The Power of Double Negatives


There is lots written on the power of positive thinking, and even a fair bit written on the power of negative thinking, but I can’t say I’ve read much touting the power of “double negative thinking“. I know, we all know from Grade 5 math that a double negative actually equals a positive, but I would suggest it is the power of the action of a double negative that gives it a unique power that simple positive thinking lacks.

The power of positive thinking is intuitive – if I think positive thoughts and frame things in a positive light it is easier to deal with. Challenges become opportunities, setbacks become detours, and failures become learnings. This method of thinking is very important and has its place in our day-to-day life, but many people find an overuse of positive thinking to come off as delusional optimism (which it sometimes is).

The power of negative thinking is less intuitive, but it involves the use of negative words to set commitment to a positive outcome. Sayings like “failure is not an option” is a great example of this type of thinking. Bob Knight (former NCAA coach) has a new book out called “The Power of Negative Thinking: An Unconventional Approach to Achieving Positive Results” that outlines his own use of this thinking in his very successful career. The problem with negative thinking is that some people use it as an excuse to simply be negative – their negativity is not directed toward a positive outcome, it is simply negative for the sake of souring the conversation.

The power of “double negative thinking” is its ability to counteract those negative voices and turn the conversation back to a positive tone. When you encounter a negative person, try doubling their negative to see how the conversation changes tone.

Negative Nancy: We’ve tried that before, it won’t work.
Double Negative Ned: We’ve tried that before, but that doesn’t mean it won’t not work.

Negative Norman: The deadline is too tight, we are going to fail.
Double Negative Noreen: The deadline is tight, but we are not going to fail.

Simply putting a positive spin doesn’t shake the conversation or create commitment to action (I’m sure it will work or We will succeed) and it can come off as sounding myopic. The power of a second negative is the act of turning the conversation back to a positive outcome while recognizing the reality of the challenge (or opportunity).

While it might be true that +2 x +2 = 4 and -2 x -2 = 4, there is a fundamental difference in the act of turning the number positive rather than starting out positive. If you’re handed a -2 then your +2 isn’t going to do you much good in getting back to positive action.

Try it next time you encounter Negative Nancy or Negative Norman – you may be amazed at the power that “double negative thinking” can have in your conversations.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

Posted in Blog and tagged , , , .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *