Paradox: "Negative Capability" is a Very Good Thing
Updated: Jul 9, 2019
Marisa Guerin, PhD - April 3, 2018
With some regularity over the years, I've found myself patiently listening to a friend or family member who is very upset about something -- "talking them down off the walls" or just helping them sort out what to do next. To do that effectively, I have to stay calm and composed, think clearly about what I'm hearing, express understanding, ask questions, offer reassurance or support. It's easier to do if they are upset about someone or something else, but it's possible to do even if I'm the one they are angry with, as long as I'm not also riled up or distressed.
As it turns out, I have a fairly even-keel personality, probably passed down to me from my father's German heritage. His calm, measured temperament was legendary, and a total contrast with the passionate excitability of my Spanish mother. They were an excellent example of opposites attracting! (In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that my husband Mike -- and probably my siblings -- get to see the Spaniard in me when I do lose my cool. Nothing calm and Germanic about me then.)
But whether I was born with my Dad's capacity for emotional detachment, or with my Mom's vivacious intensity of response, in either case I would want to cultivate self-control and self-knowledge as skills in my mature self. Why? Because this form of self-possession leads to a very helpful leadership competency, especially in times of stress and change. In the leadership literature, it is called "Negative Capability."
Negative Capability, a term first coined by the poet Keats and applied by psychoanalyst W. Bion, is the capacity to NOT react, to tolerate ambiguity, to bear anxiety without immediately dispersing the tension into compulsive acting, emoting, or intellectualizing. My late friend and esteemed colleague Robert French wrote several significant papers on this concept (*reference below). It is a simple but powerful idea that is relevant to parents, teachers, pastors, rabbis, therapists, consultants, executives, and others with similar roles of responsibility for others.
"Negative Capability indicates the capacity to live with ambiguity and paradox, to hold or contain – not just react to – the pressure to act from one’s own ego impulses or act out, to identify with the moods and modes of suffering of the other..." *
In the life of leaders, negative capability is a skill that is complementary to the many positive capabilities they have. Positive skills are things you know how to do, like the ability to plan, to give a speech, to analyze something, to write, to solve problems, etc. The reason the complementary skill is called "negative" is because it is first and foremost the ability to NOT do something, to be attentive and patient, without reacting. It is an ability to be present to what is painfully real, without succumbing to fear, blame or denial.
How does this help? There are at least two important benefits, one for yourself, one for others. First, a patient, attentive stance makes it more likely that you can accurately observe what is happening in complex and stressful circumstances. Being able to notice the emotions that are activated in you and in others helps you to understand the situation more fully. Secondly, when leaders project a calm and reassuring stance in times of stress or tension, this enables others around them to be less anxious, and encourages dialogue, problem-solving, and thinking. This is no small contribution -- the ability to think straight is the first thing out the window when anxiety strikes.
It's not possible to access this capacity in every stressful circumstance because, of course, sometimes the emotional wave does overwhelm us and we do act from defensive impulse or aggrieved ego. But the more we cultivate the readiness to be present to the realities of our emotional lives - through journal writing, meditation, walks or runs, poetry or prayer -- the more likely we may be graced with negative capability when we need it.
At first hearing, "negative" capability sounds like something bad. The paradox of this phrase is how good a gift it is -- to be present to oneself, to others and to the challenging realities of life in a calm and containing way. Truthfully, it doesn't matter if you use the technical jargon or not. You can call it composure, poise under pressure, self-possession, trust, inner freedom or courage. Whatever the name, the effect is to make it more possible to access the fullness of your heart, mind, and creativity when you and others may need it most. We all have our wall-climbing moments!
* ‘Negative Capability’, ‘Dispersal’ and the Containment of Emotion
Presented in London, UK, at the 17th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations, June 15, 2000, by Robert French.