October 8, 2011

Finding the Plus Behind the Minus

I have argued that treating clients as cooperative, no matter how resistant they may appear, may be the quickest and most promising way to encourage further cooperation (read about that idea here). Sometimes it can be hard to, though. When someone says or does something which sounds or seems offensive or negative, it can be hard to not become defensive or negative oneself. What helps in such situations is to fall back on a deliberate strategy which I have dubbed "searching the plus behind the minus".

Ultimately people don't want the negative
This technique is based on the assumption to no one ultimately wants the negative. Also, their being there and their talking to you suggests that, at least to some degree, they want to work with you and want the conversation to be useful.  Ultimately, there must be something positive behind what they do or say. This may be a positive intention, or a good idea which the person stills finds hard to express. Because the behavior now looks negative, the positive is still hidden behind the negative. Your task is to search and find the hidden plus behind the minus. By asking focused questions in a respectful and curious way is likely to help the person find more positive words and behaviors to express his intentions.

A breakdown of the process of finding the plus behind the minus
When you have acquired this skill, a chain of events unfolds with great speed inside your head whenever you may notice negative behavior coming your way (the minus):
  1. You acknowledge to yourself that the behavior does not feel nice
  2. You forgive yourself for any defensive reflexes you may feel coming up. 
  3. You deliberately decide to not express these defensive reflexes 
  4. Instead, you remind yourself of the assumption that behind every minus there is hidden plus and that finding it may be better for both you and the other person
  5. You  instruct yourself to search and find the plus behind the minus
  6. You acknowledge what the other person has done or said and show understanding
  7. You start your search for the plus.
  8. When you have found the plus you summarize what it is and build on it
A few examples of helpful responses and questions
Here are a few examples of responses and questions which may help:
  • "I understand that this approach is not really working for you? What approach would be more useful for you?"
  • "I'd be interested to hear a bit more about that ..."
  • "What is important to you?"
  • "You must have a good reason to say (or do) that .... Could you explain that to me?
  •  "Could you tell me a bit more about what you are thinking of? I'd like to understand."
This approach has several advantages:
  1. Doing this is taking other people very seriously and this is almost always very much appreciated. Nearly every person has a strong tendency to reciprocate, which means that if someone takes them seriously, they will tend to do the same back. 
  2. It makes it easy for other people to express what is bothering them. Maybe the process is going too fast and they can't follow it. Maybe they have tried this approach before and it did not work. 
  3. It makes it easier for clients to help professionals to adjust their approach and thereby make them effective. ´Resistance´ can help professionals discover what is important for them. By understanding what clients try to tell professionals can adjust their approach better to the specific situation of these clients.


  1. Fully agree, it is more effective to approach your customers with positive assumptions (that are mostly true anyway), and collaboratively come to a solution. Don't waste energy on negative things!

    A technique that I use with a to find the "+ behind the -" is Angels Advocate. It stimulates creative and positive thinking, helping to deal with situations that may look negative initially. See Devil’s or Angel’s Advocate: Which role do you prefer? for a short description of this technique.

  2. This is a bullseye! It also reminds me of van Goethe's quote, "If I treat you as you are capable of becoming, I help you become that." Or I sometimes call it "seeing behind the clutter". I work with middle school kids with learning/behavioral issues, and this approach is incredibly effective. I aim for it, but I admit I sometimes fall short. Still "finding the plus behind the minus" is a powerful approach to effective intervention. Great stuff!

  3. I agree with this approach in principle, just so long as the practitioner is really genuine in their helpful intentions, and that this shows through. If it is used with any scent of condescension as being followed merely as 'an effective tool to respond to some negativity from this client', then your conversation is likely to be less rewarding, as is the outcome.


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