I first heard about “Mr. Positive” when I was coaching leaders from a major multinational company a few years back. As his nickname would suggest, he had a reputation for relentless optimism–so I decided to shadow him for a day to see if he really was as positive as everyone said.
It turns out he was. No matter the situation, he was the one employee on his team who always found a way to spin things optimistically. And what’s more, it didn’t come off as annoying boosterism or feigned enthusiasm. When I first met Mr. Positive, he was a general manager, but in just five years, he’d become the CEO of another major company.
A career trajectory that rapid is pretty rare in the business world, but since meeting this world-class optimist, I’ve begun to notice similar traits in many of my most successful clients: no matter how challenging the situation, they typically manage to muster optimism to rally their teams. Here’s what it takes to master the art of positive talk–even if you’re a natural pessimist–and why that matters so much in tough workplace situations.
1. FRAME YOUR WORDS IN A WAY THAT ENCOURAGES ACTION
Fundamentally, positive talk is all about framing what you say. You can express the same idea in completely different ways, eliciting two completely different reactions.
Say you’re struggling to maintain your margins in a price-competitive market. If you remark to a coworker, “Why can’t you meet their price and still be profitable?” they’ll probably feel attacked. But if you say, “How are you going to meet this challenge? I know you’ll figure out a solution,” you’ll be more likely inspire them to action. This might seem obvious, but under pressure many people aren’t just more likely to think pessimistically, they’re also prone to point out the problem rather than discuss actions that might solve it. Just switching up how you frame conversations like these can make a huge difference.
2. ZERO IN ON OTHERS’ STRENGTHS, NOT THEIR WEAKNESSES
Another key to the art of positive talk is inspiring confidence by focusing on people’s strengths. While you can’t ignore glaring weaknesses, you’ll get more out of people if you don’t make their flaws the center of your conversation.
For example, let’s say I’m working with a speech-coaching client who can be accurately described as “hyperactive.” I might be tempted to comment, “You can’t stand still or stop fidgeting, and you keep flapping your arms in space. You need to get a handle on yourself!” That may be true, but it probably won’t get us very far. In order to smooth out these tics, I first need to come across as optimistic that my client can actually do better. “You speak with tremendous energy and exuberance–so much power,” I might say instead. “By focusing on channeling that energy, I know you’ll be able to achieve even more impact.” Sure, call it sugarcoating if you like, but this can-do attitude can be really effective. It helps people feel capable of change while still ensuring they feel comfortable with themselves.
3. STAY RESPECTFUL
Being respectful may sound obvious, but it’s important to consider how your words can affect others–which can be easy to do when the going gets tough and you’re tempted to look on the downside. Just focus on using language that’s clear, precise, and descriptive rather than language that’s sarcastic, ambiguous, and judgmental. When you’re a leader, it’s hard not to lash out occasionally, especially when you’re frustrated. But you’ll be more likely to get good outcomes when you remain as respectful as possible.
For example, let’s say you’re dealing with a lot of complaints from customers about delivery delays. Don’t say, “Keep this up, and pretty soon our customers won’t be complaining about their orders. They’ll just cancel flat-out! What’s wrong with you guys?” Pessimism in this example–the real worry that you’ll lose business–becomes weaponized: now, rather than just being one possible outcome, it’s a barb you’re hurling at the very people you need to rely on to find a better outcome.
So instead, try something like this: “You need to address customers’ concerns about the delays in delivery. Review the entire process from their perspective and your perspective. You have so much knowledge and experience–how can you be even better, no matter what issues customers bring to us?” That’s a respectful, action-focused comment that makes you sound like the most confident one in the room that your team can pull through this rough spot together.
The thing many people mistake about positive talk and optimism in general isn’t about being “nice.” It’s about communicating with people in a way that motivates them to be the best they can be. Your career trajectory might not resemble Mr. Positive’s, but by mastering this key speaking skill, you can increase your influence and create more opportunities in your professional life. And that’s something worth being optimistic about.