When being positive is negative


The drummer in our band is a really nice guy. Friendly, outgoing, genuinely caring, and pretty upbeat. He also doesn’t read my blog, so I’m going to use him as an example of something that I don’t always find helpful.

The thing is, he is such a positive kind of guy, that after every gig, he always says “Well, that went well!”. And, broadly speaking, he’s not far off the mark. I would far prefer that kind of comment to someone bagging everything we did and pointing out every little mistake we made. But the reality is, there are sometimes things we just simply need to work on, and I can’t rely on him to help pinpoint those things. As a matter of fact, his attitude actually works against improvement.

So, whilst a positive attitude is always a good thing, the same doesn’t necessarily hold true about positive comments.

I’m a proud dad, and I want to do everything I can to build up my kids. And they know that too. Which means they are tempted to disallow my opinion on something about them, because I’m their dad, and of course I “would say that”. Well, they are mostly right. I don’t want anything I say to have the effect of discouraging them. But I also know that if I don’t tell them the truth, my ability to shape their lives has just gone out the window.

One of my daughters is doing a creative writing course (Graduate Certificate if I recall correctly). Recently she handed something in that she had had to rush, and wasn’t too sure about it. To my surprise she asked if I would read it (up till now I have seen none of her work, and I think that’s the way she likes it). So I told her that I would, and that I would give her an honest opinion.

And I did. It turns out it was a good piece of work. I made sure I pointed out all the good things about it, and then made a few comments about what I thought was missing. I made sure she was aware that I was comparing her writing to accomplished authors (because that’s mostly what I read!) so she would not feel disappointed by my critique. I emailed her my comments (she doesn’t live with us) and waited, a little anxiously, for her response.

To my relief, she told me that my comments were pretty similar to her opinion, so I don’t know that I opened any new windows of insight for her. But I did help her to consolidate her own opinion, and just as importantly for me, it strengthened her belief that she could rely on me to tell her the truth.

Do you ever wish that people would tell you what they really thought? Oh, not about everything (that’s never going to happen, and you probably wouldn’t like it if they did), but about things that count. And of course, although you want the truth, you do hope that it will be delivered graciously and with the least possible pain.

Just today my brothers came over for a family get together. They’re musos too, and I decided to play them a mixdown of a recording I was working on. It was still in the early stages but good enough to play to someone. What surprised me was that, as they listened (very intently I might add) they began to make comments about how this was too loud, or that was too soft, or that it needed more bottom end and so on. I hadn’t asked them for their opinion and was somewhat taken aback by their frankness. But it didn’t sting, and I realised that they were totally at ease with what they were saying – there was no vindictiveness or judgment (though they were undoubtedly judging the piece, and at a high level too). Though I became slightly defensive after a while, I realised they were giving me valuable feedback – feedback I will most certainly use.

I know that people want to speak positively in order to build up others. But parents who have nothing but praise, kids who get awards for absolutely everything, friends who always say you were great at something (those contestants for music shows who just can’t sing have friends who have a lot to answer for), in the end are really doing the opposite – setting their loved ones up for a fall.

And being overly positive can also be really boring, sickly sweet, condescending or just plain infuriating. I was talking to someone recently who was complaining mildly about something (can’t remember what) and I made some broadly positive kind of comment. She rounded on me (not angrily though) and told me not spout all that positivity garbage. And she had a point, although I don’t think I am one to spout platitudes.

In fact, I try pretty hard to be positive but not naive. I hope you can tell from my posts that I am not interested at all in fake confidence, in cheesy slogans, or even in dogged  adherence to positive thinking. If something really does suck, I’d like to think that I would admit it. And that’s my goal, whether I achieve it or not – to be real, and, by being real, that I might just be helpful. I hope that’s what keeps my truthfulness from hurting or crushing people. I’m not sure I always succeed.

Actually, I know I sometimes fail terribly. My determination to tell the truth doesn’t always go according to plan. Unlike my drummer friend, I too easily see the things that need fixing. My goal is never personal – I absolutely never want to hurt anyone. But we musos are temperamental creatures, as are most artists – you criticise my work and you are criticising me. And I’m the same. Although I want to hear the truth, my skin isn’t as thick as I would like it to be, and I do sometimes wonder how I would feel if my guitarist friend said to me some of the things I say to him!

Oh for a diplomatic sense of balance – knowing when to keep your mouth shut, and how to finesse a situation so that the truth comes out with minimal damage.

What about you? What’s your take on this? How successful are you in telling the truth in a way that doesn’t cause unnecessary hurt? Or perhaps you find that, in your desire not to offend, you hold back on information that could actually help, if you only knew how to deliver it.


Author: Terry Lewis

I'm a guy in his 50's who thought it might be fun to write about day to day issues - the stuff that life is made of. It's helped me think and develop some deeper perspectives. I enjoyed it so much I thought I might start posting it in a blog, and here we are! I intend to mix it up as much as I can. I am a thinking kind of guy so the majority of my posts will probably have some kernel of truth or (hopefully) wisdom nestled in there somewhere. But I also hope to have some light hearted posts as well. Too much thinking can make life pretty dull! Anyway, hope you like it.

3 thoughts on “When being positive is negative”

  1. Makes me think of how constructive criticism might initially seem negative (it is criticism, after all) but the point’s to help you improve. If something’s lacking/not quite right, the overly positive “yes man” can be a hindrance…Nobody likes a “yes man” who offers empty nods and affirmation. Then again, I guess it can depend: if I’m sorely down and depressed, it helps to hear positive comments/be around jovial people (Save the painful truth for later etc). The balance can be a bit hard to strike, though. Anywho, great post Terry!!

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