5 Ways To Develop Negative Capability

Lalita Raman
Lalita Raman
GCG Coach
“My biggest challenge is to reflect, think and then speak”. 


This was from one of my clients who is an action-oriented person, and enjoys a fast- pace work style, and is able to resolve a crisis well. She was on a journey where she did not take time to celebrate the wins along the way to success. She used to jump on to the next thing, once she had achieved something. She recently was promoted to Regional Head. I was assigned to her as an Executive Coach, helping her with her Transition.

The highlight of her 360 behavioral feedback was that she needed to listen more, reflect before she speaks or jumps into action, use silence as part of her behavior in meetings, and maintain her gravitas and cultivate better Emotional Intelligence. She was technically excellent, and she had built good relationships within the organization. Her challenge ahead of her was to build her credibility as a leader by using reflection, reframing, silence, and empathetic listening.


While coaching her, I introduced her to the concept of “Negative Capability”.


As leaders, we have the skills and have experienced positive capability. This type of capability refers to the competencies demonstrated through practical experience, actions and formal education.

The complementary skill is called ‘Negative Capability’. The reason it is called negative is because it is the ability to “not” do something, instead to be attentive and patient without reacting in the moment. Negative Capability is counterintuitive because typically leaders think about positive capability. And with the term negative, people may think why develop a negative skill. But negative capability is the ability to be engaged in reflective inaction in that moment.

It is the ability to be present with the ambiguity, tolerate the resultant anxiety or fear and to be comfortable in the discomfort of uncertainty. And in containing the pressures evoked by uncertainty we create the mental and emotional space for creative ideas to emerge.

While positive capability supports “decisive action”, negative capability supports “reflective inaction”. It is cultivating the ability to resist dispersing into our default defensive routines, when leading at the limits of one’s knowledge, trust and resources.

For the past 9-10 months, Covid 19 has created different intensities of uncertainty and ambiguity across the globe.

Anxiety, stress and overwhelm factors were very high in my client’s work routine, and she came out of it becoming much more reflective, consciously practicing “think before you speak”, and “reflective inaction”.


How did “Negative Capability” evolve?


Negative capability was a phrase first used by John Keats, in 1817 to characterize the capacity of the greatest writers (particularly Shakespeare) to pursue a vision of artistic beauty even when it leads them into intellectual confusion and uncertainty, as opposed to a preference for philosophical certainty over artistic beauty. Negative Capability “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”

For Wilfred Bion, the twentieth-century British psychoanalyst, negative capability was the ability to tolerate the pain and confusion of not knowing, rather than imposing ready-made or omnipotent certainties upon an ambiguous situation or emotional challenge.

As human beings, our brain likes to predict things and feel the certainty with things. Uncertainty is something which our brain perceives as a threat. So, to tolerate the pain and confusion associated with not knowing or uncertainty is uncomfortable. Yet, it can be done, and Negative Capability can be developed.


How does one build Negative Capability?


* Self-awareness – as much as this may sound cliché, self-awareness is a journey throughout our life. By building self-awareness around our patterns of behavior when we are faced with uncertainty and ambiguity, we can then consciously change those patterns. By asking some of these questions of ourselves, we can raise our self-awareness

             * What are the triggers?

             * When is our anxiety the most ?

             * What causes the anxiety?

             * What is the real fear and what is our imaginary fear?

* Looking back to look forward – By increasing our self-awareness, we could look back on events or experiences in our life when we engaged in negative capability. What were the enablers for you to engage in Negative Capability and not fall into the mode of default defensive action? What were some experiences in your life, on reflection, you think you could have used Negative Capability ? What stopped you from exercising reflective inaction at that time?

* Vulnerability – According to Bréne Brown, being vulnerable means to deal with uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. And who is today’s world does not deal with uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. My client was technically sound and yet did not have answers to many a situation or question. No leader is expected to be in the know all the time. To stay in the moment of not knowing, and to stay with that uncertainty does create a space for us which facilitates creative thinking. We are able to create associations from images that may come up for us or metaphors which allows us to get that creative insight. A leader being vulnerable builds trust.

* Link to the why– by asking yourself, why do you need to engage in “reflective inaction” in that moment allows you to make it more reflective and to evaluate your response thoughtfully. Even the most action-oriented person amongst us can reflect by linking it to why do we need to do what we need to do or not do?

* Asking questions and having conversations– you could ask yourself what else could be true here ? Do I have all the data right now to jump into action ? Use data and facts to arrive at decisions instead of jumping to express your opinion.

What conversations can I have to get to our goal or common mission? Conversations can also be had on your journey as a leader. What are you doing well? What could you do different?

Negative Capability is not about tolerating mediocrity or procrastinating for days together. Nor is it about just trying to forget about the decision to be made and hoping that it would disappear.

Was it an easy process for my client to get to where she has arrived? No, but coaching her and challenging her to stretch beyond her comfort zone, understanding her perspective of why she behaved in the way she does, working on her complementary strength to use less of her default action-oriented strength helped her develop Negative Capability. During the lockdown she also realized how she can use her time to do something more manageable, productive and yet rewarding.

Breaking our patterns of behavior starts with self-awareness, then creating the space to let go of the overthinking or default behaviors. Instead, we need to get comfortable with just “being” and experiencing our emotions as they arise. It is about blending positive capability with negative capability and there is a time and place for each of those. We may not find answers to all our questions about what is in store for us and yet through my own experience of using Negative Capability and seeing my clients either develop or hone this skill, I have seen that we will find greater self-discovery. We can consciously also direct our monkey mind towards more serenity, presence and resilience.


“Between the stimulus and response is a space, in that space lies your choice, in your choice lies your power and freedom”- Viktor Frankl


At GCG, we provide expert coaching for leaders at all levels of leadership in organizations of all shapes and sizes. Through democratizing coaching for all, we help everyone from high potentials on through to CEOs. Click here to learn more about our coaching services for professionals or if you’re interested in our coaching services for your organization, visit this page.


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Lalita Raman

Lalita Raman

GCG Coach

Lalita Raman is an Executive Coach and Facilitator who works with leaders when they step into a new role, are asked to lead a critical project /business unit/organization, address competency gaps, engage a new team, face new challenges, or just proactively invest in their own development.

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