Don’t lose sight of the little things that can make a big difference

It is very wise to be clear about your priorities and make sure that you attend to them. So much time, effort and energy can be wasted if you spend time on lesser matters and lose sight of the most important. It makes sense that the big, important issues need to come first. However, there is also much to be gained from appreciating the little things. The two ideas are not incompatible.

It is perfectly possible to focus primarily on the main issues you face, while also setting aside some time for the things that, at first view, may not seem to matter much, but which can actually be of great importance and value. What I am talking about is taking the opportunity to take a step back, relax and, in a sense, ‘smell the roses’. It is very easy to get so caught up with the big issues that we lose sight of other aspects of our lives, the little things that can being satisfaction, joy and hope.

This is an important part of self-care. If we are constantly focused on moving forward and therefore looking directly ahead, we may miss important and useful things that are not immediately in front of us. It is important to be focused, of course, but there is a difference between being focused and being blinkered and too narrowly concentrated. For example, how many people have been so intensely focused on their career or business that they miss out on watching their children grow up? How many people lose sight of their interests and hobbies because they are wedded to their strong sense of needing to move forward all the time? I remember one man telling me he had recently attended a concert for the first time in years and he had come away from it in tears and with mixed feelings. They were partly tears of joy because he had enjoyed the music so much, he had found it so uplifting at a time when he very much needed his spirits raising. But, in part, they were tears of sadness, because the experience made him realise that, despite his immense love of music, he had spent very little time in recent years listening to it or getting the benefits of it, because he had been so focused on making a success of his career. He realised he had let go of something that mattered to him a great deal because he had become too narrowly focused on his career.

An important part of this is our idea of success. What does success mean to you? If it is purely career success, then what are you missing out on? Of course, this is not to say that career success is not a noble and worthwhile goal to pursue, but allowing it to be all encompassing at the expense of other important matters and thereby, in the process, failing to ‘smell the roses’ is potentially very problematic.

This is partly about work-life balance, but it is also broader than this. It is about building in the flexibility to our lives to be able to pursue important goals, but also, at the same time, giving yourself time and space to savour the various things that seem small, but which can have a big impact on our quality of life.

Do you know what those small but significant things are in your life? Are you making sure that you are keeping them in mind and not letting them drift? Are you managing to get that balance right?

Focus on communication

Communication is such a central part of our lives that we tend to take it for granted, it fades into the background, like the wallpaper. That is perfectly normal, but it can also be problematic. Consider language, for example.

We largely live our lives through language. Much of our work is through language; we form relationships through language; we fall out through language. Much of our leisure time is enjoyed through language. Imagine, for example, trying to go for, say, a week without using language. We wouldn’t get very far would we? (not least because we tend to think through the medium of language).

But the way we use language can be problematic. Misunderstandings are very common, sometimes with minor consequences, sometimes with major harm as a result. This especially applies to written language. This is because when we speak, we use a very complex and sophisticated system of intonation – that is, we can generally understand what people mean from not just what they say, but the way they say it (the tone and pitch, for example). In writing, though, the nearest we have to this sophisticated system is punctuation and that is a poor substitute, even when people use it properly (and, of course, many people don’t). Consequently, the scope for misunderstanding and ill-feeling is much greater when we communicate in writing.

Email is a particularly significant form of communication in this regard. This is because it is a bit of a hybrid between spoken and written language. People getting themselves into a tangle through email is sadly a very common occurrence. LinkedIn and Facebook messages can function in much the same way.

But, communication is much more than language. While language is certainly a primary form of communication, it would be unwise to think of it as the only form of language. Indeed, nonverbal communication can be much more powerful. For example, where there is a mismatch between what we say and what our body language says, it tends to be the latter that is paid attention.

We learn the basic of nonverbal communication as we grow up, but most people seem to stick with the basics, while others take the opportunity to take their nonverbal communication skills to a much more advanced level, in terms of both being able to pick up the subtle signals from other people’s body language and being able to use their own body language in highly effective ways. So, are you in the former group or the latter? Are you happy to stick with the basics you learned as a child or are you able to take your skills to a more advanced (and therefore more effective) level?

But, let’s be clear that nonverbal communication is not just about body language. There is also our behaviour to consider. One of the principles of communication theory is that you cannot not communicate. That is, whether you are trying to communicate or not, people will interpret not only your body language, but also your behaviour – it will give them ‘messages’, which is, after all, what communication is all about. For example, if you tell someone you will arrive at 2pm, but you don’t get there until 2.35, didn’t ring ahead to let them know you were going to be late or apologise for being late when you do get there, it is likely to be interpreted that you believe your time is more important than theirs. It implies that you feel you have the right to inconvenience them if you wish. Now that may well not be what you intended to communicate, but that is not the point. It is the message that is received that counts, not the one you did or did not intend to convey.

All in all, then, there is a great deal to be gained from being more ‘communication aware’ than is normally the case.

NB The brand new third edition of Neil’s book, Effective Communication, is due to be published in April 2018.