Making time to reflect on the positives

The Team Teach Knowledge Hub has 24/7 on-demand access filled with downloadable resources, videos, articles, podcasts, live and recorded webinars and events. I particularly enjoyed the following article which reminds us to reflect on the positive work we do and the difference we make to young people lives, especially during challenging times.

As leaders and practitioners in education, health, and social care settings, most of us are operating within a culture of external scrutiny and accountability in our professional lives. We all have ambitious targets to meet and stringent processes to follow. As a result, our to-do lists are never-ending as we strive to do more, to do better, for all of our service users.

External moderation aside, we all share a desire to provide the highest quality support and service to the individuals in our care. Our vocation requires us to be committed, focused, and conscientious in every aspect of our roles.

It is little wonder that we often feel under continuous pressure to improve. And we can be disproportionately critical of ourselves when things do not go as well as we would like.

Negativity bias

However, while it is important to acknowledge that improvement is always possible, if we are not careful, we could end up over-focusing on the negatives – the mistakes, the problems, the obstacles, the ‘even better ifs’ – over the positives. This is a natural, cognitive phenomenon – the negativity bias – and one that is innate in all of us.

As human beings, we have a deep-rooted tendency to focus and dwell on perceived negative events and experiences rather than positive ones. Thousands of years ago, this function helped to keep our ancestors safe from harm: by identifying and anticipating threats, it allowed them to take steps to avoid danger.

Nowadays, this psychological predisposition still plays a central role in our cognitive and social development from an early age, even though the immediate threats we face are far fewer.

Negativity bias in practice

Even when things are going well in our settings and there is much to be celebrated, our brains tend to seek out the negatives over the positives. We might ruminate over a challenging situation that we could have handled better; we may fixate on an interaction with an individual or staff member that did not go well; or we might spend hours mulling over a mistake we made with our processes and procedures.

Left unchecked, this hyper-fixation on the negative aspects of our professional lives can cloud our ability to see the ‘wins’, big or small:

  • What about the meeting with a parent where they showered you with praise and gratitude?
  • How about the difficult situation that you managed to seamlessly defuse with minimal intervention?
  • Or what about the service user who, for the first time, managed to attend an appointment without feel anxious?

Because of our ingrained negativity bias, we can begin to think that these positive events are few and far between, when in fact they make up the majority of our day.

Impact in the workplace

Because there is greater neural processing in the brain in response to negative stimuli, this evolutionary function can heavily influence our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. This, in turn, can affect many aspects of our working life, from decision-making to relationship-building with the individuals we work with and care for.

While reflecting on experiences through the negativity bias lens can undoubtedly help us to learn, grow and adapt, we also need to take the time to focus on, and pay attention to, the many positive events that occur daily.

The power of positivity

So how do we go about building this type of environment and what role does positivity play?

1: Noticing others’ behaviour and actions

Everyone likes to feel ‘seen’ and have their contribution recognised. When we notice and acknowledge staff members’ input, and take the time to offer feedback and share their successes, we instil in them a sense of positivity and motivation. This isn’t just a management responsibility. We can all notice when our colleagues do something well, navigate a tricky situation, or go above and beyond for the individuals we support.

When we feel appreciated, this cascades down to our interactions with service users, creating a positive feedback loop where everyone in our community benefits.

2: Reframing negative experiences and mistakes

If we choose to reframe negative experiences as learning opportunities, we create an environment where we have the chance to grow. Leading by example, we can model to staff and co-workers how to change our perspective on things when they do not go well. We can ask ourselves questions such as:

  • What would I do differently next time?
  • What has this taught me about my own practice?
  • How can I use this information to adapt my response?

A note of caution: this is not about encouraging a culture of toxic positivity; rather, it is about consciously deciding to look for the positives in seemingly negative situations that arise in our daily lives.

It goes without saying, however, that where grave mistakes or errors of judgement have been made, and service users have been failed as a result, we do, of course, need to take full responsibility for our actions, and situations such as these cannot be reframed in a positive light.

3: Incorporating positive experiences into our policies

When we proactively carve out the time to reflect on the positives and share our experiences with each other, we are creating room for growth and development. By recognising, naming, and describing our successes in detail, we can identify what is working well and use this information to review and refresh our existing policies and practices.

4: Modelling the language of positivity for the individuals we support

The individuals we support are highly attuned to our interactions as staff, so it can be incredibly empowering for them to hear us talking to each other in positive, affirming ways. How we interact as professionals and the language we choose can have a transformative impact not only on us as practitioners, but also on the individuals we support, enabling them to emulate similar language with each other.

5: Celebrating progress, not perfection

Perfection is a pipedream and while we might want to create ‘perfect’ environments, this is impossible. However, we can celebrate progress, even just the tiny, incremental steps. By noticing and responding to the positive micro-habits, actions and behaviours in our settings, we can influence the bigger picture in the long run.

Using personal reviews and supervision sessions, we can identify what is working well in a systematic way and explore opportunities for further development by reflecting and building on great practice.

The law of polarity

The universal law of polarity states that everything has an opposite, and to experience positivity, we have to experience negativity. If we translate this concept into our professional context, it allows us to accept that while negative situations do arise, there are also many positive experiences that we need to take the time to reflect on and celebrate.

The reality is, life is challenging and there will always be obstacles to overcome in both our personal and professional lives. However, by taking the time to pause, step back, and reflect on what is going well, we can cultivate a culture of support and growth in our settings where all can thrive.

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