It doesn’t take much to send us down the same old negativity paths—with ourselves or others—because, well, we are creatures of habit.
And if our habit is to be an excellent problem solver, this can accidentally translate into “being negative.”
The truth is that our “negativity” is often nothing more than a propensity to problem-solve. But, over time, it can get in the way of our interactions with friends, family, and co-workers–causing new problems to arise, even as we were just trying to solve the problems we encountered. Or, our problem-solving stance can keep us engaged in negative self-talk—eclipsing us from the growth that could be ours.
Enter the Magic of the Three P’s
I love this story from Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge, in which she manages to stop herself from shrieking, just in time to hear the beauty of what her son was actually doing by vigorously shaking the lilac bush: stirring the sky.
This introduces the first principle: pause.
When you feel like shrieking, when you feel like making that snap comment, when you feel like rolling your eyes, when you feel like you know exactly what the other person is doing wrong and you set out to correct them, when you feel like telling yourself how you are [insert your favorite self-criticism here] yet again…
That’s it. Just at that moment. The moment of “the catch.” The twinge. The reaction. Or, what Pema Chödrön calls “getting hooked.” Stop.
Breathe in. And when you breathe out…
2. Praise (the other, or yourself)
This is counter-intuitive. You are encountering a problem that needs solving. What has praise got to do with anything?
It’s a moment in which you can reorient, from problem-solver to simple observer and affirmer.
Here’s an example from long ago, in which I failed to get the kind of beauty and illumination Wooldridge did, because I forgot to pause and praise: my daughter had dumped a whole bucket of water onto her cleared bedroom floor (we were moving and the room was mostly empty), and she was scrubbing the smooth wooden planks with a toothbrush.
Now, I would have actually been wrong about my observation (it looked like she was cleaning), but if I’d said, “Sweetheart, you’re scrubbing the floor with a lot of water. You’re being really thorough!”, I would have made space for a different kind of interaction. (Sorry to say, I shrieked. And I didn’t learn what was really happening that day, until years later when my daughter explained to me that she had wanted to find a way to say goodbye to her room. The water consecration seemed apt, to her 5-year-old mind.)
Does it take creativity to give this kind of specific praise? Absolutely. Because it relies on us pausing, observing, and assuming positive intent on the other person’s part. Or, if it is ourselves we are needing to praise, it relies on assuming that we are doing something that makes sense—that there’s a kind of logic underneath our actions that we can be complimented for.
The final step is to get curious and pose a question. Sometimes it can be in statement form. For instance, I could have said to my daughter, “Tell me more about how you’re cleaning the floor.” She might have said in return, “I’m not cleaning the floor, Mommy. I’m saying goodbye to my room.” I would have been happier (though still not entirely, with a whole bucket of water to clean up!). She would have been happier. (No one likes to be shrieked at.) And the problem I thought I was trying to solve would have evaporated—replaced by a lovely moment where I got to peer into my daughter’s sweet heart.
Using “tell me more” is a great way not only to get pertinent information but also to show respect for the person’s intent (someone else’s, or even our own…if it’s ourselves we are posing the question to). What could have devolved into something that felt uncomfortable, oppressive, disrespectful, or even just simplistic as a solution, is replaced by the chance to learn, love, share, or grow.
By using the magic of the 3 P’s, we can put our problem-solving abilities to a more nuanced use: pausing to really observe what’s going on, praising the underlying intent of the other person or ourselves, posing questions that move us beyond criticism or unilateral solutions towards true understanding and growth.
Next time you feel “the catch,” try the magic. And let me know how it goes.