Positivity in the face of Negativity

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I’ll start this piece sitting in the women’s toilets, in the middle of what felt like my worst day in court ever.  I’d faced a barrage of negativity from the Judge about everything from the trial bundle to the wording of my submissions.  Then, lunchtime arrived, and I ran to the toilets, desperate to be alone, and convinced that the barrister’s life was not for me (that did turn out to be right but, I’m pleased to say, for different reasons).

Many of you will have been there – hiding in the toilets at work or in some distant court building, thinking everybody else is better than you, analysing that throw-away comment from the Senior Partner, your client or your opponent, that has struck you right in the squishy, sensitive bit that tells you you’re not good enough.  The question is, what do you do about it?

As a barrister turned coach, after years of learning and reflection, (and quite a lot of beating myself up), what I can say with confidence is that the answer almost always lies in your reaction to the negative situation in which you find yourself.  A useful first step is to remind yourself that, generally, this negativity tells us a lot more about the person it comes from, rather than you, the person it is aimed at.  You cannot control the other person’s insecurities, inadequacies, or bad temper, but you can control your reaction to all of those things.  Their comments have no power, other than the power you give to them.  Only you can control your feelings, don’t give that power away to others, at least not lightly.

A fellow coach once suggested that I take a very small piece of paper, maybe a post-it, and write on it the names of everyone whose opinion really matters to you – this should be possible on even the smallest post-it if you’ve got proper boundaries.  Then when the negativity of another person is causing you to doubt yourself, or the path you are following, take out the post-it and check if the negativity is coming from someone on the list – if their name isn’t down, their negativity is not getting in.

The other thing I can see from the other side of the fence is that, as a lawyer, I was a little behind the curve in embracing mistakes/feedback/lack of perfection.   I spent 15 years in practice thinking that I had to be perfect, and that a mistake could only lead to dire consequences.  And I see friends and colleagues in practice, and in similar professions, still expressing the same thoughts, and sometimes being hyper-critical of others on the same basis.  Of course, in some cases, mistakes can cost dearly, but much more frequently any grain of truth in a piece of negative feedback (or something shouted at you from the bench, or even the realisation that you have made a mistake) will be an excellent starting point for learning and reflection.  Embrace that opportunity, work out how it can help you improve yourself, as a person and a lawyer.  How can you remove the ammunition from your critics on the next occasion?  In short, turn the negativity into something that serves and motivates you.

And, if all else fails, on the days when negativity is anticipated, wear amusing underwear.  On that awful day in the loo, the Real Madrid football club knickers that I’d bought as a joke, and which had presented themselves as the last pair in the drawer on that hectic morning, certainly raised a smile, and the smile allowed me to get through the afternoon which was really all I needed to do for that day. 

To summarise with three practical tips.

1.       Find your own “positivity resource” that you can call upon in the dark days.  It may be underwear.  But, for others, a visual reminders of (literal) happy places or happy times (a photo in a wallet) can help, or create an affirmation you can call upon and repeat to yourself.  “I am good enough”, is one that works for me.

2.       If the person spouting the negative comments is not on your post-it of important people, then their opinion of you is none of your business.

3.       Embrace all negative feedback as an opportunity to become better at what you do.  Take the time to ask yourself these questions after a negative event: What happened? What did I do well? What would I change next time? What could I improve next time? What have I learned from this?  Before long you might find yourself voluntarily asking for feedback from those people whose “criticism” you have previously shrunk from.

(Originally written for Women in the Law UK – www.womeninthelawuk.co.uk)

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