Don’t let forms shape your practice

I have often encountered situations on training courses about report writing and record keeping where people say things like: ‘We can’t do that; the form won’t let us’. Of course, forms are a way of recording and collating information and therefore have an important part to play. However, recognizing the value of forms and allowing them to dictate our work practice are two different things. If the forms help, that’s great, but if they are framed in such a way that they are unhelpful, shouldn’t we be changing the forms, rather than changing our practice to suit the form? So, an important question to ask is: How do we get a form changed? What are the feedback mechanisms we can use to let the appropriate people know that these tools (for that is what forms are) are not well suited to purpose and need to be revised? The effort required to do this could be well repaid by the progress made and is certainly a better alternative to allowing forms (rather than our professional knowledge and values) to shape our practice.

Everyone has 24 hours in their day

‘I don’t have enough time’ is a commonly heard claim in busy workplaces, and there is certainly a great deal of evidence to show that time pressures are very significant for a high proportion of people these days. However, what we have to recognize is that everybody has the same amount of time – 24 hours in each day, seven days in each week and so on. It is not the amount of time available that distinguishes some people from others in terms of work pressures; rather, it is what we try to do with that time. If we try to do too much, we can end up spreading ourselves too thinly and end up being far less productive than we might otherwise have been if we had planned our use of time more strategically. Similarly, some people respond to high levels of pressure by burying themselves in their work and do not take time to step back, plan, set priorities or develop effective strategies for managing that level of pressure. They risk getting stuck in a ‘hamster wheel’ of relentless pressure that does not get them very far at all. Managing high levels of pressure is a very challenging enterprise, but we very much need to develop strategies for doing so and not allow ourselves to try to do the impossible by being unrealistic about what can be achieved in the time available – for example, by internalizing, or colluding with, other people’s unrealistic expectations, rather than challenging them.

Accept what you can’t change

‘Facticity’ is the technical term for the things we cannot change, the things that are beyond our control. There will always be such things, and we have to get used to that. Some people have a problem because they tend to be defeatist. They accept things that they don’t need to accept – they fail to recognize that there are steps they could take to address their problems. However, the problem I am talking about here is the opposite of that. It refers to situations where people know there is nothing they can do, but they try to do it anyway. For example, someone who is interviewed for a job, but is unsuccessful may not be willing to let go of this fact. They may rail and rage against their potential employer, as if they have done them a significant injustice, rather than accept that, in the interviewing panel’s view, another candidate was better suited to the job. Not getting the job does not mean that you are a failure or that you are inadequate; it simply means you were not their first choice. Change what you can change, by all means, but railing against what you cannot change is a waste of time and energy and succeeds only in generating unnecessary bad feeling.

Dadirri listening

Listening, of course, is more than just hearing. It is about paying attention to someone in a way that creates a genuine human connection. Sometimes that connection is enough to enable the person concerned to feel stronger, more confident and better supported in dealing with their difficulties. Listening is an important first step in terms of exploring potential solutions, but at times listening is enough on its own to find the strength to move forward positively. ‘Dadirri’ is a concept drawn from Australian aboriginal culture which refers to the type of listening that creates that all-important bond, listening that gives a strong and genuine message that we are concerned and that we are here to help without judgement. It could be described as listening with our heart, rather than just with our ears. When you have been on the receiving end of such listening you will know about it, as you will feel the positive, empowering effects of it. Learning how to develop dadirri listening is therefore an important step forward for us to take.

Head and heart work at different speeds

From time to time we find ourselves in situations where we are finding it difficult to comprehend what has happened – times of loss, crisis or sudden change, for example. It is as if our head knows, but our heart hasn’t caught up, and so ‘it doesn’t seem real’ can be a thought that runs through our mind. This is a perfectly normal phenomenon and nothing to be concerned about in itself. However, we need to be wary of two potential problems. One is that, when we find ourselves in such a situation, we may make decisions that we later regret because we have been destabilized by the change that has occurred. For example, some people can respond quite rashly in situations where they are confused about what is happening. Second, if we are trying to help somebody who is in a ‘heart hasn’t caught up with head’ situation, we have to bear in mind that they may not be taking on board what we are saying to them because of the sense of emotional shock they are experiencing. We therefore have to choose our moments carefully in interacting with someone in such circumstances.

Bullying is not strong leadership

Many times I have heard some people try to justify bullying behaviours by describing oppressive practices as ‘strong leadership’. In reality, using bullying tactics is a sign of a lack of leadership. A leader is someone who shapes a culture and creates an atmosphere where people want to do well, where they want to be part of a team that works well – they do not need to be coerced or intimidated into doing what is required of them. They feel they belong to an important endeavour and are pleased to be part of it. Bullying is a sign that leadership skills are lacking or that the person in a leadership role has failed to grasp what leadership is all about.

Value your time

There are relatively few people in today’s world of work who are not under time pressures. This is all the more reason that we need to make sure that our time is used wisely. This is not about petty ways of saving 30 seconds here or a minute and a half there, but rather about having the assertiveness skills to protect our valuable time by not allowing others to seduce us into putting time and effort into activities that are not a priority for us. Demands on our time are potentially infinite, but however skilful we are at time management, the time available will always be finite. Don’t let it be spent too cheaply.


Yes, it’s a cliché, but the fact remains that, in working with people and their problems, we are likely to get better results if we smile. Smiling gives a clear message to the effect of ‘I am pleased to be in your company’ while not smiling can give the message that we are not pleased to be in that person’s company. Of course, we don’t want to go overboard and come across as insincere, but smiling really can make a big difference. Sounds obvious? Not worth saying? Just watch people around you and see how often people interact with one another without smiling. You’ll see that lots of opportunities to make a positive connection are being missed.

Take account of trauma

The term ‘trauma’ is often used in a very loose and ‘watered down’ way to refer to any difficult or distressing situation. However, in its technical sense, trauma refers to a wound (physical or psychological) that has lasting effects. We are now realizing more fully that so many of the mental health problems that people encounter are linked to earlier experiences of one or more traumas. Indeed, difficulties in life more broadly will often have their roots in trauma. So, if we are working with people in any sort of supportive or supervisory way, we would do well to ask ourselves whether trauma is playing any part in the situation – particularly those situations that are proving problematic or challenging in some way.

Don’t rely on common sense

So-called ‘common sense’ is often not common (different people have different ideas about what is common sense) and not always sense (it is often contradictory). What counts as common sense can be important advice and wisdom built up over many years of experience. However, it can also, at times, be based on unquestioned prejudices and taken-for-granted assumptions. But, whether what counts as common sense is sound or not, what resorting to common sense amounts to is relying on preformed ideas instead of using reflective practice to think, plan, analyse and make sense of the situations we are dealing with. Someone saying: ‘It’s common sense’ is often inviting us to accept their perspective uncritically, rather than work out our own view on it.