Explanatory Style – How to More Quickly Recover From Setbacks

Explanatory Style – How to More Quickly Recover From Setbacks

We all suffer setbacks at work (and in life) from time to time. Have you ever noticed how some people seem to bounce back quickly while others fall into a tailspin and take much longer to recover? Understanding how you react to setbacks will enable you to put yourself in the group that recovers quickly and more readily moves on to the next challenge.

It turns out that how events affect us has to do with how we explain the cause of those events to ourselves. The term psychologists use for this is explanatory style. Those with a positive explanatory style will tend to be less impacted by setbacks while those having a negative explanatory style will tend to struggle.

One of the pioneers in the areas of positive psychology and explanatory style is Martin E. P. Seligman Ph.D. Dr. Seligman explains explanatory style and much more in his excellent book; Learned Optimism.

There are three elements to explanatory style: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence. The way in which we view these three elements relative to events determines our explanatory style.

  1. Personalization involves blaming oneself for a particular setback or failure (this is different from accepting responsibility for your contribution to the event). If a sales person doesn’t make a particular sale do they explain it as “I failed because I did something wrong” or do they think “there was no sale because the customer wasn’t ready to buy at that time”? Blaming oneself indicates personalization of the failure and tends towards a negative explanatory style. Considering other possible reasons for no sale indicates a positive explanatory style.
  2. Pervasiveness is a tendency to spread the failure to other areas. Someone with a negative explanatory style might believe that “I failed as a salesperson because everything I try ends in failure”. A person tending towards a positive explanatory style might think; “I don’t seem to be a good salesperson but there are many other things that I know I can do well and at which I can be successful”.
  3. Permanence is the tendency to view a temporary failure or setback as permanent. “I’ll never be a good salesperson” or “I can never lose weight” are examples of the tendency to permanence. Viewing failures as permanent are an indication of a negative explanatory style. Someone with a more positive style might think; “I’m not very good at this now but I can learn and practice and with hard work over time I’ll become a much better salesperson”.

Hopefully you found this brief introduction to one aspect of positive psychology useful and interesting. If so, please take a look at Learned Optimism. The book is fascinating and filled with valuable information that you can easily apply in your life.

In the mean time please feel free to share your thoughts on the subject with us and consider the following:

  • Where are you in terms of explanatory style; do you tend towards the positive end or towards the negative end of the scale?
  • How can I apply these ideas to develop a more positive explanatory style?


©2016 Joseph T Drammissi

2016-10-01T19:36:16+00:00 September 23rd, 2016|Categories: Enlightened PM, Inspirational, Self Help|Tags: , , |2 Comments


  1. Karen D September 23, 2016 at 4:09 pm - Reply

    Thanks Joe, positive words to start my day!

    • admin September 23, 2016 at 4:29 pm - Reply

      You’re very welcome!

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