Some people can be quite dogmatic and stick to their views despite evidence and argument to the contrary, and that of course is not helpful. However, it can also be problematic when some people go to the opposite extreme and simply assume that they are wrong whenever they encounter any resistance or disagreement. What is needed, of course, is a balanced approach. Being dogmatic does not help, but nor does abandoning your views prematurely. Being open minded is essential, but that need to include being open to the possibility that you were right all along.
The importance of listening is well established, but what is often not realized that the most effective for of listening involves paying attention to what someone is not saying, as well as what they are saying. Just as silence is an important part of music, working out what is not being said is a key part of genuinely connecting with people, of forming an effective rapport. To hear what is not being said involves tuning in to the situation, considering the context, the emotions involved, where the conversation is coming from and where it is going. These are quite advanced skills, but they can be developed over time.
Sadly, it is often the case these days that we feel the need to make a complaint. What is even sadder is that so many organizations seem ill-equipped to respond positively to people’s concerns – and that can lead to considerable ill feeling and an intensification of pressures. What can make such situations even worse is when the complaint is made to someone who cannot do anything about it (and who is perhaps not inclined to pass the concerns on to someone who can). So, whenever you need to make a complaint, make sure that you complain to the person or body that has the power to do something to address the problem. Working out who that is may not always be easy, but it saves an awful lot of frustration compared with raising issues with people who are not well placed to solve the problem.
There is a common misperception of conflict. It tends to be assumed that everyday reality is basically harmonious and conflict is an exception – conflict ‘breaks out’ to shatter the normality of harmony. However, we don’t need to pay much close attention to what actually happens to realize that, in fact, conflict is an everyday occurrence. Day-to-day reality is a mixture of harmony and conflict. We learn basic conflict management skills as we grow up, and so we have a good foundation on which to build so that we can take our skills to a more advanced level and become more confident and competent in dealing with those situations in which conflict starts to escalate. Continuing to see conflict as somehow abnormal leaves us ill-equipped to rise to some of the more challenging aspects of conflict.
Are you looking for a solution without really knowing what the problem is? Very often we can find ourselves in a pressurized situation where there is a strong sense that ‘something must be done’. If we are not careful that pressure can lead us to trying out solutions without really knowing what the problem is. Sometimes we will get lucky and we will be able to resolve the situation purely by chance, in the sense that our ill-defined ‘solutions’ just happen to address our ill-defined problems. However, what is much more likely is that we will make little progress by being so unfocused and may, at times, actually make the situation worse. So, it’s important that we spend some time and effort in trying to define what the problem is before we try and come up with ways of dealing with it. This is an important aspect of reflective practice.
We get so used to seeing the world from our own point of view that it is easy to forget that how other people see it can be very different. For example, what is routine and straightforward to you can be quite scary and unsettling to someone else who does not have the experience of that type of situation that you have. So, it is important at all times to remember that other people are not inside your head with you – we need to be careful not to be ‘egocentric’ by assuming that our ‘take’ on the situation is the only way to see it. The idea of perspective taking is that of putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes as far as possible. This can come from a mixture of imagining how they might be feeling and actually checking out with them what their perspective is.
Sometimes the difficulties we face in organizations can seem so deep rooted and so extensive that we can feel there is nothing that can be done about them. A pervasive sense of defeatism and hopelessness can easily set in. This is especially the case where morale is low. The result can be a vicious circle: defeatism contributes to low morale and low morale makes people feel helpless. In reality there is often much that individuals can do – especially when working collectively – to make a positive difference. Organisational cultures – whether positive or negative – are basically sets of habits, and habits can be changed. Start to explore possibilities rather than assume that there aren’t any.
Many a problem has been caused by someone putting something in writing in a way that led to misunderstanding. What you intended to convey and what is interpreted by the reader can sometimes be very different indeed. For example, what you intended to be friendly advice could be perceived as issuing instructions. These mismatches arise because communication does not take place in a vacuum. When you write something you will be doing so within a context of your own circumstances and your own frameworks of meaning. The person reading what you have written will be doing so within their own context and their own frameworks of meaning, and so there is plenty of scope for misunderstanding. What can be helpful is this: if you are writing a letter or report, imagine you are the intended recipient and have just opened and read it. That is, put yourself in the recipient’s shoes. Are you sure, when you look at it from this perspective, that what you have written will convey what you wanted it to?
There are some things that each one of us is responsible for – that is, they are individual responsibilities. I have to do what I have to do and you have to do what you have to do. Some things are shared responsibilities – that is, we have to do them together. Teamwork is a good example of this. Developing effective teamwork is the responsibility of every team member, not just the leader. Then there are also responsibilities that belong to other people – they are not mine, they are not yours, they are not ours. It is important to be aware of these boundaries as it can be quite problematic and potentially stressful if: (i) we do not fulfil our individual responsibilities; (ii) we do not contribute to our shared responsibilities; or (iii) we overload ourselves by taking on responsibilities that are not ours, that belong elsewhere. The detrimental consequences of losing sight of these boundaries can be quite significant.
Physical contact is a very powerful form of communication. It can be powerfully negative – for example, touch used in a threatening or aggressive way or as an invasion of privacy – or powerfully positive as a means of conveying support, concern, affirmation and validation. Provided that we have the sensitivity to know where the boundary is between supportive and intrusive touch, we can use touch to express empathy and concern, build trust and make an important contribution to helping people who are facing considerable challenges or who would benefit from human connection at a time of difficulty. Do you know of anyone who uses touch very sensitively and effectively? Watch them closely when you can and see what you can learn from how they use it.