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Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D.

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When Optimists End Up with Pessimists

Posted: 05/16/11 07:00 AM ET

It can be very frustrating when two people who love each other find that they don't speak the same motivational language. I have met many, many committed couples who are fortunate enough to share common goals, but don't necessarily see those goals in the same way.

It's particularly common for one person in the relationship to have what psychologists call a promotion focus, meaning that they tend to see their world and their goals in terms of what they can gain, while the other person has more of a prevention focus, seeing their world and goals in terms of what they stand to lose. In other words, one half of the couple sees success as being about achievement, aspirations, reaching for the stars and being your best, while the other defines success as fulfilling your obligations, avoiding danger and mistakes and being the kind of person others can really count on.

In my new book "Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals," I spend a lot of time focusing on this difference because it affects so much about how we think and feel and what motivates us. Promotion-minded people are usually optimists; thinking about what can be gained in any situation helps them to more comfortably embrace risk, and they are motivated by confidence and praise. They work quickly and creatively, and they take chances. They make lots of mistakes (relative to the prevention-minded, that is) but rarely miss an opportunity to win big.

Prevention-minded people are more realistic, even pessimistic; thinking about what they might lose in any situation makes them want to avoid risk like the plague, always choosing the bird in the hand over two in the bush. They are, in fact, more motivated and energized by criticism than by praise (which they often don't trust). There's nothing like the possibility of failure to get their motivational juices flowing. They work deliberately, carefully and accurately. They plan ahead and rarely procrastinate. They may not seize every opportunity, but they are far better at avoiding disaster.

Couples often waste a lot of energy and create a lot of unnecessary animosity in their relationship arguing over which person is seeing things the "right" way. (Early in our marriage, my husband and I were constantly butting heads when it came to our toddlers' budding ability to walk. He wanted to give them opportunities to climb and explore, while I wanted to wrap them in bubble wrap from head to toe and make them wear helmets on the staircase. You can easily guess which one of us is promotion-minded and which one is all about prevention.)

Once you realize that you and your partner simply approach your goals differently, the good news is that you can stop fighting over who is right. You can more easily see what is valuable about your partner's viewpoint, appreciate what they are bringing to the table, and start speaking to each other in one another's motivational language. The very best partnerships strike a balance between promotion and prevention, since both are necessary for living a healthy, satisfying life. Between the two of you, you'll make sure that you have adventures and new experiences while also making sure that everyone has clean underwear and the bills get paid.

 
 
 

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