Purposeful vs. Positive Thinking: It’s Not All Buttercups and Butterflies

Your team has acknowledged their positive thinking during the session. Still, among some of the team – the realists – grudging acceptance of positive thinking comes with, ‘but…’, or politely, ‘I need time to think about this.’Purposeful vs. Positive Thinking, Solution Focus_2

There’s growing acceptance in organizations that positive thinking is useful. The move towards it seems to driven by the other growing realization that focusing on problems is at least unpleasant, frustrating, and mostly unproductive.

Unfortunately, positive thinking is often embraced superficially.  And, as Jim Duval used to say in his SFBT training, ‘Solution Focus isn’t all buttercups and butterflies.’

Positive thinking is also under attack on the non-organizational side of things, e.g., What’s Wrong With Positive Thinking?* This, despite the growing body of research that shows positive thinking is useful and helps.

Hence, the realist’s brief non-sustainable engagement with the notion of being positive.

So, how do we move forward with positive thinking? Change the language.  

Try ‘purposeful thinking.’

In Solution Focus we help people reframe things in ways that are useful to them. We also use language that is understood and accepted by them.

So far, in hundreds of interactions with clients, I’ve never heard anyone say one word against ‘purposeful.’ If anything, it seems to take the pressure off of doing something so counterintuitive to organizations and people – being positive.

Corporations are social organizations, the theater in which men and women realize or fail to realize purposeful and productive lives. – Lester Bangs

Steps to help teams or clients embrace purposeful thinking:

As always, be patient – help them sort out the mess of problems they’ve created in their minds.

Ask the usual questions: When is it not a problem? On a scale of 1-10 where are we now and what would it take to move up the scale? Suppose we are successful, what would we see ourselves doing?

Build ‘purposeful’ into your questions. Suppose the purpose of our project became clear to us and we moved forward, what would success look like in x months from now? Suppose the customers became used to us being purposefully helpful to them, what would they see us doing? Suppose the outcome of the team’s work was purposefully helpful to the other teams, how would that be useful to them?  

The idea that everything is purposeful really changes the way you live. To think that everything that you do has a ripple effect, that every word that you speak, every action that you make affects other people and the planet. – Victoria Moran

In the bigger picture, this might allow your colleagues or client to ask themselves, what’s our purpose as an organization? But that’s another topic, for another post.

*Tamar Chansky. What’s Wrong With Positive Thinking?

5 thoughts on “Purposeful vs. Positive Thinking: It’s Not All Buttercups and Butterflies

  1. michael cardus

    Alan this is a great perspective. I find myself in the realist camp, and tend to repel postivism in most forms, while I like and embrace SF for its pragmatism. Shifting language to ‘purpose’ returns to the pragmatic need for understanding negative & problems exists (avoiding idealism) – while moving to progress steps.

    1. Alan Kay

      Thanks Mike, my second favourite word in change is progress! All we do in SF to achieve both purposeful change and make progress is ask better questions!

  2. Ella de Jong

    I like it a lot, Alan! Very useful in my ‘teachers business’. A lot of them react )or think): “I don’t think it’s good for a child when you want to help him and you are only (always) positive.” etc.
    smile, Ella

    1. Alan Kay

      Yes, there’s a lot of skepticism about using positive thinking with children. Of course, it’s about how the message is delivered. Children respond to purposeful support and feedback when you clarify both what needs to be better and what they are doing well. I say, be clear, but brief on the required improvements, and amplify in detail what they do well. Plus, I always say to my business clients, ‘It’s not just what you tell them. It’s what they see you doing.’
      Have you seen Ben Firman’s ‘Criticism’ app? I think it’s a useful perspective / tool for letting both children and adults know what can be done better.

      1. Ella de Jong

        OH, help, Alan!
        another reason to finally buy an Iphone or Ipad.
        I love Ben’s work. Nice to meet him again in Amsterdam this summer at the Conference “Just suppose …”

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