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Positive Thinking & Realism

In a recent coaching workshop, the difference between being positive and being realistic became a topic of discussion. The risk perceived in having a positive approach was that some considered it naive or Pollyannaish and lacking connection with reality. Our conversation explored tempering a positive approach with realism, in order to moderate the two contrasting points of view.

A participant then took a different approach by proposing to clarify the meaning of positive thinking. In attempting such clarification, first we would need to distinguish between magical thinking and a positive approach. Magical thinking is just what the term defines. Thinking of an outcome with no regard or connection to possibilities, requisites and steps. A positive approach is not an approach that’s dismissive of obstacles and potential interferences. A positive approach is one where a person sees the possibility and the potential. Moreover, there are points of awareness and even challenging questions that a positive approach needs to maintain. The big difference is that it is not an opinion; it’s a question. In other words, if I have concerns about whether the goal the person is setting is feasible, rather than making an immediate judgment, I ask questions and let those questions either guide the plan that the person forms or help them discover a correction to the goal if necessary.

The value of a positive approach becomes even more obvious when we are entertaining courageous goals. By definition, courageous goals have to be at the outer limit of possibilities, otherwise they are not courageous. We can’t really temper a courageous goal with realism because the goal stretches reality. We can challenge the courageous goal with questions that deepen the conversation. However, at no point, should the person coaching form an opinion that it is impossible for the person to reach the courageous goal.

Positive thinking is not an opinion with little consideration for possible limitations or interferences. It considers reality as an opportunity to explore context and the possible elements that make up that context. It approaches reality with the understanding that armed with enthusiasm, a burning desire to learn and a willingness to test limits a person can manifest what might appear to be impossible. Within that context the manager / coach will be asking how would one navigate and what skills might be needed to succeed. And, sometimes, it’s not that a person needs to have the skill, rather the ability to tap into the resources that are available to that person. So, there is a profound distinction between being realistic by assessing and judging perceived reality and the positive thinker who looks at the opportunity knowing that a person can tap into vast resources and potential. In essence a positive approach explores the individual’s ability to navigate, the awareness of the resources available, the interferences, the effort needed and the perseverance required while holding off judgment on what is possible and what is not possible.