Dystopia: an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one. The opposite of utopia.

DCF 1.0

We all live in our own mental dystopia. Creatively imagining terrible things that haven’t happened yet.  Which, most likely, may never happen at all. Yet we convince ourselves of the absolute worse and then wonder why we are miserable.

There is an explanation for all this. Our primitive brain, the amygdala is in charge of our physical survival. Always looking for lurking dangers. Fear resides in the amygdala with physical, mental & emotional stress & distress as the response. Fight, Flight, Freeze! Research has shown that for every one positive thought, there are four to five negative thoughts. No wonder we fill our miserable lives full of imaginary angst, anxiety and anger.

The Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear from Frank Herbert’s science fiction trilogy Dune (a dystopia if there ever was one):

 I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

This past week, at a leadership lunch’n’learn, I tried an experiment. The theme of this week’s lesson was dealing with different personality types & then how to provide them necessary performance feedback. The typical and expected conversation would be to dwell on the negative aspects of others, sort of an emotional catharsis where their sins are confessed.  True leadership learning will not occur in an environment of negativity.  Instead, lousy thoughts are reinforced. I wanted this to be a different experience.

So I returned to the Harvard Business Review Blog network, starting with Daniel Goleman’s recent blog : When You Criticize Someone, You Make It Harder for that Person to Change.  Which includes this quote from Richard Boyatzis.

“Talking about your positive goals and dreams activates brain centers that open you up to new possibilities. But if you change the conversation to what you should do to fix yourself, it closes you down.”

The session was opened with Daniel Goleman’s question, “If everything worked out perfectly in your life, what would you be doing in ten years?”  The participants all shared their thoughts most of which focused on transforming the organization culture & performance in a positive direction.

Then, the following question was asked.  Take a moment to list five things you like about yourself and then share them. This question was asked to reinforce the first and create an environment of positive affirmation of each person’s self image. That intent was met and the mood in the room became palpably  warm, open, & accepting.

So, instead of journeying down the path into a saddening dystopia of miserably confessing the sins of others, we took the conversation turned towards creating a vision of personal & organizational utopia.

As Boyatzis put it,

“You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive. You need both, but in the right ratio.”


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