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Speaking in Negatives

When someone is happy, they say ‘I am happy.” They do not say, “I am not sad.”  When people speak in negatives, they are typically meaning, at least subconsciously, whatever they are saying with the ‘not’ removed. In the case above, if a person says “I am not sad”, it really translates to “I am sad.”

People use this speech mechanism frequently. Listen for it, and you will hear countless cases of it. Normally, the speech pattern is used when there is a need to prevent true feelings from coming out, such as when there is a big change at work that a person is uncomfortable with. When feelings are clear, there is no wordsmithing. I have never once seen a truly excited person respond by speaking in negatives. No lottery winner ever exclaims, “I’m not disappointed.” People don’t get off roller coasters and describe it as “not slow and boring.”

Normally, what is going on is that the person has one feeling that is contradictory to what the expected response is, and the mental conflict makes the comment come out ‘sideways’. They can’t completely suppress their feeling, and it sneaks out. Most people, if confronted about it, though, will deny that they feel the opposite way.

When I first heard about this, I thought it was, to use the technical term, psycho-babble-mumbo-jumbo. Despite this, the seed was planted, and the more I watched, the more I saw evidence to support the psychological theory. I cannot count the number of times I have heard, “It’s not that I don’t think that Lean will work here, but…”, or “I’m not against these changes, but…”

Knowing about speaking in negatives can give you a big upper hand in dealing with transitions. People think that their outward appearance is in line with what they are saying. You will know differently. You will be able to identify the resistance in the person, and will be able to adjust how you interact with them. Of course, this is not a foolproof method to identify resistance, but it does act as a good indicator to dive deeper.

  • Don’t treat this as a foolproof method. As psychiatrists put it, sometimes a ball is just a ball. (Note: This refers to not reading symbolism into every aspect of a dream.)
  • Don’t confront people when they speak in negatives. Just use the information. Most people talking in this manner have a lot going on in their heads, and the last thing they need is someone ‘gotcha-ing’ them.

In some cases, when there is a moderate amount of resistance, I have given a quick lesson to a team about speaking in negatives. I recommend only point out incidents with a person who is fairly confident in herself, and who is a typically strong performer, as it will single them out. Bringing it out in the open, though, can be an effective teaching method. It is OK to talk about the fact that people have reservations about the prospect of success of the project, and are uneasy about the change. This is one of the few times when a person actually does stand up and raise their hand (figuratively) and say that they are not toeing the partly line. Having that information can help you dramatically in dealing with their resistance to change.


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