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‘What went well?’ is as important to ask as ‘What went wrong?’

Have you ever noticed that your mind fixates on the answer to ‘What went wrong?’ turning the events over and over in your mind, analyzing and creating better alternatives to your reactions in the moment? The inner critic takes center stage and an event that took only a few moments can paint the entire day as ‘bad’. What is happening?

Neuroscientists explain this phenomenon as our brain’s innate negativity bias. The moments that we experience as unpleasant stick like glue. And the moments that are neutral or that we experience as pleasant are like Teflon and simply bounce off, barely noticed. If you consider the reasons for negativity bias from a survival point of view, it makes sense that those moments would be ones we would want to remember. For example, if eating those pretty red berries made our ancestors sick, the brain would want to embed that memory so we avoid those berries next time. It was a matter of survival.

Today, however, that same negativity bias can make a simple unpleasant conversation into the point of fixation for the entire day, or the memory that keeps us up at night. And with our mind so occupied with the recurring unpleasant memory, we can miss moments of joy and happiness, or make choices that we later see as unwise.

Is there anything we can do about this? Thankfully, the answer is yes. In the practices of Mindful Leadership training, we begin with two simple practices to begin to work with the negativity bias:

  1. Notice that it is happening. Now that you understand what is likely to happen in your thinking, see if you can catch those times when you exaggerate the significance of a single event or comment. For example, when your friend asks you about your day, and you answer it was ‘horrible’, take a pause to look more clearly at the entirety of the day. Was the entire day horrible or was it just that awkward conversation that happened at 10 am? Was the entire day filled with horrible moments? Can you recall a few pleasant moments in the day?
  2. Notice moments of joy. Begin to make a point of identifying pleasant or joyful moments in the day. Look for those simple moments that often go by without us noticing them…a smile from a friend, a delicious piece of fruit, the warmth of the sun. And see if you can take a few moments at the end of the day to ask yourself ‘what went well today?’.

Over time, you are retraining your mind to put difficult moments in the day into perspective, and you are training your mind to give equal notice to those moments that are pleasant, the moments that have the potential to enrich your experience of each day.