Oh No, Not Again

Hello my friends,
Oh no, not again! It’s time for you to read (or to politely ignore) another Arithmodigmaphilia message—and it’s time for me to write it.

Among the many responses to last year’s Arithmodigmaphilia message was one from my Danish friend Inger Draeby, who pointed out that if 08-08-08 sounds like “Oh wait, Oh wait, Oh wait” then 09-09-09 sounds like “Oh nein, Oh nein, Oh nein.” At least it does for those who know a Germanic language.

I had already begun hearing that in my own head. And so I have spent the year thinking about those words: “Oh no, Oh no, Oh no.” Paradoxically, my first reaction was “Oh no” to writing about the negative.

After all, I believe in looking for the positive. For more than 15 years, I have been using the positive approach of Appreciative Inquiry. And for more than 30 years, I have been using the positive approach to Life and Career Designing, as espoused by Dick Bolles in his annual editions of What Color Is Your Parachute?

But even more significantly, for all of my 65 years, I have been using the positive approach to life that I learned from my mother. Although she died almost two years ago, her positive spirit is still with me.

Last March, on what would have been Mom’s 99th birthday, I picked up my journal and wrote my daily haiku. It emerged as the 17 words that Mom would usually say to me when I called her on the phone:

Well, Walt! So good to
hear your voice, dear. What good things
have you been doing?

I decided to respond to her question and I wrote her a long letter (in my journal) reporting on the good things I had been doing.

When I first learned about the underlying theory of Appreciative Inquiry as it was developed by Frank Barrett and David Cooperrider, I recognised its sources in various other theories. John Crystal and Dick Bolles published their work in the 1970s. Long before that, William James published The Principles of Psychology in 1890. My father gave me that book when I was sixteen and he specifically encouraged me to read the chapter on Habit, where William James talks about how to develop effective and positive habits.

But I still wondered if Mom knew about all this or if she was just genetically positive. So, one day I asked her. “Mom, there are theories to explain the positive approach of people like you. But the theories say that the positive approach is a conscious choice, rather than just a trait or characteristic. So, are you just naturally positive or did you make a choice?”

Mom paused to think for a moment. And I rushed on: “But it’s hard to imagine your being naturally positive, given that you grew up next door to Aunt Mary.”

Aunt Mary (my great-aunt) was a strong woman of strong convictions who saw what was wrong with the world first and often did not get round to seeing what was right with the world.

My mother smiled, “Well, you know, dear, I think that’s it. When I was very young, I decided that I did not want to grow up like Aunt Mary. So I chose to be positive about life.”

Now the interesting thing about that story is that my mother made two choices. And the first choice began with the words “Oh no!” as in “Oh no, I don’t want to grow up like Aunt Mary.” Only then did she make her second choice: to be positive.

So, I believe that saying “Oh No” can sometimes be a very good idea. The frustrating thing is that this belief causes me difficulty with some of my colleagues in the field of Appreciative Inquiry. In fact, when I was asked to write an article for an Appreciative Inquiry publication and I included in that article some ideas about how to convert negatives into positives, the guest editors reluctantly rejected the article.

Note the wonderful paradox of Appreciative Inquiry consultants thinking they had to say “Oh no” to an article that risked talking about the negative! One needs a sense of humour to deal with such things and I am developing one.

Interestingly, the article included a story about Frank Barrett—one of the original developers of Appreciative Inquiry—so I had sent him an early draft and he said it would be interesting to discuss this issue of negatives and positives. So this is another attempt to do that. I look forward to Frank’s response.

My belief is that a positive approach to life is so important that we cannot risk confusing people by denying the negative. I think that there is a very simple law of physics—and psychology: Every negative assumes a positive.

Even if I were able to see everything positively (and I doubt I will reach that nirvana), there are many people I meet who see things negatively. Rather then just telling them to ignore the negative, I prefer to say to them (and to myself): “OK, that negative exists. True. Now what do we do?”

Well, if every negative assumes a positive, then what we do is look for the positive opposite. Or, as my instinct for rhyme leads me to say: Switch the itch. The itch lets you know what’s wrong; then you switch it to the positive so you know what to do next.

An example of switching the itch is my reaction to the rejection of my article. After getting angry, I got amused. I chuckled at the paradox of someone saying no to the negative and asked myself what I could learn from the “Oh no.” I chose to switch the itch into a positive challenge to express my ideas more clearly.

That challenge has led me to the realisation that I have been confusing two sets of terms: the terms positive and negative do not necessarily match with the terms yes and no. Sometimes, when I switch an itch to a positive, the positive is not a Yes, but a No.

As examples, here are seven negatives that have been itching me as 09-09-09 approaches. When I switch each itch, I come up with a positive—stated negatively—that means saying “Oh No, Oh No, Oh No.”

1. Wars >> No Wars
Bruce Kent moved on from CND to help found a new group called the Movement for the Abolition of War. (www.abolishwar.org.uk) This sounds more negative than a movement for peace, but the idea is different: abolishing war means saying no to all state-sponsored violence.

2. Walls >> No Walls
I remember very clearly when the Berlin Wall went up and when it came down. I now see the Wall between Israel and the Occupied Territories (and even within the Occupied Territories). I say no to this new wall and I say no to the violence coming from both sides of that wall. Protecting yourself with violence simply produces more violence.

3. Worries >> No Worries
Saying no to worries is tough. My grandfather used to say, when the horse was in danger of not getting the buggy to the station on time: “Either we will catch the train or we will not.” He saw no sense in worrying about it. If I’m at risk of missing a train, I still say that!

4. Small Stuff >> No Small Stuff
One of my great achievements of the past few years has been to say no to clients, to projects, and to other kinds of work that do not provide a good fee or, more importantly, do not provide the opportunity to do what I do best to make a difference in the world.

5. Flattery >> No Flattery
Too often I say yes to people who flatter me with comments about my skills or my kindness—and then I end up doing stuff I don’t have time or energy for. So I am now tuning my ears to notice the tempting sounds of flattery.

6. Temptation >> No Temptation
Oscar Wilde said that he could resist anything—except temptation. I’m still tempted by a new book or a new CD, but I can sometimes say, “Oh no.”

7. Negativity >> Positivity
After all this practice in saying “Oh No” I do remember that I also like to say “Oh Yes!” So I say no to negativity, I say yes to positivity, and I wonder what in the world I will write about thirteen months from now.

Until then, I wish you a good year of saying “Oh no” sometimes and saying “Oh yes” the rest of the time.

By the way, on 10-10-10 I will be in Singapore celebrating the last day of a ten-day Festival of Learning that my colleagues Sushma Sharma and Yeo Keng Choo are coordinating for the NTL Institute. For more information on why you might like to join us for the first ten days of the tenth month of 2010, go to www.ntl.org/festival and sign up. See you there and then, or some other where and when.