Talking to Optimists and Pessimists

If you wonder whether to speak to people who see the glass half full or those who see it half empty, just remember almost everybody wishes the glass was full.

If you wonder whether to speak to people who see the glass half full or those who see it half empty, just remember almost everybody wishes the glass was full.

Should you focus on what's wrong or what's right? Are you pessimistic or optimistic? Do you project gloom or hope? Which is likely to attract wider support?

Sadly, there is no easy answer. But there are clues.

You could argue Ronald Reagan ("city on the hill") defeated Jimmy Carter ("crisis of confidence") in the 1980 presidential election because optimism triumphed over pessimism.

Then again, few dispute H.L. Mencken's sardonic observation, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the American public."

Pessimism and optimism may be polar opposites, but inseparable. They may be the devil and the angel that perch on our shoulders and whisper constantly in our ears.

Winston Churchill said, "The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." Harry Truman put it similarly, but differently, "A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties."

With exceptions, most of us qualify as part-time pessimists and part-time optimists. We are influenced by what's going on in our personal lives and what's happening around us. If you had a wonderful family, a good job and a beautiful community, but lived in the shadow of a nuclear conflict, you would have cause for both optimism and pessimism.

The duality and ineluctability of optimism and pessimism forms a significant challenge for communicators. Do you appeal to the dark side or light side of an issue? Do you play on people's fears or try to lift their hopes? Do you describe what's wrong or point to how to make it right?

Helen Keller may have the best advice of how to approach such questions. "No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit." Optimism, in the face of all reason, is part of the American personality.

The best way to combat fear is to shine light on hope.

Americans may seem like reluctant optimists, when their confidence sags as consumers or their faith in government wanes or their anxiety over foreign conflicts surges. But without question, Americans gravitate to voices of optimism and people with ideas.

That's why crisis responders need to accept responsibility, but acknowledge the need to move forward. That's why issue managers must recognize valid concerns, but repeat a project's or proposal's benefits.

For a while, cynicism may seem to be winning. But it is hard to sustain the downbeat. The optimist in all of us grows weary at constant doomsday talk. That's why an upbeat argument can win attention – and maybe win the day, too.

One thing that unites people who see the glass half empty and those who see the glass half full is they both want to see the glass full.

"An optimist is a person who sees a green light everywhere, while a pessimist sees only the red stoplight. The truly wise person is colorblind."  – Albert Schweitzer.

Relevant link: We Need Optimists, New York Times