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psych safety PSO NSO 550 px

The next concept that I want to talk about has a lot to do with trust – and it’s complicated. Ideas and possibilities have been running around in my head all week, and I’ve had several interesting discussions. I find that when my brain is a jumble, it’s best to start with awareness – what do I know for sure? This blog is a definition of Positive Sentiment Override (PSO) and Negative Sentiment Override (NSO).

I first read about the concepts in What Makes Love Last? by John Gottman and Nan Silver. NSO is a real problem in relationships. Gottman and Silver state, “people tend to construe neutral and even positive events as negative.” We cannot achieve psychological safety and trust when we are experiencing NSO.

Research shows that people who suffer from NSO do not recognize 50% of their partners’ positive gestures. That’s huge! If I am in a state of NSO towards you, I completely miss 50% of the nice things that you do!

Robert Weiss defined NSO and PSO in 1980. How have I missed these concepts for so long? Here is a definition of the two states from Gottman’s The Science of Trust:

NSO: The negative sentiments we have about the relationship and our partner override anything positive our partner might do. We are hypervigilant for putdowns. We tend not to notice positive events. We also tend to see neutral, or sometimes even positive, things as negative. WE ARE OVERLY SENSITIVE.

PSO: The positive sentiments we have about the relationship and our partner override negative things our partner might do. We see negativity as evidence that our partner is stressed. We may notice negative events, but we don’t take them very seriously. We tend to distort toward positive and see even negative as neutral. WE ARE NOT OVERLY SENSITIVE AND DO NOT TAKE NEGATIVITY PERSONALLY.

The capitalization is mine.

I want to add a couple of more ideas for us to stir into the mix and consider. Psychologist Fritz Heider discovered that we have a tendency to minimize our own errors and to attribute them to current circumstances. We also emphasize the errors of others and attribute them to negative traits and character flaws. The book Leadership and Self-Deception describes this phenomenon well and is worth a read.

Finally, here is short description of the Overconfidence Effect. It says that the more certain you are of something, the more likely it is that you are wrong. The Overconfidence Effect happens most often when we don’t see all the various perspectives of a situation. It comes from a lack of empathy and an inability to see the big picture.

I included descriptions of Heider’s fundamental attribution errors and the Overconfidence Effect because of several discussions that I’ve had about PSO and NSO. In my workshops and in one-to-one conversations, people often tell me that they know they are right about a person or a situation. They are absolutely convinced about the inherent wrongness and negativity of another person.

For now, let’s step back and take a more neutral view of people we feel animosity towards. The best example I found comes from What Makes Love Last?:

Nathaniel’s wife says, “Oh look. The lightbulb blew out again.” If he’s in the throes of NSO, Nathaniel’s inner dialogue will sound something like: Who died and made me the Official Lightbulb Changer? She can fix it herself! By contrast, if hurt and suspicion are not tainting his thoughts, Nathaniel is likely to assume that his wife’s words meant that, well, the lightbulb blew out.

I love that story! Wouldn’t it be great if we could take everyone’s statements at face value and not add our own emotional agendas to them?

I am going to make an effort to take everyone’s statements to mean, well, exactly whatever they said – and not attach my own emotional charge. That perspective sounds wonderful because it saves me emotional pennies and makes my heart lighter.

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