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This page is about the topic of negativity in dialogue, communication, and messages. There can be considerable disagreement among different people about what exactly constitutes negativity.

In Why This Way, we seek to avoid certain types of negativity, but while creating an environment in which people are encouraged to question things and discuss potential problems. One of the goals with our rules of communication is to specifically identifying patterns of communication that tend to be problematic (in the sense of contributing to conflict or frustration) and to create an environment in which people are more able to discuss things normally thought of as negative, while creating a positive or empowering atmosphere.


Types of negativity we avoid

  • Personal attacks - Our rules of communication forbid attaching negative labels to people, but allow attaching negative labels to ideas, actions, or communication. So, for example, we cannot call a person "racist" or "a racist" within these rules, but we can say that certain ideas or actions are racist.
  • Paralyzing statements - These statements can have the effect of shutting down a conversation: they can break our rules of communication in various ways.
  • Guilt and Shame - We avoid trying to make other people feel guilt or shame, but we encourage people to understand the impacts of their actions on others, and we accept that people may feel guilt or shame as a result of this understanding.
  • Blame - Our rules of communication prohibit blaming people for negative outcomes. Even in cases where one person's actions or decisions caused a certain undesirable outcome, we want to keep our dialogue focused on moving forward, such as repairing damage done and preventing bad things from happening again.
  • Overgeneralization - Overgeneralization, generalizing something negative more broadly than it is applicable, can be seen as a form of exaggeration, which is prohibited by our rules. Examples of overgeneralizing of negativity include dismissing or condemning whole groups of people, or a whole organization, because of something negative done or carried out by people in the group or organization.

Negativity spreading through social networks

There is some evidence that depression can spread through social networks. One topic that we have discussed, which is still somewhat speculative but which the personal experiences of many participants in our group resonate with, is the idea that negative mindsets spread through social networks through specific ideas or patterns of communication.

For example, if one student at a school assumes negative intentions behind the actions of a professor, and talks to their friends about this, making statements like "This professor doesn't care about me and is just trying to make my life difficult," this idea can be picked up by other students. People can sometimes agree with these sorts of statements not because they have objective evidence that they are true, but rather, because of social norms about expressing solidarity, or a desire to come across as agreeable or supportive of the friend. But once a student agrees with a statement like this, they in turn may become more likely to attribute negative intentions to the behavior of the professor, or professors in general. This is one specific example of how negativity could propagate through a social network.

One of the goals of our rules of communication is to shape people's communication in such a way that it keeps some of these ideas from propagating through social networks, thus making the people in the network less vulnerable to negativity introduced from a particular source.

Responding to negativity

Responding to negativity is an issue that can come up both in conversation or dialogue with other people, and in responding to your own thoughts. We have discussed the importance of responding to negativity with statements that are positively framed and do not validate the negativity.

Two problems that can happen in responding to negativity are:

  • Disagreeing with the negative idea but retaining a negative pattern of ideas - An example in conversation could be if one person says: "He's an idiot." and another person responds: "You don't know what the hell you're talking about." An example from internal dialogue in a person's thoughts could be: "No one cares about me." followed by: "I'm thinking irrationally. I am really depressed and my view of the world is really distorted." Both of these statements disagree with the original idea or expression, yet retain a negative pattern of ideas.
  • Agreeing with the negative idea - If someone says: "He's an idiot." and another person responds: "Yeah, he doesn't know what he's talking about." this may make the person feel good to a degree in the moment, but it enables the negative idea to go unchallenged.

A more effective way to respond to negativity would be to make a statement that counteracts (rather than reinforces) the negativity in the original statement, while at the same time framing the response in a positive way. One way to do this is to find something in the original statement that you agree with. To use the examples above:

  • One person says "He's an idiot." and another person could respond: "I can see why you'd think he is an idiot; his remarks sounded pretty unintelligent to me too. I've seen him do more intelligent things in different contexts though." This comment validates one aspect of the person's perspective, but while disagreeing with the complete label of the person as an idiot. Both statements are framed more positively: first an agreement with something about what the person said, followed by a positive comment about the person which presents a contrasting perspective from the original statement.
  • A person may think: "No one cares about me." and could respond to this by reassuring themselves: "I feel lonely right now but there are a lot of people who care about me." This thought would show acknowledgement of the feeling of loneliness, while disagreeing with the original thought, and it presents a contrasting idea without making any other negative statements or judgments about the person's overall mental state.

Healthy ways to communicate and handle negative ideas or events

Some of the things that are encouraged in Why This Way, like examining ideas critically, and questioning or critiquing beliefs, practices, or policies of a group, can be perceived as negative. We have ways of expressing these critical ideas that we consider to be healthy and beneficial.

Some general ideas we consider, which can avoid the pitfalls mentioned above, include:

  • Be specific in criticism, especially when using strongly negative language. For example, instead of saying "He was saying awful things", you could share a specific thing that the person said that you thought was awful. Or,
  • Make criticism empowering. Share your criticism or negative experiences with an intention of improving the situation, gaining insight, or having some positive take-away. Follow up the negative idea with a desire to move the discussion in a positive direction, or even lead to positive action.

Empowering approaches to negative situations

For example, after describing a negative situation, if you conclude with: "This situation really sucks. I hate this. I feel powerless to do anything about this. I don't want to be dealing with this." you may be communicating honestly, but this is not empowering. Instead, you could share the situation, and then ask: "Can anyone think of any way to improve this situation?" or "I want to talk more about this because I want to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future."

There are many different ways to take a negative event in a positive direction. You can use a negative event as a contrast that can help you to appreciate positive things that you may be taking for granted in other situations in your life, such as when a person appreciates their running water or electricity after a prolonged outage, whereas normally these utilities might be taken for granted. You can gain valuable insight.