mindset which is important in case of threat. Barbara Fredrickson and Marical Losada's research has shed light on the role of positive and negative emotions in flourishing and found out that when there are three times or more as many positive experiences than negative ones, flourishing will start.

While Fredrickson acknowledges the usefulness of negative emotions, I think Forgas seems to go a bit further and mentions more and more specific advantages of negative emotions. My question is: Is any of this relevant for the solution-focused approach? And if yes, how might it be relevant? Suggestions are welcome.

Also read: Redirecting attention from negative to positive in 3 small steps (P->C->O)


  1. I prefer to look at emotions from the perspective of the non violent communication model from Marshall Rosenberg. What we call negative emotions (which is actually a judgement about the emotion) are meant to feel unpleasant because they signal an unmet need, they are meant to trigger actions in order to get the needs met. For example: if feeling hungry feels very pleasant, I would probably die of not eating.

    I am not sure if this is useful for the SF approach because the coach practices an attitude of not knowing and therefore does not need to know about any unmet needs. On the other hand it might help the coach to ask questions to support the client to look for action steps but this is already completely embedded in the SF approach.

  2. Solutions Focus deals with desires not with emotions. So I'm not sure it matters whether negative emotions have benefits or not in SF. Just help the client get what he or she needs.

  3. Hi Coert,

    I wonder how this positive/negative distinction compares with different functions of areas of the brain: the limbic system (which is emotionally reactive, fast and drives habitual behaviour - sounds similar to the fight/flight/freeze response and the attentiveness to the environment, but doesn't really suggest careful thinking and written argumentation) and the prefrontal cortex or cortical system (which is more cognitive, reasoning, reflective, considerate - lining up well with the creative, flexible, cooperative traits described above). On limbic/cortical see more details in a short post on the work of UCLA's Matt Lieberman here: http://tmconsultancy.blogspot.com/2009/09/matthew-lieberman-case-study-at.html

    In the same vein, there's another researcher here in Oz named Simon Moss who's published a book called "The Negative Side of Positive Thinking" (http://www.amazon.com/Negative-Side-Positive-Thinking/dp/8493744034)...I wonder if anyone's read it yet and, if so, what thoughts they'd be willing to share?

  4. I'm curious about the usefulness of negatives as well. I can't think about anything else other than the opportunity to be found in adversity.

    Richard Bach said "Every problem has a gift for you in its hands", maybe the negative could be dug up for solutions, maybe it could be used for a creative approach towards finding unusual ideas to try.

  5. I suppose understanding the usefulness of "negative" emotion would allow people to reframe and prevent excessive judgement?

  6. I recommend a 10:1 ratio of positive to negative.
    Building on Todd Montgomery's point about brain physiology. It has been shown that much of fear and anger do seem to come from the limbic system (as well as lust, hunger, etc.) as part of our survival mechanism. (To Jason Yip's point, this helps us "reframe and prevent excessive judgement")
    Research has shown also that any emotion helps us to focus and to retain information more readily.

    My sense is that the work of Losada and Heaphy in 2004 shows the value of the right BALANCE of positive and negative.
    Using a “Capture Lab” these researchers saw a strong average correlation between positive language and performance. Low performing teams communicated 1 positive for every 3 negatives – 1:3; Medium teams averaged 2:1; High performing teams ranged from 6:1 to 11:1. Too much positive, 12:1 or more, “calcifies a team”, making necessary change and adaptation difficult.
    “The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics Model.”

  7. Hi Bob,
    Thank you for your comment. A year ago, Marcial Losada told me he was working on a book on his Meta Learning model. He said:

    "Positivity is just 1/6 of my model. Actually, I could not obtain the results I mentioned just working on positivity. My model has six coordinates: North, South, East, West, Up and Down. When I take people North we visit the land of the Other: other people, nature, art, science, technology, everything that is out there which can have relevance in our lives. When I take people South, we visit the land of Self, our own house: what are our strengths and weaknesses, what is that we desire and why, how can we expand our behavioral repertoire, and so on. When I take people East, we visit the land of Inquiry, wonder, curiosity. This is the land where people ask questions in order to learn more and when they get and answer they keep on asking questions. This is a land inhabited by children who are never happy with just one answer, and it is also the land of scientists who never get tired of asking deeper and deeper questions in order to understand reality. When I take people West, we visit the land of Advocacy, of affirmation, of presenting our points of view with force, of getting things done with the answers we have. These coordinates define the plane of our existence. If we mostly go South but rarely North, we cannot relate to other people because we never get to know them. If we prefer to go West most of the time and we rarely go East, we only stay with the answers we already have and our learning comes to a halt. Furthermore, we can also go up and down. We can take off and land. Positivity takes us up and negativity takes us down. If we use positivity in excess, we are up in the air and never land. If we use negativity in excess we never take off, we are always in Flatland. Hence the 3 to 1 ratio. With it we can both take off and land, We can open new spaces of possibility and discover places to go. The right ratio of positivity to negativity broadens our mind and expands our behavioral repertoire. Then when we go North we can see others as we never seen them before. When we go South, we see ourselves under a new light. When we go East we find new questions that open new perspectives. When we go West, we can present our points of view more forcefully and in a more inviting way.
    In short, what my meta learning model says is that we can choose where we can go. There is no need for us to stay in just one place. The day we decide to explore what else is out there, to embrace what we see that is good and to improve the things that are not right, that is the day when our flourishing begins


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