Addition by Subtraction

March 6, 2024

By Dave Bushy, PCC

As a coach, much of my initial work with clients is digging deep into the details about their professional experience and developmental desires. 

I spend time learning about who they are – essentially “what is” about them.

And sometimes I hear from them about what they don’t feel they have achieved or areas where they may have tried something that didn’t work – basically “What isn’t.” 

The first approach I call “Via Positiva,” the other “Via Negativa.” Despite any biases we might have, neither has a down side or an up-side.  They are merely two sides of the same coin. 

So often in life we depend on one of these two viewpoints. And our culture seems to focus on and celebrate positivity as more optimistic. We hear positive and think something is better.  Negative – not so much. Perhaps that’s because something that is negative is viewed as distinctly pessimistic. 

Yet building awareness around our own ideas of pessimism is essential so we can be clear on what might be holding us back from expanding our range and capabilities.

When working with a client, I might actually be more inclined to use “Via Negativa” or “What isn’t” to help them hone in on what it is that they are experiencing. We do this by what some call “Addition by Subtraction.”

Using a “What isn’t” approach has historically served people in solving problems, or in defining what might be unfathomable or not known.  Or it can help in our daily interactions with others as we employ critical thinking skills to help us better solve problems.

For example, trying to determine what you don’t know is useful. Theologians employ it to determine the unexplainable in the universe – for instance, defining God by what God is not.  By starting off with what they know something is not, they seek to get closer in defining what they do know and believe.

The same idea holds in medicine, with physicians who often depend upon examination, diagnostic tests and experience to rule out what an illness isn’t to further refine a diagnosis of what it actually might be. 

Businesses are no different. Did you ever have a discussion with a colleague and disagree on an issue or problem your organization faces?   Think about whether the person agreed with all of your points and accepted them as a given.  You might have felt affirmed and validated, but sadly you weren’t challenged to think of another approach.  You weren’t presented the “negative” that forced you to rethink about your assumptions and to eliminate some of your ideas and move towards others.  You weren’t presented with the other side of the coin.

Thomas Waschenfelder provides this viewpoint:

“Most people immediately look at what they can create or add to something to make it better. Very few people consider what they could remove.”

Nassim Taleb in “Antifragile,” adds:

So knowledge grows by subtraction much more than by addition – given that what we know today might turn out to be wrong but what we know to be wrong cannot turn out to be right, at least not easily.”

In coaching, once “addition by subtraction” has been employed, it can become clearer to clients what it is that they want to concentrate on developmentally. By reframing our thinking and using the powerful tool of viewing “what isn’t” to help define “what is”, we trigger more awareness in personal development, problem-solving and innovative thinking. A coach can help you stay interested in Via Negativa. Give me a call and we can give it a try!

Dave Bushy of Boston Executive Coaches – – is a an ICF-certified coach who was trained at the Gestalt International Study Center (GISC).  Dave is a former U.S. Army officer and senior airline executive who works with leaders throughout the world.

Image by Dreamer21 from Pixabay

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