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Debbie Downer and the Six Thinking Hats

I'm starting to promote myself as a productivity coach, and I had strange experience recently at a holiday party. While talking to a neighbor about full-time consulting, I noticed that all her comments were extremely negative, including such classics as "You can't make enough money doing that," "You'll have to put in too many hours," and "You won't find enough business." These were all spewed out in the space of about one minute. Bleh!

I had two reactions, and thankfully they helped to moderate this person's toxic effects on me (which I'm pretty certain she was unaware of - I believe she felt she was helping). The first reaction was a little internal chuckle as I remembered the Saturday Night Live character Debbie Downer, whose comments in conversations are always depressingly negative (e.g., "By the way, it's official...I can't have children.") And I had a live one!

My second reaction was to think of this person's response in terms of Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats, which I've been working though lately. (There's a nice summary a the Mind Tools site.) I'm new to de Bono's ideas, but it sounded like my neighbor was using both her Red Hat (gut reaction and emotion - she thought it would be hard, and a bad idea), and her Black Hat (caution and negative aspects - this is dangerous, and won't work out). Interestingly, I found that simply identifying these perspectives was freeing, and helped to modulate my reaction to her. In other words, it gave me some needed perspective, something David Allen calls "the slipperiest and most valuable commodity."

I found a refreshing contrast in the book Getting started in consulting by Alan Weiss. He says that these kinds of responses are typical, but:
The problem is that if you educate yourself incorrectly at the outset, you're vulnerable to successfully meeting the exact wrong set of expectations. You will have brilliantly achieved a sorry state.
Also related: Adam Khan, in his book Self-help stuff that works, says "Sometimes you shouldn't listen," and gives examples of highly successful people who persevered in spite of early discouragement (he cites Winston Churchill, Charles Darwin, and George Washington). He suggests most people are trying to help by attempting to protect you from failure. However, he says failure is just another learning experience. This resonates with Allen's Principle 52: "The biggest successes come from the most failures" (from Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Work and Life).

Have you encountered any Debbie Downers (or Bob Bummers) lately?

Reader Comments (8)

Well, I'm the opposite. I fall more on the positive-thinking-side. My mother was a Debbie Downer - what a drag! Again, as you say, I think she was trying to protect me in case things didn't "work out". My perspective is, things always "work out", they just may not work out in exactly the way I want or expect. Whatever. I remain open. Anyway, as usual, an articulate and interesting blog of yours. More power to you, Matt!

November 30, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

"... they just may not work out in exactly the way I want or expect" - Well said! Thanks very much for the support.

November 30, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

A useful way I've come across to deal with comments like these comes from Robert Dilts, one of the major developers of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming).

From studying Walt Disney, he found that Disney had 3 major components to his creativity process.

First, there was the dreamer, which was allowed to think and dream about anything.

Secondly, there was the realist, which had to implement whatever the dreamer dreamt up into real-world, actionable plans.

Last was the critic, whoose job was to pick apart and find the weak spots in the realist's and dreamer's plans.

And then the problems highlighted by the critic get cycled back to the dreamer to create solutions, and the cycle continues until the critic is satisfied and exits.

A very useful strategy for me to identify where another person or my own thinking is coming from, and instead of judging it as good or bad, know its perspective and help to integrate it.

December 1, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterAlvin

Alvin, your comment was tremendously useful to me - thanks very much. I've encountered NLP from at least three directions (including "How to make people like you" by Boothman). I need to learn more about it; care to recommend a good book to start with? I also need to research habit formation and helping people make GTD "stick." Does NLP offer insights there? Thanks again!

P.S. I enjoy reading your Life Coaches Blog.

December 1, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hi Matthew!

NLP has lots of specializations running into several different areas and segmenting with lots of different other things.

Like, there's NLP in sales, coaching, therapeutic work, state change, goal setting, etc. It's really a very flexible model built on observing excellence and thus developers are adding on to it using the basic models all the time.

Anthony Robbin's 'Unlimited Power' is a great intro to basic NLP and his 'Awaken the Giant Within' is a good build on the NLP perspective on understanding behaviors.

Unlimited Power is more NLP focused while Awaken the Giant Within has a broader range, and is more readable mostly because I think Robbins was more experienced when he wrote it.

P.S. Thanks! :)

December 5, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterAlvin

Thank you for the NLP starting points, Alvin. They're on my [ http://www.amazon.com/gp/registry/registry.html/ref=reg_hu-wl_goto-registry/002-7792279-6248857?%5Fencoding=UTF8&sort=date-added&type=wishlist&id=IZZMVJXF5IQO | wish list ], and I'm looking forward to reading them. Lots to think about...

December 5, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I'm a big fan of deBono's thinking hats and other writings; cool stuff. THat's a great way to evaluate those negative comments without letting it get you down.

Good luck with consulting; sounds like fun!

December 17, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterPhil Crissman

I'm a big fan of deBono's thinking hats and other writings; cool stuff. That's a great way to evaluate those negative comments without letting it get you down.

Good luck with consulting; sounds like fun!Thanks for the support, Phil. I really appreciate it.

December 17, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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