Compartmentalize home and work

How to manage a range of pressures is a challenge that we all face. A very worrying (but sadly not uncommon) scenario is when we allow home and work pressures to combine to overwhelm our coping resources. An alternative strategy is that of ‘compartmentalization’. This means training ourselves to focus on our home pressures when we are at home and our work pressures when we are at work and having a clear boundary between the two. Many people achieve this by having some sort of ritual that symbolizes the end of the working day and the return to home life – for example, by getting changed. Different rituals work for different people, but they can all play an important role in keeping our two domains separate so that we do not find ourselves in the situation where home and work pressures combine to leave us feeling stressed and ill-equipped to cope with the challenges we face.

 

Manage your own learning

It is now increasingly being appreciated that self-directed learning is the most effective form of learning. That is, if we are able to identify for ourselves what we want or need to learn and how we are going to learn it, we are likely to be more motivated and the learning gained will be more suited to our own specific needs. Unfortunately, though, many people adopt a passive approach to learning – they assume that it is someone else’s job to take the lead, an ‘expert’ in learning like a teacher, tutor, trainer or mentor. Of course, such people can be very helpful as guides, advisers, sources of encouragement, support and ideas, but the more control we have over our own learning, the more effective it is likely to be – and the more committed we will be to continuing to learn throughout our careers. Teachers, tutors, trainers and mentors can often provide helpful maps of the learning territory, but we need to determine our own itinerary if we are to get the best results

Tune in to grief

The idea that ‘grief is the price we pay for love’ is a longstanding one. When we love (a person, a thing, a job or whatever) we may make an emotional commitment or investment (‘cathexis’, to use the technical term). When we lose who or what we have invested in we feel the emptiness of the emotional void that has been created by that loss. This can affect us at different levels (physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually) and can have a hugely powerful impact on our lives. Some people make the mistake of assuming that grief applies only to death, but, of course, it can arise as a result of any significant loss. If we make the mistake of not taking account of grief in people’s lives, we can be basing our actions and interactions on a very partial and distorted picture of the situation.

 

 

 

Apologize where necessary

Some people seem to think that an apology is an admission of guilt or even of negligence and are therefore very careful not to utter the word ‘sorry’. This is very unfortunate, as saying sorry can defuse a tense situation, while not saying sorry when an apology could have helped a great deal can inflame a situation quite significantly. But often it isn’t a deliberate strategy to withhold an apology; it’s simply a matter of allowing work pressures to distract us to the extent that we lose sight of basic manners. Our own pressures stop us from seeing the situation from the other person’s point of view and thereby prevent us from taking their feelings into account. A classic example of this is when a complaint is made about something of low to medium importance, evokes an unapologetic response which is interpreted as being ‘fobbed off’, which then leads to a much stronger complaint being made – a deeper hole has been dug, and totally unnecessarily.

Recognize warning signs of aggression and potential violence

There are some obvious signs of aggression and potential violence, such as reddening of the face, threatening gestures and so on. However, it is important to realize that there are many other, more subtle clues that can alert us to the potential for aggression and violence. In situations where we anticipate someone may become aggressive (where we have to deny their request, for example), we need to be using our nonverbal communication skills and watching carefully for signs that tension is growing. There is often an escalation. For example, it may start with something quite minor and normally imperceptible (drumming of fingers, moving about uneasily in their seat and so on). There are things we can do to minimize the chances of aggression and violence (effective listening, for example), but ultimately, if you feel you are in real danger of being assaulted it is wise to leave the situation at the earliest opportunity – for your own protection and also for their protection, as having a criminal assault charge against them is likely only to make their situation worse.

Use distractions where possible

In the previous tip I talked about how distractions can get in the way of effective communication, but in this one I want to look at how distracting someone can be a helpful thing to do in certain circumstances. It is a technique well known to many parents: to distract their child when they are misbehaving, getting upset or otherwise being demanding. But few people recognize that it can also work well with adults (provided that it is not done in a patronizing way). It can be useful when someone is anxious and/or fixated on a particular concern, depressed or agitated. It has to be done tactfully and sensitively, but it can make a very positive difference in the right circumstances. For example, if someone is focusing purely on the negatives of a situation, it can be helpful to try and balance this out by helping them to focus on the positive aspects of their circumstances.

Remove distractions where possible

Effectiveness in working with people relies to a large extent on being able to communicate successfully, to make a genuine and meaningful connection with the person(s) concerned. Distractions can get in the way of this (for example, a television being on during a home visit or noise coming from an adjacent room). We need to be tuned in to how problematic such distractions can be, and this is for two reasons. First, it makes it harder for both parties to ‘connect’ where there are distractions; and, second, if it is clear that you are aware of such distractions and you are doing nothing about it, both your credibility and your effectiveness go down significantly. So, having the presence of mind to identify distractions and the negotiation skills necessary to reduce or minimize them is an important foundation for good practice in the people professions. Sadly, I have seen so many people try to press on despite distractions and pay the price when it would have been far more effective to recognize the significance of the distraction and try to do something about it.

 

Don’t take it personally

In the people professions we will often come across people who are distressed, agitated or otherwise in a bad place. Often this will result in their being unkind or worse towards others, including ourselves – even though we may be doing our best to help and support them. They may swear at us, insult us or even physically attack us. Now, while such behaviour is not acceptable and should therefore not be condoned, we should also recognize that we would be wise not to take such matters personally. It is much more likely that they are taking their frustrations out on the role we occupy or the organization we represent or, ironically, may be venting their dismay and/or wrath in our direction because they feel safe enough with us to do so (a very backhanded compliment!). Encountering such negative feelings is difficult and challenging enough, so we have to make sure we do not make it worse by taking it personally when in most situations that is not likely to be the case.

 

Aim for adult-adult

Transactional analysis, or TA for short, is now often seen as old-fashioned, but good ideas have a tendency to endure beyond fashion. TA teaches us that we should aim for interactions with others that are characterized as adult-adult (that is, based on mutual respect and consideration) rather than parent-child (based on dominance), parent-parent (a power battle) or child-child (neither person taking ownership of the situation). This is a very simple framework of understanding, but it can be very useful in a variety of circumstances. For example, supervision at work can be very effective and empowering when it is adult-adult, but can create resentment and distance when it is carried out on a parent-child basis. So, are you relating to people in an adult-adult way, as this is what is likely to bring out the best in both parties? Is someone behaving towards you in a parent-child way? If so, how can you influence the situation to make it a more effective adult-adult set of interactions?

Respect cultural differences

The idea of cultural sensitivity is now a well-established one, but my experience has taught me that many people do not fully understand the implications of that. For example, many times I have come across people who assume that it applies only when dealing with somebody whose skin colour is different from one’s own. In reality, it is much more complex than this, as there will generally be cultural differences that relate to class, region, profession or vocation, linguistic group and so on. Culture is a much broader and more inclusive concept than it is generally given credit for. Our own cultural backgrounds and experiences will have been a profound influence on who we are (our identity), our sense of where we fit in the world and where we are going (our spirituality). So often breakdowns of communication and other problems have their roots in one person seeing the situation from their own cultural standpoint, while one or more others see it from different cultural standpoints.