Enhance communication with 'positive psychology'

It's about 'what can go right'

The emerging science of positive psychology offers access managers myriad ways to maximize staff potential, build effective teams, and boost employee morale, says Susanne Gaddis, PhD, a consultant and keynote speaker based in Chapel Hill, NC, who specializes in health care communication.

Positive psychology — founded in 1998 and currently the subject matter of the most popular elective at Harvard University — is about "what can go right with people, as well as what can go wrong," says Gaddis, who spoke at the 2006 North Carolina Association of Healthcare Access Management (NCAHAM) conference in Asheville, NC.

The science of positive psychology is supported by academics worldwide, as well as by many grants and organizations, Gaddis notes, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Science Foundation. The University of Pennsylvania now offers the first master's of applied positive psychology program in the world, she says.

A web site (www.authentichappiness.org) devoted to the subject offers tests based on positive psychology that measure everything from your current emotional state to your happiness quotient, she says.

Access managers could, for example, identify their key strengths, along with those of their employees, with the Values in Action (VIA) Signature Strengths survey that looks at 24 character strengths and virtues that all human beings have, Gaddis says.

"At the end of the test, you receive a printout of your top five strengths," she adds.

Zest and enthusiasm constitute one of her key strengths, Gaddis notes. "I get excited about anything — if you have a pogo stick, if the leaves are changing; when I can be zesty, I'm happiest. So if I have a job where the boss is trying to twist that zest out of me, I feel like I'm being robbed of the best part of me.

"My sister's strength is curiosity," she says. "My whole life I thought my sister was nosy. If you have an employee who is naturally curious, maybe you put that person on a research project."

A friend whose top strength is bravery once wrestled a bear, Gaddis says. "I asked him, 'Why would you wrestle a bear?' He said, 'Because I could.'"

Working with a pharmaceutical development company in Florida, Gaddis used the test to help each person on a sales team identify his or her key strengths.

"It just so happened that the top strength of the sales director is forgiveness and mercy," Gaddis says. "He is also brave, a trait the CEO also has and why they get along."

Soon after the session, she adds, someone on the sales staff made a huge mistake that could have cost the company a couple of million dollars. The sales director was upset, Gaddis says, "but once he said he was upset and why, he was over it."

"Instead of harboring ill will, he was truly over it," she adds. "He just needed to vent and say, 'Never do that again.'

"The sales staff were able to see this strength, dialogue among themselves, and say, 'He probably is over it, and we just need to go on with things, too.'"

Without the knowledge provided by the testing session, Gaddis says, they might wonder if he had really put the incident behind him.

Social intelligence, which is about being aware of the motives and feelings of other people, is a key strength that would serve someone who is in access services well, she notes. "You have to know how to work with different personality types and how to modify your style to fit the needs of those you're serving. It's being aware of what's being said and the feelings behind what's being said."

Socially intelligent people know what to do verbally and nonverbally in situations to keep people calm and invested, Gaddis says.

"I would want a person on the registration desk who — if he or she noticed somebody huffing and puffing and shifting weight — could look up and say, 'I'll be right with you. Thank you for being so patient.'"

Industry and perseverance — finishing what one starts — is another key strength that would be welcomed in an access employee, she points out. "This is someone who would be fighting like a bulldog to get that last piece of information in the right box."

A manager putting together an access team for a particular project might want to choose someone brave and another person with self-control and self-regulation, and so on, Gaddis says. "You might want a zesty person working with a prudent person."

The information the tool provides "lets you reframe what is going on," she adds, and gain perspective on where people are coming from.

Of the many different positive psychology tools available, Gaddis says, she particularly likes one called "Active, Instructive Responding," developed by Shelly L. Gable.

"[Gable] has done research on how people respond when they hear good news," she explains. If, for example, you say to a colleague, "Hey, I got that report done," the responses could vary as follows, depending on the category into which the person falls.

  • Active, constructive response. "I will engage with you, drop what I'm doing, and you will become the most important person in the room. My response might be, 'Oh, my goodness. That is fantastic. I'm so excited for you.'"
  • Passive, constructive response. "I respond, but my response is extremely short and abrupt. I might make a little eye contact and say, 'Oh, great,' but the response doesn't really give you what you need. Your feeling might be that I heard you, and I did respond, but do I really think it's great? This could get awkward if you go back and say, 'Didn't you hear? I got the report in.' And then I say, 'I told you it was great.'"
  • Active, destructive response. "I say, 'It's about time you got that done. How long have you been working on it?' I'm a joy robber. I take the good energy away."
  • Passive, destructive response. "I don't respond directly to what you've said, but say something like, 'So what are we doing tonight?'"

Such response patterns "are habitual behaviors modeled from the people who raised you," Gaddis says, "but they can be broken and relearned. Science shows we are not stuck in behaviors that are not working, and that strengths change over time as we age."

One of her favorite illustrations of positive psychology, she notes, is the account of a New York reporter asking golfer Tiger Woods, "What's the worst part of your game?" Woods replied that, without a doubt, the worst part of his game is hitting the ball out of a sand trap.

The reporter says, "So I bet you spend a lot of time practicing hitting the ball out of a sand trap." And Woods answers, "No, I spend my time making sure the ball doesn't go into a sand trap."

[Editor's note: Susanne Gaddis can be reached at (919) 933-3237 or by e-mail at gaddis@communicationsdoctor.com. Her web site is www.communicationsdoctor.com. More information on the science of positive psychology is available at www.positivepsychology.org.]