Why we focus on the negative moments

A human aspect is that negative moments create stronger emotions than positive moments. This may result in a focus on the negative things. And I am sure you see this issue in your daily project business. You’re project members are very successful in finding the negative points. Within this article I want to explain why this behaviour is normal and what you can do to break these behavioural patterns. Of course, within this article I cannot analyse this complex topic but I want to give you some nice hints to see, avoid and handle this issue.

A short test

You can do this short test with your project members, for example at the beginning of a retrospective meeting. It is a nice introduction test for such a meeting because it will demonstrate that we all have our focus on the negative moments and we often forget all the positive things.

So take a piece of paper and write down four simple calculations and show them to your team. One of the calculations must be wrong. For example write down the following:

18 + 10 = 28

32 – 11 = 21

5 x 5 = 20

88 : 11 = 8

Show this piece of paper and ask: “What do you notice”. And I’m sure you will get an answer like: “The third calculation is wrong”. You will nearly never get the answer that there are three correct calculations.

Reason for this behavior

People are always focused on the negative things. They search for the fly in the soup and will always find it. And this is human! You cannot stop this behavior. Negative moments create stronger emotions than positive ones. Therefore they are experienced in a more intensive way.

As a result a kind of protective attitude arises. People try to guard themselves by evolving a pessimistic attitude towards a negative experience. If something works well, then I am surprised and relieved. If something goes wrong, I feel confirmed because I already had said it previously.

Possible solution

Of course it is not possible to easily stop these human action routines. But it is possible to something about it. You can help your team members to change their course. So lead them away from the problem, toward a solution.

When people tell about a problem situation, they often focus on two things: the bad and hopeless situation and all the things which do not solve the problem. In such a moment you should recognize and praise the things they already have tried to solve the issue. Because even if these things are not working the people spend a lot of time and work to find a problem solution. But after that try to change their course by asking a simple but meaningful question:

What do you do instead?

This question contains one simple word which will change the whole situation. So if you ask this question, watch your colleague. What will happen if you ask this little word “instead”? Nothing will happen in the first moment. Your colleague will be silent. And he is silent because he thinks about this question. And that’s a good sign.

I recommend you to use this situation. Because after the short break to think about the “instead” term, your colleague will normally try to “escape” mentally and with his arguments to the situation where he or she is familiar with – and unfortunately this is the actual problem situation. You will easily recognize this on “but” statements and negations. Stay tuned in such cases and even if you have a colleague with a very negative attitude, you can pick up the positive exceptions he will find (e.g. things where the problem was less). Or you may confront him with questions he does not expect:

  • What aspect of the problem you absolutely want to keep?
  • What was the best thing about your problem?
  • How do you realize that the problem is no longer there and what is different?


The focus on negatives is a typical human behavior. You cannot prevent or change this attitude. But if you are a project or team leader you have to recognize such situations and help your team members to find solutions. So lead them away from problems toward to solutions.

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