Reframing negatives as positives

Every cloud has a silver lining may well be a cliché, but that does not mean that the idea does not contain more than an element of truth. Of course, it would be an exaggeration to argue that every negative (cloud) has within it a positive (a silver lining) of some description, but it is certainly the case that negative events will often also bring some degree of positivity.

In a sense, this is a reflection of the complexity of life. There is a very common tendency to want to simplify things as much as possible, and that often leads to an oversimplification, a distortion of reality – a situation has to be either good or bad; it can’t be a mixture of both. Proverbs and slogans will often fall into this category. What we are dealing with, then, is the need to recognise that the complexity of life means that a high proportion of the situations we encounter will have both positive and negative elements – both light and shade. It can be helpful to be aware of this when engaged in situations seen predominantly as negative. If we are not careful, we can allow the negative impact of a situation to blind us to any positive elements.

Much of this has to do with perception. It is very easy to perceive a situation that has a strong negative element to it in purely negative terms and thereby lose sight of other aspects. We see what is in focus (the negatives) and disregard the blurry bits that are not in focus (the positives). This is understandable, as it reflects a defence mechanism – that is, our tendency to identify and focus on threats, aspects of a situation that pose a risk to us. That in itself, is a good thing, of course, but it needs to be balanced out by a more holistic view that sees the bigger picture, including the positives.

One important aspect of this is what is known as ‘reframing’. This can be a very useful tool. It involves redefining negative issues in positive terms – for example:

  • I am disappointed I didn’t get that job -> I am glad that the tension over that job application is over now.
  • Being ill recently has been a major inconvenience -> Being ill has made me realise that I need to take things easier and look after myself better.
  • I was really annoyed that Sam let me down -> It is good to know that, apart from Sam, I have so many people in my life that I can rely on for help when I need it.

One note of caution, if you are trying to help someone else to reframe (that is, it isn’t just about reframing your own experiences), you need to be very sensitive and tactful in how you put things across. For example, if someone is feeling sad, annoyed, disappointed or angry, saying something like: ‘Never mind, look on the bright side’ can go down very badly, as it can so easily come across as you not being sensitive to their feelings. Considerable caution is called for!

Reframing can be important for motivation. If we focus on the negatives of a situation and lose sight of the positive elements, then it is very easy for us to become demotivated and lose heart. Having a more balanced approach to such matters gives us a much firmer basis for feeling motivated and therefore for being in a stronger position to achieve whatever it is we are trying to do.

Reframing is not about denying or minimising problems and difficulties; it is about seeing them as part of a wider picture, and that gives us more hope and a more balanced understanding.


On the many occasions I have run managing conflict training courses I have emphasized the importance of listening. This is for two reasons. First, listening is a very good way of defusing conflict. Paying attention to what somebody’s concerns are can help to calm a situation down and avoid any unpleasantness. Second, not being listened to is what will often lead people into conflict situations in the first place. Consider consumer complaints, for example. People will often pay for a product or service, then find they are not happy with it and want the matter sorted, but they do not feel the need to make a complaint. But, when their efforts to get their problem with the product or service rectified fall on deaf ears, that is when the chances of a formal complaint being made go through the roof. So, conflict, sometimes nasty conflict, is the price we can pay for not listening, whereas listening and paying attention can help avoid or settle conflicts.

But it isn’t just in relation to conflict situations that listening is an important matter. People tend to think of communication mainly as conveying information to one or more people, but that can mean that we forget that listening is also part of communication – if you are not listening, then communication is not being effective. In my Effective Communication book, I make the point that we cannot not communicate – that is, we are always giving off signals, whether we intend to or not. But, what we have to recognize is that listening (receiving information) also involves conveying information. For example, if it is clear that you are not listening, then you will be conveying to the person(s) concerned that you have no interest in what they have to say, that it is not important enough for you to pay attention. You may also be conveying disrespect or even contempt in doing so.

This is partly why active listening is so important. This involves not only listening, but actually showing you are listening – nodding, making eye contact and so on. For example, if you are actively listening, you are conveying interest, you are communicating that you want to hear what they have to say. So, in this case, you are expressing respect and are therefore more likely to receive a positive response from that person.

One problem when it comes to listening is that people will often listen to respond, rather than listen to understand – that is, while someone is speaking to them, they are concentrating on what they want to say next (their response), rather than trying to understand where the other person is coming from. This then leads to a very superficial form of listening that can cause a lot of ill feeling.

And the importance of ‘listening’ can also apply to electronic communication. Have you ever emailed somebody and asked them two questions, but their reply answers only first question and ignores the second? This is a very common occurrence and one that wastes a lot of time for both parties when you then have to follow up with a second email to get an answer to the second question.

Being a good listener can pay great dividends, making you much more likable and earning you respect, whereas not listening can create a lot of problems, alienate people, make you come across as unlikable and not worthy of respect. Listening is therefore a double whammy, in the sense that it brings a lot of positives, while its absence creates a lot of negatives.

Listening is not just an activity; it is an attitude of mind – it a way of approaching interactions with other people with respect, concern and interest.