Tolerate silence

In working with people emotions are never very far away. Being able to tune in to other people’s emotions, to be aware of our own and get the balance of head and heart right is often referred to as ‘emotional intelligence’. A key part of this is being able to tolerate silences. When someone is distressed or otherwise in the grip of strong emotions, they may fall silent, and that silence can feel very uncomfortable for us. We can be very tempted to jump in and ask a question or just fill the gap in some way. Understandable though this may be, it can be quite problematic because we are, in effect, giving the person concerned the message that dealing with our own discomfort is more important than giving them the emotional space they need. If we are able to resist the temptation of filling the silence we give the much more positive and supportive message that we are there for them, that they are not facing their difficulties unsupported. And what an important message that can be.

Who is being awkward?

It is not uncommon for us to find ourselves in situations where we are wondering: ‘Why is so and so being so awkward?’. In such circumstances we tend to focus on their behaviour or attitude, but this can be misleading. That is because the chances are that, while we are thinking they are being awkward, they are probably thinking we are being awkward. So, what can often happen is that a situation that is rooted in a conflict between two parties is not recognized as such by either of them, each putting the difficulties down to the other’s ‘awkward’ behaviour. While some people are often uncooperative for their own reasons, in the majority of cases believing that someone is being awkward should alert us to a conflict situation which should be addressed as such – that is, we need to look at the situation in terms of the interactions between us (and any conflicts of interest, perspective, goals or values that might be underpinning them) and not simply in terms of the other person’s behaviour.

 

Choose your friends wisely

A common theme in the psychology literature is the distinction between introverts and extroverts. The former tend to prefer their own company and see social interaction as a necessary evil, rather than something to be enjoyed. The latter, by contrast, are likely to seek out and cherish social contact and may not feel comfortable when alone. These ideas have been very influential, despite the fact that they (the popularised versions at least): (i) take no account of the social circumstances (the role of culture, for example) that can be so influential in shaping behaviour and social interactions; and (ii) also tend to polarize people (that is, put them at one extreme or the other, without recognizing that people can be located along a continuum from one extreme to the other (and will move along that line in different circumstances or at different times).

What they represent is a tension around social distance. That is, certain people at certain times will feel that they are too closely connected to others and will want more personal space (traditionally, the introvert stance). Other people at other times will crave less social distance – that is, they will want as much social contact as possible (traditionally, the extrovert stance). Imagine somebody being upset for some reason (they have been offended perhaps). Some people will want to be alone and will find other people’s presence uncomfortable, while others would seek out other people’s presence, as that would help them start to regain their emotional balance.

There is no right or wrong about these things; it is about what works when and for whom. So, what does this mean about choosing friends? Basically, it means that, in making friends with people, we are taking risks. The more friends you have, the more support you potentially have available and the more opportunities for social interaction. But, it also means that the more opportunities there are for people to let you down, a higher chance of conflict arising and the greater the potential for your personal space to be intruded upon.

Much will depend on how important each of these different factors are to you. People with extrovert tendencies may operate on the basis of the more friends the better, and thereby increase the chances of the negative possibilities creeping in. People with introvert tendencies, by contrast, are likely to be more selective in who they accept, or seek out, as friends, and could therefore lose out in terms of missing opportunities for potentially fruitful friendships. This is yet another example of the importance of balance.

Much will also depend on where along that continuum your friends tend to hang out. For example, an extrovert person may find having extrovert friends a blessing and may find introverted friends hard work. Likewise, an introvert person may struggle with too many extrovert friends because they may take up too much of his or her personal space, but may feel very comfortable with fellow introverts.

Thinking in these terms won’t give you a formula for choosing your friends wisely, but it should give you some helpful food for thought.

The existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, famously said that hell is other people, meaning that other people can so easily get in our way, frustrate us or generally cause us problems. He had a point, of course, but what he didn’t say is that heaven is, or can be, other people too. That is why friends are so important and valuable to us, and that is also why it is so important to choose our friends wisely. We don’t have complete control over who does or does not become our friend, but don’t make the mistake of thinking we don’t have any.

Find the small things that make a big difference

If you cast your mind back to science lessons at school, you will probably remember learning about leverage. That is, you will have learned that a pivot or fulcrum can enable us greater lifting power – it gives us leverage. This can also apply in a more indirect, metaphorical sense. This is what I mean by the small things that can make a big difference.

Smiling is a simple, but important example. Trite though it may seem, interacting with people with a smile on our face can make a huge difference to how we are perceived and how people respond to us (although it has to be a genuine smile and not a forced one). Another case in point would be using someone’s name when talking to them. This can make a very positive difference when it comes to forming a rapport and winning trust, although it has to be done sensitively – unlike the salesman who once added my name to every sentence. I was tempted to ask him which training course he had been on that had advised him to use people’s name to try and ‘seal the deal’. Of course, it did the precise opposite; it wrecked any possible deal.

But, it isn’t just in direct personal interactions that we can use this leverage. I was lucky enough to find early in my career that following something up in writing could make a huge difference. For example, if I was trying to encourage someone to undertake a particular task or move in a particular direction, I found that reinforcing my message in writing significantly increased the chances of success. It was as if the authority of the printed word added extra emphasis to the message I had been giving verbally.

In my education and training work, what I have also discovered is that helping people adopt self-directed learning can make a huge difference to their development. Most people allow others (teachers, trainers, tutors, managers) to be in control of their learning. Taking hold of your own learning, putting yourself in the driving seat is a small move, but with huge potential consequences, as self-directed learning, tailored to your own specific needs, is by far the most effective form of learning.

There is no standard, set list of the small things that can make a big difference. These will vary from setting to setting, situation to situation, person to person. Consequently, if you are to get the benefits of this, you will need to think the issues through for yourself. Of course, the examples I have given should point you in the right direction and give you a foundation to build on.

This will involve thinking about the sorts of situation you tend to find yourself in (whether in your working life or private life). What are the things that cause you most difficulty or take up most resources to deal with? These are the situations where making a positive change could make a big difference and produce very positive results. Are there any changes you could make (any pivots you could take advantage of) that would be small in themselves, but big in terms of the difference they make. Do give it a try as it is surprising how often small changes can make a big difference – as my advisory and consultancy work has shown me time and time again.

You don’t have to be alone in doing this. Discuss it with friends and/or colleagues, see what they think, see how you can help each other (they may come up with things you may never have thought of, and vice versa).

Don’t hide

There will often be times when it is wise to take a backseat, to keep your head down and not get involved. Some situations are best avoided, as the hassle of getting involved far outweighs any potential benefits. But, there will also be times where we are tempted to bow out, to slip quietly away and leave it to other people to sort things out when perhaps that is not the wisest strategy.

For example, there will be times when someone is being treated unfairly or in a way that undermines their dignity (bullying clearly comes into this category). We may be tempted to stand back and pretend we haven’t noticed. However, much of such bullying (and other forms of unacceptable behaviour) flourishes precisely because people do not challenge it.

I am not suggesting that you ‘cause a scene’ or put yourself at risk, but often all that is necessary is for it to be made known, subtly and gently, that you are aware of what is going on. That will often be enough to stop the behaviour from continuing. Knowing that they have at least some degree of support can also encourage the person on the receiving end to feel more confident in doing something about it – or at least not feel so isolated or vulnerable. By contrast, if we, in effect, hide we are giving the perpetrator a subtle message that what they are doing is acceptable.

Another example would be a training course I once attended. There was only one female participant and the male trainer was being consistently patronising towards her. The response from her and the other male participants was nervous laughter, which just seemed to encourage him even more. I decided that I could not let this pass, but was conscious that it could be uncomfortable for everyone (including the woman concerned) and thereby block learning if I openly made an issue of it. So, instead, every time he did it, I pointedly made eye contact, frowned and shook my head. This soon had the desired effect. I reinforced my point on the evaluation form at the end of the course. I subsequently received an email from the company who had commissioned him to say that they would not be using his services again. Let’s hope he learned the lesson from that.

But, it isn’t just bullying or discrimination that we should not hide from. I was once siting in a hotel lobby and I noticed an elderly woman try to use the revolving door. The door was moving slowly and so she pushed on it to try and make it go faster. The result was that the built-in safety feature made it stop. This made her push even more, thereby making sure that the door stayed firmly still. She was now trapped, unable to proceed and unable to go back out. I could see that she was getting distressed. I could also see a man sitting nearby who had witnessed what was going on but chose to ‘hide’, to bury his nose in his newspaper, leaving the woman at the mercy of modern technology designed to protect her. I got up to go across and tell her that she just needed to stop leaning on the door and it would start to move again, but another woman, closer to her, beat me to it, and the ordeal was quickly over. A distressed, but now relieved, person was able to escape. The ‘rescuer’, I noticed, glared at the man with his newspaper who had decided that alleviating the woman’s distress was less important than not getting involved.

As is so often the case, it is a matter of balance, neither putting ourselves at risk, nor failing to be decent citizens by hiding.

Negotiate expectations

When two or more people come into contact with one another there is already a set of expectations, social rules about how to relate to other people. These are part of culture. In addition, there are sets of expectations that apply to specific situations – consider, for example, the rules that govern buying something in a shop, ordering a drink in a café or a bar, and so on. Breaking these rules (jumping the queue, for example) can cause a lot of bad feeling and displeasure.

But there is more to it than this. When you form a relationship of any kind with someone, a set of expectations specific to that relationship will quickly develop. Having these expectations is generally a positive thing; it enables our interactions to run smoothly, with a minimum of tension. However, such expectations are not always positive. For example, in an abusive relationship, the expectations or unwritten rules will generally suit the abuser, but at the expense of the person being abused.

But, even in non-abusive situations, there can be expectations that are problematic for at least one person. Consider, for example, how many arguments between partners begin with: ‘Why is it always me who is expected to …?’ and it Is not just in our private lives that these things can happen. The workplace is full of sets of expectations too, mainly positive, but sometimes negative and unhelpful.

Bullying situations would be one example of this. The bully’s expectation is that they can treat you badly and, if you complain, they are likely to twist the situation to make it look as though the problem is you being unreasonable. But, again, it is not just in these extreme situations that expectations can be problematic.

However, it is essential that we realise that such expectations are not necessarily written in tablets of stone. Expectations can generally be renegotiated. For example, consider comments like:

  • ‘I’ve noticed that it is generally me who does x, maybe we should think about sharing out that task in future. That would give me more time to get y and z sorted.’
  • ‘I’ve been thinking. We seem to have got into the habit of x. Perhaps it would make more sense if we looked again at how we deal with these things.’
  • ‘Have you noticed that you are the one who tends to do y? I’m quite happy for you to do it most of the time, but do you think there is any chance I could do it sometimes?’

Note that these statements are not hostile. They are not attacking or criticising the other person. They are genuine attempts to renegotiate expectations. The idea behind this strategy is that, if you are reasonable, supportive and cooperative in how you tackle the issues, you are putting gentle pressure on the other person to be reasonable, supportive and cooperative in return. There are no guarantees, of course, but this approach is used very effectively on a day-to-day basis by large numbers of people.

So, the first step is to identify what the expectations are that are causing you problems or holding you back in some way. The next step is to think carefully about how those expectations could be renegotiated to improve the situation. Where possible, try to think of ‘win-win’ outcomes – that is, changes that benefit the other person as well as you, thereby making it more likely that they will agree to what you are suggesting.

But, perhaps the most important point to note is that you don’t have to be a slave to other people’s expectations. You don’t have to agree to lose out.

Don’t rush!

‘Less haste, more speed’ is a well-known and oft-quoted proverb, but how often do we forget the wisdom on which it is based? Modern life tends to be very busy and can be highly pressurised. A common reaction to this is for people to speed up, to try to do things in a rush. However, this is a big, big mistake. Rushing is at the root of many of the problems people experience in life.

This is for a variety of reasons. First, rushing means that we are much more likely to make mistakes – and, at times, those mistakes can have major consequences. Consider, for example, when you have made a mistake or you have been on the receiving end of someone else’s mistake. How often did the mistake arise because the person concerned was rushing, not paying sufficient attention to what they were doing?

Second, one of the key factors in stress is control. People can generally cope with a high level of pressure, provided that they have sufficient control over the demands being made on them, while even a relatively modest amount of pressure can produce a stress reaction if control is lacking. Rushing takes away our sense of control; when we are rushing, we tend to feel that we are losing our grip, that control is slipping away from us. Rushing can therefore be very counterproductive when trying to avoid stress. It can contribute to a vicious circle. The more pressure we are under, the more we rush; the more we rush, the less of a sense of control we have; the less of a sense of control we have, the more stressed we are; and on it goes.

Third, we have to consider what message rushing is giving other people. For example, a sales assistant in a retail context who is rushing in serving a customer is likely to be giving (unwittingly) a message to the effect that they do not have time for the customer, and therefore that the customer is not important (or even that the customer is not welcome). So, next time you are rushing, think carefully about what message you are likely to be giving to other people involved in the situation.

Rushing, despite being highly counterproductive for the reasons outlined here, can easily become the ‘default’ setting for some people. They become so used to rushing that this becomes their normal response to the demands they face. For some people, rushing gives them a sense that what they are doing is important, so important that they can’t hang around and just have to ‘get on with it’. So, they get self-esteem from it. This is highly dangerous, of course, because it means they are unlikely to be thinking carefully about what they do, are doing minimal planning, are not anticipating potential pitfalls and are therefore missing opportunities to be creative and are highly unlikely to be learning or developing.

Avoiding rushing does not, of course, mean going to the other extreme of dawdling or wasting time. It is, rather, a matter of balancing the pace at which we work with the attention the tasks concerned need for us to do them properly.

So, the temptation to rush is one that we very much need to resist. The more pressure we are under, the more we need to be thinking carefully about what we do, about how best to manage those pressures, how best to draw on the support available to us, and so on. Simply trying to get things done at an unnatural pace creates far more problems than it solves. By avoiding rushing, we can become more skilled in managing pressures and more confident in doing so.

Confront issues without being confrontational

‘I didn’t like to say’ is a comment commonly heard when it emerges that somebody has faced a difficult situation, but preferred not to address it. For example, imagine Person A is stereotyping Person B, but Person B feels uncomfortable about challenging this and therefore chooses to say nothing and accept the negative consequences of being stereotyped. The idea of assertiveness is that an assertive person is someone who tries to achieve win-win outcomes – that is, tries to make sure that each party benefits from the interaction. However, the ‘I didn’t like to say’ approach is actually likely, in many cases at least, to lead to a lose-lose outcome.

Consider this possibility. Person A treats Person B in a stereotypical way (making overgeneralised assumptions on the basis of gender, for example). Person B chooses not to challenge this, preferring the more comfortable option of just letting it go. Person B therefore loses out. Person A remains oblivious to the harm their stereotypical thinking has done – unless, that is, Person C comes along at some point and makes reference to the stereotyping that has been going on. Person A may then feel very contrite and regretful about the unintended harm done, and also therefore lose out. Hence the idea of lose-lose outcomes. Consequently, adopting the ‘I didn’t like to say’ option can mean everyone involved loses out, clearly not a good result.

This is where the idea of confronting issues without being confrontational comes in. ‘I don’t like confrontation’ is another comment often heard, and quite understandably. But, we need to be quite specific about what is meant here. Usually, it is being confrontational (as opposed to the act of confronting) that is what people don’t like – that is, situations where people adopt an aggressive approach. They are aiming for a win-lose outcome (I win, you lose). But, with the rights skills and attitudes, it is perfectly possible to confront issues without being confrontational. For example, if I were to say to someone who is blocking my way: ‘Excuse me please, can I get past? Thank you’, I am confronting the fact that this person is blocking my way, but I am not doing it in a confrontational way; I am not creating any problems or ill-feeling for them. And this is the key: How can I avoid having problems and ill-feeling without creating problems and ill-feeling for the other person (back to win-win outcomes again)?

I mentioned the right skills and attitudes. A key skill is what is known as ‘elegant challenging’. This refers to being able to address issues in a positive and cooperative way, raising important issues sensitively and tactfully in order to minimise the risk of conflict escalating, while maximising the chances of making a positive difference. And, when it comes to attitudes, the key attitude can be characterised as: ‘I will respect you and treat you with dignity, but I will not allow you to treat me without such respect and dignity. I want this to work for both of us’.

So, whenever you are tempted to adopt an ‘I didn’t like to say’ approach, perhaps you should consider whether you like the consequences of letting things pass and risking a lose-lose outcome any better. But, of course, we don’t have to choose between two uncomfortable options. Being prepared to confront issues (that is, address them) without being confrontational can give us a very helpful way forward that is of benefit to all concerned. Adopting that aiming for win-win outcomes and being prepared to develop the skills involved are therefore steps well worth taking.

Beware of cynicism

The word ‘cynic’ comes from the Greek word for dog, so to be cynical literally means to be dog like, in the sense of not caring, of being happy to let the world pass you by. It involves not making an emotional investment, of being detached and disengaged.

For many people cynicism is an emotional coping mechanism – if you don’t put your heart into something, you are much less likely to get hurt by it. And, without that emotional engagement, the result is likely to be negativity and defeatism. You can’t succeed at something if you don’t engage with it. But, equally, you can’t fail, which is a big part of the appeal of cynicism as a coping method – it is a protective mechanism.

Of course, you are highly unlikely to convince a cynic of this, as they will just dismiss the idea, not engage with it and, that way, be safe from it (or at least feel safe from it). Cynicism can be as a result of burnout, of emotional exhaustion – for example, as a result of work overload or being exposed to very stressful circumstances. But, we should not make the mistake of equating cynicism with burnout – many people have cynical tendencies without being even the slightest bit burnt out.

It can be helpful to think of cynicism as one extreme of a continuum, with a naïve idealism at the other extreme. In between the two is the healthy balance of scepticism. A sceptic is someone who questions, who does not take things at face value (which is what a naïve idealist would do), but who does not dismiss things as a matter of course (which, of course, is what a cynic is likely to do). A person adopting a sceptical approach avoids these two unhealthy extremes. By avoiding naïve idealism we are less open to being exploited by ruthless people who will seek to take advantage of any such naivety. And, by avoiding cynicism we avoid wallowing in negativity and the tendency to give up without trying.

Cynicism can be contagious, in the sense that just one cynical person can poison the atmosphere with negativity across a whole group of people. For example, I have come across many situations in which one person’s temporary absence can immediately contribute to a higher level of motivation and morale, while their presence normally undermines such things. We therefore have to be wary of not only any tendency towards cynicism we may have ourselves, but also the danger of being adversely affected by someone else’s cynicism.

In a sense, cynicism is a form of (negative) leadership. If we bear in mind that a key part of leadership is the ability to shape the culture in which they are operating, it is often the case that a cynic is dragging the culture down, contributing to negativity, defeatism and an unduly pessimistic outlook. Consequently, what is often required as a counterbalance to cynicism is positive leadership, the ability (and willingness) of one or more people to take the ethos or ‘mood’ in a more positive direction. This will free people up to be more motivated, more creative, more productive, more open to learning and, in all likelihood, happier.

There is no simple ‘cure’ or easy answer when it comes to cynicism, but there are things that can be done to guard against it, not least keeping the healthy balance of scepticism in mind. If in doubt, we can ask: is this a positive, constructive questioning stance that is being adopted, or does it cross the line into negative and dismissive cynicism?

Don’t confuse experience with learning

It is commonly assumed that the more experience a person has, the more learning they will have done, and thus the more they will have to offer, but it’s important to realise that this is a very unsafe assumption to make. We don’t have to go far generally to come across someone who has a lot of experience, but has learned relatively little from it. There can be people with three years’ experience in a particular field who have done an excellent job of drawing out the lessons from that learning, of really making that experience count in terms of improving their practice and developing their confidence. But, there can also be people with thirty years’ experience who have done very little learning during that time. The technical term for this is ‘plateauing’ – that is, climbing to begin with, but then levelling off and not getting any higher (in terms of knowledge, skills and effectiveness).

‘Experience is the best teacher’ is a saying that we used to hear a lot at one time, despite the fact that it isn’t true. It is what we do with experience that is the best teacher. Just having an experience will teach us nothing, of course. We have to draw out the learning from that experience for it to really make a difference to us. We should not confuse experience (which provides the raw materials for learning) with actual learning, just as the ingredients of a cake are not the cake – it’s what you do with the ingredients that produces the cake. This is why learning support processes like supervision, mentoring and coaching can be so invaluable, because they can play a very helpful role in ‘processing’ experience, making sense of it in ways that enable us to learn and develop.

What is also important about this is that it helps us to understand the importance of an active approach towards learning. To get the most out of the learning opportunities life presents to us (whether in our working lives or our private lives), we need to play an active role, we need to make things happen. Unfortunately, the way our education system works, the opposite is often what is encouraged – a passive approach where other people take charge of our learning (teachers, trainers, tutors and so on) and we tend to go along with what they decide, what they organise, what they prioritise and so on. But, we are increasingly recognising that the people who are most successful in converting their experience into learning are the ones who adopt an active approach to their own learning needs (‘self-directed learning’, to use the technical term).

Sadly, having lots of experience, but not having learned much from it can actually be counterproductive – that is, we are not only missing out on learning, but the boredom and lack of stimulation in experiences that are not producing learning can numb our senses, reduce motivation and job satisfaction, discourage creativity and contribute to burnout. Consequently, a lot of workplace problems (and, indeed, potentially in our personal lives) can boil down to experience without learning, without the stimulation, reward, motivation and progress that learning can bring.

A lot of basic learning happens spontaneously (young children learning how to walk, for example), but the more advanced and complex the learning, the more we need to make the effort to bring it about, rather than make the mistake of just assuming that experience will automatically produce learning. Each day, week, month or year of experience will no doubt make us older, but it will not necessarily make us wiser.