Mask-to-Mask Communication: Know What You’re Missing

TalentSmart has tested more than a million people and found that the group of highest performers is filled with people who are high in emotional intelligence (90% of top performers, to be exact). Because these people know how much our facial expressions influence our ability to communicate, they pay close attention to the facial expressions of others and they match their own facial expressions to the messages they want to communicate.

With masks, even the most emotionally intelligent people face a big challenge: our facial expressions are blocked. And we rely on facial expressions to understand emotions when words are mismatched with tone even more than you might think. According to a UCLA study, facial expressions account for 55% of successful communication when words and tone sound inconsistent.

Perhaps the people most affected by masks are those working front-line jobs. In the world of physicians and nurses for example, studies show that nonverbal cues are linked to better patient care. In the past, healthcare professionals have relied on facial expressions to show their patients empathy, sincerity, competence, and focus. That’s why doctors treating Covid-19 patients in full protective gear have resorted to taping photos of themselves to their scrubs to help put a human face on a scary situation. Or, as another example, in the service industry, waiting staff, baristas, or people working registers rely on facial expressions to make customers feel welcome, to smoothly navigate problems or complaints, and to create a positive atmosphere.

Even people not working front-line jobs still interact with the front line. When we go to the grocery or the doctor, we rely on facial expressions for greetings, to show gratitude, and to connect.

To help you get through these expression-less times, here’s what you can do to communicate with high emotional intelligence skills from the nose up and from the neck down.

Catch what you can. According to Dr. David Matsumoto, a psychologist specializing in emotions and body language, it’s possible to identify each of the following facial signals from above a mask that covers everything below the nose:

  • Wrinkles of disgust in the nose, forehead, and eyes.
  • Lifting of eyelids and eyebrows in fear or surprise.
  • Movement of corners of eyebrows in sadness or distress.
  • What we call “twinkling of the eyes,” a happy smile that crinkles the corners of your eyes.

Know what you’re missing. There are facial expressions that happen only or primarily in the mouth region. For these facial expressions, the best we can do is know what we may not see. Pursed lips, neutrality of expression, and a small frown or smile can easily stay contained in a mask. Maybe the most missed expression during the mask era is the “social smile” which is when we smile in place of a greeting or verbal acknowledgement. Because the social smile is manufactured to show appreciation or recognition, it doesn’t activate the whole face. The microexpression in your eyes is not enough to reach the twinkle level of happiness. The result is that your usual social smile when a barista hands you a latte appears blank-faced and possibly ungrateful with a mask.

Catch yourself and compensate. To reveal your hidden facial expressions without unmasking, you first must catch yourself making them. Then, you can compensate with small changes in your expression. For example, to compensate for a social smile, you might fully nod your head, wave, or even say “Hi” or “thank you” out loud with the positive, grateful, or excited tone that you mean to get across. Here are a few other ways to compensate:

  • Face the person you’re speaking to.
  • Use hand gestures.
  • Use your body and head more.
  • Exaggerate a reaction so that it crosses the whole face.
  • Speak louder and slower. Enunciate.
  • Match your tone to your emotion.
  • Keep your posture upright to show you’re engaged.
  • Make sure you have their attention in the first place.

From Insights to Action. The bottom line is that communicating with masks will never quite reach our normal, nuanced levels of communication and may lower our EQ. However, we can do a lot to avoid communication breakdown and to still get our emotions and ideas successfully across. Here’s a hopeful solution to leave you with: Check out transparent masks. They’re designed for families and friends of hard-of-hearing people who need to read lips, but if more widely adopted, or at least used in more front-line positions, many more facial expressions would be noticeable.

For additional TalentSmart articles, visit https://www.talentsmart.com/articles/.

10 High EQ Ways to Check in on a Struggling Coworker

Jeannine notices her coworker Monty has seemed off the last two weeks. Monty’s known on the team for being especially stylish, organized, and loud in a fun way. Lately he’s a bit less put together. The left side of his hair appears disheveled, he arrives late, and he appears on Zoom in the same shirt across multiple days. Jeannine didn’t view this as particularly alarming at first considering the novelty in shifting to remote work, but this paired with the absence of his usual enthusiasm in meetings, concerns her. She knows she needs to check in with him to see how he’s doing.

The bad news about checking in remotely is that the environment is less under her control. When she calls Monty up, distractions are more likely, their usual shared meal or coffee is an impossibility, and a conversation-conducive location is no longer a given.

The good news is that these elements are all secondary to Jeannine’s approach, which is entirely within her control. Her approach consists of bigger things like knowing and managing their dynamic, listening carefully and asking good questions, and matching what she says and how she reacts to Monty sharing. In other words, a successful check-in with a struggling colleague is a matter of emotional intelligence (EQ). Below are ten emotionally intelligent strategies you can add to your EQ toolbox for more successful check-in conversations.

1. Make sure you can handle the conversation. Going deep with someone takes a toll on you too. Before you engage with a struggling friend, check in with yourself. By recognizing that you might not be ready, you could save both of you from a damaging conversation, where the other person doesn’t feel heard and you feel brought down.

2. Nail your timing. Remote check-ins may derail your ability to set a good atmosphere, but you can at least find a good time when your struggling coworker isn’t too busy or stressed and is at their most receptive. It should be a mutually agreed on moment.

3. Know your power dynamic. If you’re someone’s boss, be aware that you might not be the person they want to open up to. Worst case, your employee may even think a check-in indicates worry about performance. Leave discussion about work for other times. This conversation is only about how the person is doing. If the conversation doesn’t go further, you’ve reached out and that is enough for now.

4. Approach gently. A lighter entry to a deep conversation helps oil the hinges. You don’t have to perform a joke, and you probably shouldn’t. Start with small talk. Ask about something lightly work-related, and make the conversation a bit more organic and a bit less forced. Listen for any opening to use your check-in question. If nothing obvious arises, perhaps give it more time.

5. Be specific. One way to stay in your lane is to share exactly what you noticed about your coworker that concerns you. Point out to Monty that he’s been late to three meetings and much less talkative this week. By communicating what you observed, you act as a mirror. Then just stop talking. The silence will give them a chance to respond. Often, observations serve as a natural entry point because the person realizes how their behavior looks and wants to explain. The key to this approach is not to make any assumptions and not to come across as judgmental.

6. Be open-ended. On the opposite end of the spectrum from specificity, a simple “How are things?” can offer an entry point, especially for someone who likes to share. Open-ended questions are useful because they don’t show judgment or a desire to pry something loose.

7. “Do you want to talk or do you want some distraction?” Posing this question sounds blunt but can be a great check-in question for someone you’re close to. Sometimes people prefer your company to your counsel.

8. Don’t push. When it comes to someone’s feelings, being pushy can cause people to clamp up, lash out, or resent you. This is especially true when they’re in a vulnerable state.

9. Get vulnerable. Sharing about yourself opens a kind of exchange. Saying something as small as “It’s been tough for me during social distancing to concentrate on listening during the meetings with my kids being noisy in the background,” can soften the environment. Showing vulnerability is an especially good strategy for supervisors approaching employees because it temporarily levels the playing field.

10. Don’t waste time sweating your response. When your coworker does open up, don’t expend all your mental energy trying to solve their problem or devise the perfect response. It’s tempting to ask what you can do to help, lay out your advice, or share your similar experience from third grade. But, all of these things distract the point of the conversation and often make it about you.

From Insights to Action. You might notice that each of these strategies boil down to the same thing: Making the other person comfortable. That’s because honest and vulnerable conversations can only happen when people feel comfortable enough to share.

For additional TalentSmart articles, visit https://www.talentsmart.com/articles/.

The Empathy Switch: How to Turn It On When You Don’t Feel Like It.

What makes our empathy wane and what to do about it.

In last week’s blog, we discussed how emotions can switch off our empathy for people around us, causing us to say or do things that go against our values and beliefs. We may do things like yell at a customer service rep when mad about our stolen credit card, curse at the umpire or pitcher when angry at ourselves for striking out, or neglect to stop to help someone when feeling rushed and late for a meeting. In these moments, we operate as though we are the only important player. Anyone else in front of us is to be blamed or ignored because we’re in a self-involved state of mind. You don’t matter. Only I matter right now.

Martin Buber, the philosopher and author of Ich and Du (I and You), describes this type of interaction between people as an “I-It” interaction. Whether briefly due to a mood, or intentionally due to a belief system, one person treats the other person as an object, something to be ignored (not seen), used, blamed or attacked. Through an “I-It” lens, our state of mind makes us more likely to engage in words or actions ranging from inconsiderate to harmful.

Empathy, on the other hand, is an “I-You” state of mind. Empathic thinking sounds like this, “If I do __, it will affect you in __ way.” You matter just as much as I matter. I notice how you feel and I care to do something helpful. Without empathy we erode our connections and relationships. With empathy we address each other’s pain, resolve conflicts, and build a feeling of community.  Empathy is our North Star when our state of mind erodes our connection to others. 

Here are the strategies that will help you switch your empathy back on when emotions or thoughts start to dim your regard for the person next to you.

World of Your Own Empathy Erosion: Strong emotions like stress, anger, or anxiety consume us. To avoid going blind or numb to people, here’s what you can do:

Strategy 1: Observe the ripple effect from your emotions. We all react differently when our emotions overwhelm us. Some people clam up in response, while others lash out. Some people work tirelessly toward fixing their problem, while others take time to reflect. Whatever the tendency, it has the potential to hijack our empathy if we’re unaware. Learning tendencies is the first step toward managing them (i.e., people who clam up may need to learn to force themselves to speak, and people who lash out may need to learn to breathe for ten seconds and give over the floor to other people.)

Strategy 2: Cut “catch phrase empathy.” “Maybe it’s better this way” and “At least it wasn’t worse” are little more than catch phrases used to avoid real acknowledgement. Under a veil of “well-wishing,” catch phrases are an example of how world of your own empathy erosion can become a workplace norm. Instead of using catch phrases as a crutch, try to be present, listen deeply, and thank them for sharing something so important.

Strategy 3: Note your circumstance. Just as our natural tendencies can cause us to treat someone badly, so too can our circumstances. One common example of this is being in a position of power, which studies show lessens our ability to empathize with others. Similarly, alcohol not only makes us less empathetic, but also makes our empathy less accurate.

Corrosive Emotions: Corrosive emotions like contempt and disgust seep into our thoughts over time. To avoid letting these emotions toward a person dictate your actions, here’s what you can do.

Strategy 1: Walk in their shoes. At its simplest this strategy can mean envisioning how someone we hold strong feelings against goes through their day or their life. At its most challenging this can be like George Orwell who intentionally lived homeless to learn what it felt like before writing his experience in the memoir Down and out in Paris and London. The most efficient way to step into someone’s shoes is usually something between the two extremes: long conversations. Stories of a person’s life help us to piece together who they are, what they feel, and why they act the way they do.

Strategy 2: Be open and vulnerable. To flip a negative relationship on its head, try flipping the entire approach. The last person we typically open up to is the person we dislike, but when we do, it can be surprising how they react. While we may fear that radical vulnerability and openness will make us look weak and inadequate, studies show that people actually see vulnerability as “desirable” and “good.” Vulnerability breaks down the “I-It” perspective by forcing us to communicate on a human-to-human level.

Strategy 3: Intentionally empathize with enemies. “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” -Abraham Lincoln

By seeking out the people we harbor long-term negative emotions toward and getting to know them better, we can proactively break down those long-term emotions like contempt and disgust. One profound example of someone who mastered this is Daryl Davis, a Black blues musician who has intentionally been attending KKK meetings for thirty years. He spends his time befriending members and has personally convinced over 200 members to resign. He’s done this by sitting down to have dinner with individual Klan members and having deep conversations with them.

From Insights to Action. In a Princeton study, Betsy Levy Paluck successfully led anti-bullying campaigns at middle schools. To accomplish this, she and her colleagues found that the most successful approach was to assign specific students to hold their peers accountable for bullying. The reason this worked so well is that groups operate first and foremost on norms. When we see other people act in a certain way, we’re much more likely to follow their lead than we are if, for instance, a principal walks around threatening punishment for bullying. By modeling empathy and practicing mindful empathy strategies, each of us can begin to successfully shift old team norms and mold organization cultures the same way individual kids were able to successfully reduce bullying at their schools.

For additional TalentSmart articles, visit https://www.talentsmart.com/articles/.

How to Self-Motivate Through Distraction and Change

Motivation tends to feel like something you either have or don’t you have, you feel or you don’t feel, but research shows that most issues of motivation are really issues of negative emotions.

As we’re faced with a task, negative emotions like anxiety, boredom, fear, self-doubt, frustration, and insecurity inevitably surface. Procrastination from work, whether by watching a funny cat video or by doing dishes, temporarily relieves you from those negative emotions. The problem is that the temporary relief feels good and it becomes a habit where you prioritize distracting yourself from your negative emotions over the work causing them in the first place.

Besides wasting time and stressing you out, procrastination has been connected to depression, anxiety, a decrease in life satisfaction, and cardiovascular health issues.

Astronauts and athletes have tackled procrastination. Here are two profiles of their creative approaches to stay motivated so you also can manage your negative emotions and stay on track, especially during times of heightened negative emotions.

A Time-traveling Astronaut

In Psychologist Adam Grant’s recent article, Grant interviewed the astronaut Scott Kelly to learn how he dealt with 340-day periods isolated in space. Kelly’s number one mental trick for self-motivation was he intentionally played with time. Notice how mental time travel helped him gain perspective on pesky negative emotions that would otherwise get in his way.

~Kelly turned to the future to envision positive outcomes. We can turn to the future for a long-term goal (like a promotion) or a short-term goal (like how we want the end of the day to feel). The future motivates us in the present by connecting our desired outcome to our current actions.

~Kelly turned to the past to look at good times and bad times. Reliving good times reminds us what we have to be grateful for, and reliving the bad times reminds us of our past perseverance.

~Kelly also turned to what he called an alternate present. By imagining our current life as a more difficult alternative, we can alleviate our current pain and lighten up for the task at hand. For example, if you’re down about working from home, you might imagine being in true isolation in space for 340 days trying to deal with issues like a broken toilet.

The Pain-Planning of Endurance Athletes

When it comes to pushing through indefinite, uncomfortable, and ever-changing situations, who better to learn from than endurance athletes who devote their lives to this highly specific type of pain?

~Set Realistic Expectations: Endurance athletes can’t envision a long race as simple. They have to put together a realistic expectation around the pain to come in order to set a doable pace and plan. Realistic expectations are essential when it comes to dealing with the natural highs and lows. A realistic expectation can help you work your way through days that feel like walking through wet cement, and they can help slow you down when you’re tempted to ride a productivity high and burn yourself out.   

~Break down your outcome: Runners break their training down day by day, their marathon down mile by mile, or their mile step by step.  Work can also be broken down into simpler parts. These smaller, more achievable goals allow for small victories. With each small victory, you replace negative emotions with positive ones. This alone can break the habit of procrastination which relies on you conceding to your negative thoughts or emotions.

From Insights to Action.

“I can’t blame modern technology for my predilection for distraction, not after all the hours I’ve spent watching lost balloons disappear into the clouds. I did it before the Internet, and I’ll do it after the apocalypse, assuming we still have helium and weak-gripped children.”
-Colson Whitehead, Author

Distraction is inevitable and human, but motivation is ultimately about the long game, and about establishing the best day-to-day habits. Mental time-traveling and pain-planning will help reshape your mindset and get your self-motivating habits trending in the right direction.

For additional TalentSmart articles, visit https://www.talentsmart.com/articles/.

Leading Through a Crisis with Emotional Intelligence

The way a leader shows up to work emotionally sets the tone for everyone around them. So much so, that your boss’s mood can not only make or break the rest of your day, but it can also affect your and your whole team’s performance.

A UC Riverside study found that employees don’t just notice the emotions of their boss, they absorb the emotions until they feel them. A flustered, stressed-out boss can derail a team’s ability to stay calm and work through a challenge. On the other hand, an optimistic and tuned-in boss can establish a positive environment, even during a crisis, where people collaborate freely and perform highly.

That’s why leading is such a tough job. Leaders are responsible for their own emotions as well as those of the people below them. They have to constantly monitor their emotions and manage their reactions knowing how serious the impact can be, for better or worse. To do so effectively, leaders need a great degree of emotional intelligence (EQ).  

We did some digging at TalentSmart to unearth the key behaviors emotionally intelligent leaders prioritize to guide their teams through a crisis. Here are three of the best:

High EQ leaders aren’t afraid to show vulnerability. We’ve all had that boss who operates under a sort of robotic professionalism with a painted-on smile. These bosses don’t actually do anything to make employees feel good, because people see right through their inauthenticity. What these bosses really do is create a stiff, cold atmosphere where people are afraid to share, connect, or even trust each other. Emotionally intelligent leaders, on the other hand, share honest emotions with their teams. This shows people where they’re coming from as they make difficult decisions. Sharing openly also helps eliminate an “employee vs. boss” mentality and sets a precedent for the team to feel comfortable sharing, asking for help, and holding healthy check-ins and dialogues.  Research shows that organizations that embrace vulnerability establish a culture of psychological safety where forgiveness for failure, openness, and empathy are the norm.

High EQ leaders deliver news transparently and empathetically. During the 2008 layoffs on Wall Street, some organizations literally had a line of laid-off people wait with boxes to pack up their desks. The message sent, whether intentional or not, was “we don’t value people.” The employees who were laid off were understandably bitter, but so were the remaining employees whose friends had been treated apathetically. Those still employed felt survivor’s guilt and didn’t understand how or why things had transpired the way they did. Panicked in the middle of a crisis, the leaders lost track of the importance of transparency and empathy as they laid people off. They worked frantically to make sure their organizations stayed afloat, but they forgot to see what kind of impact their actions and emotions had on the people who would still be coming to work every day.  

On the opposite end of this spectrum, is Dan Price, the CEO of Gravity, a company that  processes payments for small businesses. He found his company in dire straits these last two months as Gravity’s small business customers suffered. In response, Price held an all-company meeting in which he openly shared company finances and the kind of cuts necessary to survive without layoffs. Then, he met with employees one at a time for a week straight to discuss potential solutions. As a company, they developed a private form where each employee wrote down what they would feasibly be able to sacrifice in terms of a pay cut to help save the company. The system worked. Gravity didn’t lay anyone off, and they made cuts on each employee’s terms. Empathetic transparency means taking the time to fill employees in on major changes in a way that addresses and values their feelings.

High EQ leaders update frequently. During a crisis, ongoing change quickly becomes the new normal. As a result, updates don’t always match that rate of change, and this gap causes people to feel anxious and insecure. By erring on the side of over-communication, emotionally intelligent leaders help alleviate that fear by giving people space and time to listen, ask questions, and share their reactions. Sometimes it takes multiple updates for the questions and insights to finally surface.

From Insights To Action. At the heart of EQ and leadership lies a whole set of delicate balancing acts: Sharing without oversharing, emotional honesty without emotional dumping or lashing out, the needs of the company with empathy for individuals, and information in the right amounts while the right timing. Add these three behaviors to your leadership repertoire, and you’ll be surprised how far they go to carry your team through these changing times.

For additional TalentSmart articles, visit https://www.talentsmart.com/articles/.

How Successful People Beat Stress and Avoid Burnout

In times of extreme change, like we’ve faced the last couple of months, negative emotions begin to multiply and intensify. Emotions like anxiety, fear, and frustration can even begin to feel baked into our everyday lives.

A recent survey of American workers during COVID-19 reported the following:

–70% of employees say that COVID-19 is the most stressful time ever in their working career

–88% of employees say they’re experiencing moderate stress or worse

–62% of stressed employees say they lose at least an hour of productivity per day

When stress and negative emotions begin to take over on a daily basis, burnout waits just around the corner. Burnout saps confidence, positivity, and energy. It kills productivity and creativity, and it’s been linked to serious, long-term emotional and physical health issues. According to a SHRM survey, burnout is also one of the top reasons people leave jobs.

The interesting thing about burnout is that even though all people experience stress and negative emotions, not everyone burns out in response. It’s possible to navigate high stakes, long hours, and looming disasters in a way that protects you from emotional capsizing.

Emotional Intelligence Skills Protect People From Burnout

In a study of Chief Medical Officers (CMOs), an exceptionally high-stress position, almost all of the CMOs rated their stress as “severe, very severe, or worst possible.” The researchers, who specialize in studying stress and burnout, noticed something unusual about the CMOs. Even though they experienced heavier levels of stress than most people, the majority still did not burn out. Instead, they had developed effective coping mechanisms through years of managing their excessive stress loads. Their coping mechanisms shared a common theme: emotional intelligence (EQ).

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships. EQ is made up of four core skills, and each one plays a critical role in stress management:

Self-Awareness is your ability to accurately perceive your emotions and stay aware of them as they happen. The researchers found that the Chief Medical Officers were skilled at recognizing when they felt anxious or stressed. Once they recognized a negative emotion, they didn’t stop there. They traced the feeling back to its source (like a tight deadline or a specific conflict with a colleague). This allowed them to understand not only what they were feeling but also why they felt that way. Getting specific about your emotions is one of the best ways to overcome that vague and shallow circulation of negative thoughts we experience when stressed. Specificity gives you control over time and place for your reaction. It frees you up to separate your fears or anxieties from your actual work and actions. Without awareness of your emotions, you can’t manage them.

Self-Management is your ability to use awareness of your emotions to stay flexible and direct your behavior in a positive way. For the CMOs, self-management influenced how they dealt with their anxieties and stress as well as how they avoided impulsive decisions or destructive tendencies. Self-management can come in a number of forms. For many people, self-managing against stress works best when they return to the basics—things like exercise, sleep hygiene, connecting to close friends, eating healthy, or meditating. At peak self-management, the CMOs even leveraged their stress as a motivator to perform highly under pressure.

Social Awareness is your ability to accurately pick up on emotions in other people. One big source of stress at work is conflict with others, especially when the conflicts aren’t handled with sensitivity. When faced with high-stakes conflicts, the CMOs made an extra effort to understand the experience of others. By empathizing during a conflict, they could more effectively negotiate resolutions that met the needs of multiple parties, not just their own.

Relationship Management is the ability to use awareness of your emotions and others’ to manage successful interactions. Relationship management skills are essential in navigating the emotional complexities of difficult conversations, like conflicts, bad news, significant changes, or tough feedback. It was the CMOs’ relationship management skills that helped them create an environment of trust with their teams. This meant they were comfortable asking for help when they felt overwhelmed or stretched to their limits.

From Insights to Actions

High EQ behaviors like this prevent burnout and benefit the medical officer, the team’s performance and retention for the organization. While most of us aren’t CMOs, we can still apply their approach to stress in our own work. Their strategies for stress management are adjusted over years of stressful tests at work. By understanding their use of emotionally intelligent practices, you can also begin to take control of your own stress and build your EQ in the process!

For additional TalentSmart articles, visit https://www.talentsmart.com/articles/

3 Powerful Ways To Stay Positive

We’ve all received the well-meaning advice to “stay positive.” The greater the challenge, the more this glass-half-full wisdom can come across as Pollyannaish and unrealistic. It’s hard to find the motivation to focus on the positive when positivity seems like nothing more than wishful thinking, especially during unsettling times like right now.

The real obstacle to positivity is that our brains are hard-wired to look for and focus on threats. This survival mechanism served humankind well back when we were hunters and gatherers, living each day with the very real threat of being killed by someone or something in our immediate surroundings.

That was eons ago. Today, this mechanism breeds pessimism and negativity through the mind’s tendency to wander until it finds a threat. These “threats” magnify the perceived likelihood that things are going—and/or are going to go—poorly. When the threat is real and lurking in the bushes down the path, this mechanism serves you well. When the threat is imagined and you spend two months convinced the project you’re working on is going to flop, this mechanism leaves you with a soured view of reality that wreaks havoc in your life.

Maintaining positivity is a daily challenge that requires focus and attention. You must be intentional about staying positive if you’re going to overcome the brain’s tendency to focus on threats. It won’t happen by accident. That’s why positivity is the skill that we should all be focusing on right now.

Positivity and Your Health

Pessimism is trouble because it’s bad for your health. Numerous studies have shown that optimists are physically and psychologically healthier than pessimists.

Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania has conducted extensive research on the topic. Seligman worked with researchers from Dartmouth and the University of Michigan on a study that followed people from age 25 to 65 to see how their levels of pessimism or optimism influenced their overall health. The researchers found that pessimists’ health deteriorated far more rapidly as they aged.

Seligman’s findings are similar to research conducted by the Mayo Clinic that found optimists have lower levels of cardiovascular disease and longer life-spans. Although the exact mechanism through which pessimism affects health hasn’t been identified, researchers at Yale and the University of Colorado found that pessimism is associated with a weakened immune response to tumors and infection.

Researchers from the University of Kentucky went so far as to inject optimists and pessimists with a virus to measure their immune response. The researchers found optimists had a much stronger immune response than pessimists.

Positivity and Performance

Keeping a positive attitude isn’t just good for your health. Martin Seligman has also studied the connection between positivity and performance. In one study in particular, he measured the degree to which insurance salespeople were optimistic or pessimistic in their work. Optimistic salespeople sold 37% more policies than pessimists, who were twice as likely to leave the company during their first year of employment.

Seligman has studied positivity more than anyone, and he believes in the ability to turn pessimistic thoughts and tendencies around with simple effort and know-how. But Seligman doesn’t just believe this. His research shows that people can transform a tendency toward pessimistic thinking into positive thinking through simple techniques that create lasting changes in behavior long after they are discovered.

Here are three things that you should be doing right now to stay positive.

1. Separate Fact from Fiction

The first step in learning to focus on the positive requires knowing how to stop negative self-talk in its tracks. The more you ruminate on negative thoughts, the more power you give them. Most of our negative thoughts are just that — thoughts, not facts.

When you find yourself believing the negative and pessimistic things your inner voice says, it’s time to stop and write them down. Literally stop what you’re doing and write down what you’re thinking. Once you’ve taken a moment to slow down the negative momentum of your thoughts, you will be more rational and clear-headed in evaluating their veracity. Evaluate these statements to see if they’re factual. You can bet the statements aren’t true any time you see words like never, always, worst, ever, etc.

Do you really always lose your keys? Of course not. Perhaps you forget them frequently, but most days you do remember them. Are you never going to find a solution to your problem? If you really are that stuck, maybe you’ve been resisting asking for help. Or if it really is an intractable problem, then why are you wasting your time beating your head against the wall? If your statements still look like facts once they’re on paper, take them to a friend or colleague you can trust, and see if he or she agrees with you. Then the truth will surely come out.

When it feels like something always or never happens, this is just your brain’s natural threat tendency inflating the perceived frequency or severity of an event. Identifying and labeling your thoughts as thoughts by separating them from the facts will help you escape the cycle of negativity and move toward a positive new outlook.

2. Identify a Positive

Once you snap yourself out of self-defeating, negative thoughts, it’s time to help your brain learn what you want it to focus on — the positive.

This will come naturally after some practice, but first you have to give your wandering brain a little help by consciously selecting something positive to think about. Any positive thought will do to refocus your brain’s attention. When things are going well, and your mood is good, this is relatively easy. When things are going poorly, and your mind is flooded with negative thoughts, this can be a challenge. In these moments, think about your day and identify one positive thing that happened, no matter how small. If you can’t think of something from the current day, reflect on the previous day or even the previous week. Or perhaps there is an exciting event you are looking forward to that you can focus your attention on.

The point here is you must have something positive that you’re ready to shift your attention to when your thoughts turn negative. Step one stripped the power from negative thoughts by separating fact from fiction. Step two is to replace the negative with a positive. Once you have identified a positive thought, draw your attention to that thought each time you find yourself dwelling on the negative. If that proves difficult, you can repeat the process of writing down the negative thoughts to discredit their validity, and then allow yourself to freely enjoy positive thoughts.

3. Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude

Taking time to contemplate what you’re grateful for isn’t merely the “right” thing to do; it reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23%. Research conducted at the University of California, Davis, found that people who worked daily to cultivate an attitude of gratitude experienced improved mood, energy and substantially less anxiety due to lower cortisol levels.

You cultivate an attitude of gratitude by taking time out every day to focus on the positive. Any time you experience negative or pessimistic thoughts, use this as a cue to shift gears and think about something positive. In time, a positive attitude will become a way of life.  

Bringing It All Together

These steps sound incredibly basic, but they have tremendous power because they retrain your brain to have a positive focus. These steps break old habits, if you force yourself to use them. Given the mind’s natural tendency to wander toward negative thoughts, we can all use a little help with staying positive. Put these steps to use, and you’ll reap the physical, mental, and performance benefits that come with a positive frame of mind. It will also help you remain focused and productive, especially when times are tough.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Travis Bradberry, Ph.D.

Dr. Travis Bradberry is the award-winning coauthor of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 and a cofounder of TalentSmart® the world’s leading provider of emotional intelligence tests and training serving more than 75% of Fortune 500 companies. His best-selling books have been translated into 25 languages and are available in more than 150 countries.

Dr. Bradberry is a LinkedIn Influencer and a regular contributor to Forbes, Inc., Entrepreneur, The World Economic Forum, and The Huffington Post. He has written for, or been covered by, Newsweek, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Fast Company, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Harvard Business Review.

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