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.

Silence does not equal consent

This is a mistake I made many times early in my career: making a suggestion or proposal, having no one object to it and then assuming that the lack of explicit objection constituted agreement to what I had put forward. I then had the unpleasant experience of watching my plans fall apart as people did not cooperate with them or play their part in moving things forward – or even, on some occasions, actively sabotaged what I was trying to do. It only slowly became apparent to me that they were never really ‘on board’ in terms of what I had proposed but, for whatever reason, had chosen not to voice their disagreement. So, there is a very important lesson in this: we cannot assume that silence equals consent. A lack of explicit disagreement is not the same as agreement. So, if we are relying on others to bring our plans to fruition, we need to make the effort to ensure that they are genuinely in agreement and make it clear that if they are not, they should say so.

 

 

 

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.

 

Head and heart work at different speeds

From time to time we find ourselves in situations where we are find 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 working with someone in such circumstances.

 

Effective communication: Topic and comment

Communication goes awry quite regularly, which is not surprising when you think about how much of it we do in any given day. One common way in which communication breaks down is when what is said (or written) does not cover both topic and comment. The topic is what we are talking about and the comment is what we are saying about it.

They can be articulated separately (‘You know that book on stress I lent you? [topic] I will need it back soon if that’s OK [comment]’) or together (‘Can you please let me have that book on stress I lent you back soon?’). Either is fine when both are covered, but often, there is a topic identified, but it is not clear what the comment is (‘You’ve got my book on stress, haven’t you?’). Is this simply a comment to check that the book is still in their possession or is it an indirect request for it to be returned? It is not clear.

Similarly, effective communication can be undermined by making a comment without specifying the topic – something that commonly evokes a response along the lines of: ‘Sorry, I’m not clear what you’re referring to?’. What can be much worse, though, is when the topic is not specified and the person listening makes a false assumption about what the topic is – and then we have a recipe for major misunderstanding and miscommunication. So, it pays to make sure that we are always clear in communicating both topic and comment.

Live your life

A question I have asked many individuals in one-to-one discussions and groups of people I have been working with has been: Are you living your life or is your life living you? This is not just playing with words; it is a very, very important question. It has major implications.

I have been involved in some very interesting and enlightening discussions as a result of asking that question. It has helped so many people realise that their approach to their life in so many ways is a passive one. Things happen to them; they accept them, learn to live with them; and then more things happen.

The irony of this is that we are constantly making choices, whether deliberate decisions or choices we make without even realising that we are doing so. And yet, despite all those opportunities to make changes, to move in a direction we would be happier with, so many of our choices result in maintaining the status quo, the passive life.

Many self-proclaimed gurus have made a great deal of money (or tried to) by offering magical solutions that can make you more successful, happier and better off in so many ways. A recurring theme in these is the process of ‘getting hold’ of your life, recognizing what is holding you back and then moving forward. Of course, by their very nature, these things tend to oversimplify complex issues, but their basic premise is fairly sound. But, we don’t need a magic solution; we just need to look carefully at what the comfortable routines we rely on are and, for each one, decide whether they are helping or hindering. That will then give us the basis of a plan for moving forward (preferably with the support of at least one person we fully trust). This is not necessarily simple or easy, but nor does it involve any magic spells or potions, literally or metaphorically.

We are habit-forming creatures and, for the most part, that is no bad thing. Habits unclutter life to a certain extent and give us a sense of familiarity, rhythm and security. They also save us a lot of time and effort. However, they also have their downside. They can block off interesting avenues of exploration; they can numb us so much that we miss important subtleties and miss out on important opportunities. They can stifle us.

Habits are inherently conservative, which is what can make them useful (they give us stability), but it is also what can make them problematic. We can so easily become controlled by our habits; we can become their puppets, rather than being the puppet masters.

Much of the time we are not even aware that we are relying on a habit; we slot so easily and comfortably into them. In a very real sense, our habits are part of who we are – our characteristic behaviours, our attitudes and what we feel comfortable (or ‘at home’) with. The French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, used the term, ‘habitus’ to refer to our own private world, our own sort of personal culture. Its links with both habit and habitat are not coincidental – it is where we live, figuratively speaking and the routines that keep us there.

Our habitus is a source of comfort and security for the most part, but it can also become a prison if we allow ourselves to get too locked into it, no longer open to new experiences, opportunities and risks.

So, that brings us back to this key question: Are you living your life or is your life living you? To what extent you are successful in life (however you define success) is likely to depend in no small measure on how you answer it.

Face your demons

I have many years’ experience of working with people struggling with anxiety, depression, self-doubt and related emotional challenges. In general, most of them would be thinking that there was something wrong with them, that they were deficient in some way, or even ill. They would be surprised, and generally relieved, to learn that having demons – that is, emotional challenges – is quite a normal part of being human.

We all have them, but what distinguishes those people who don’t appear to have any such demons from those who appear to be struggling with them is mainly how well we are managing them – not whether or not we have them.

At root, life is fragile, vulnerable and insecure, but for the most part we tend to be very skilled at managing the challenges all this brings and very good at supporting one another through the difficulties. At times, life will be more challenging than is generally the case – for example, when we experience a major loss and we are flooded with feelings of grief. The next major loss may be a long way off or it may be just round the corner.

Some of us have us face emotional challenges more often than others; some of us struggle more with dealing with them when they do arise (often due to their severity and their frequency); and some of us have less support and understanding from the people around us than others do. So, it is certainly not simply a case of there being people who have demons to face and others who don’t. Demons, in the sense I am using them here, come with the territory – the territory of being human.

Where problems can become quite serious is where there are significant challenges to address, but our response is to bury our heads in the sand and just hope they will go away – the grieving person who tries to live as if their life has just gone through a major change; the person in an abusive relationship who hopes against hope that the violence will stop; the person who is struggling to find any sort of happiness who ‘just presses on’, as if there cannot be an alternative.

So, the first step is to recognise that we all have our emotional challenges, we all have demons that can haunt us, short or long term. That we have demons is therefore not necessarily a problem or anything to worry about. The second step is to recognise that we need to face them. The more we try to run away from them (or just ignore them), the larger they can loom and the more frightening they can become. By contrast, facing up to them can help us get them in perspective (especially if we don’t face them alone, if we have the support of trusted others, or at least a trusted other).

We can avoid the vicious circle of the demons getting bigger the more we turn our backs on them, and, instead, create a virtuous circle where facing them takes away a lot of their power, makes us feel more confident in dealing with them and sets us on a more positive route.

Demons flourish in the darkness. Turn the lights on, focus clearly on what you need to do, and those demons don’t seem to be anywhere near as threatening as they did before, especially if you are tackling them with support (and perhaps giving support to others who have their own demons to face).

Believe in yourself

Something I was taught at an early age that has stood me in good stead is the idea that, if you don’t believe in yourself, you can’t expect other people to believe in you. But, there’s more to it than just believing in yourself, you also have to demonstrate your self-belief. And you also have to be prepared to question that belief from time to time. Let’s look at each of these issues.

Having self-belief means that your ‘default’ setting (that is, the stance you will automatically adopt unless something happens to change it) is one where you do not doubt yourself. You do not put yourself down; you do not tell yourself ‘I can’t do this’ (negative self-talk, to use the technical term); you do not place obstacles in the way of your own progress; and nor do you invite other people to adopt a low opinion of you (believe it or not, these are all very common behaviours, so we really do need to be tuned into them and steer well clear of them).

This is not the same as arrogance or where you see yourself as infallible and invulnerable. It is about having a positive attitude towards your own capabilities and a willingness to learn from failure. This is vitally important, as fear of failure is a major barrier to self-belief. If we see failure as something shameful, we will be discouraged from trying new things and testing out the limits of our abilities (thereby limiting our learning opportunities, as these arise precisely at the limits of our current capabilities). By contrast, if we see failure as a stepping stone to success and therefore nothing to be ashamed of, we are going to be more open to trying new things (and therefore open to new learning and new successes).

Having self-belief, though, does not mean that you will show that you do. Many competent and confident people will come across misleadingly as lacking in self-belief. This is partly a cultural matter, as many cultures involve unwritten rules about how we come across to other people. For example, it is quite common in the culture I was brought up in for people, on receiving praise or a compliment, to respond with comments like: ‘It was nothing’ or ‘No, not at all’. Such comments can give the impression that we lack confidence and thereby deny us the credibility we need to influence people and make a positive difference. A response like: ‘Thank you, that is good of you to say so’ is likely to be a wiser one to give. So, what we need to do, then is strike a balance between coming across as arrogant and hiding our light under a bushel, as the saying goes.

But, we also have to make sure that we are allowing our self-belief to get the better of us. However capable, competent and confident we may be, we all have our limitations. Consequently, we need to be careful not to overstretch ourselves, to put ourselves in situations where, in effect, we are setting ourselves up to fail. We still need to be cautious, but there is a major difference between being prudently cautious and writing yourself off before you have even tried to do something. In other words, we need to have confidence in ourselves, but we must not allow that confidence to cross the line and become complacency.

Self-belief is not about thinking you are better than other people – it is not about a sense of superiority; it is about a sense of what the textbooks tend to call ‘personal efficacy’, and much of that is about gaining other people’s trust by starting off by trusting yourself.

Something I was taught at an early age that has stood me in good stead is the idea that, if you don’t believe in yourself, you can’t expect other people to believe in you. But, there’s more to it than just believing in yourself, you also have to demonstrate your self-belief. And you also have to be prepared to question that belief from time to time. Let’s look at each of these issues.

Having self-belief means that your ‘default’ setting (that is, the stance you will automatically adopt unless something happens to change it) is one where you do not doubt yourself. You do not put yourself down; you do not tell yourself ‘I can’t do this’ (negative self-talk, to use the technical term); you do not place obstacles in the way of your own progress; and nor do you invite other people to adopt a low opinion of you (believe it or not, these are all very common behaviours, so we really do need to be tuned into them and steer well clear of them).

This is not the same as arrogance or where you see yourself as infallible and invulnerable. It is about having a positive attitude towards your own capabilities and a willingness to learn from failure. This is vitally important, as fear of failure is a major barrier to self-belief. If we see failure as something shameful, we will be discouraged from trying new things and testing out the limits of our abilities (thereby limiting our learning opportunities, as these arise precisely at the limits of our current capabilities). By contrast, if we see failure as a stepping stone to success and therefore nothing to be ashamed of, we are going to be more open to trying new things (and therefore open to new learning and new successes).

Having self-belief, though, does not mean that you will show that you do. Many competent and confident people will come across misleadingly as lacking in self-belief. This is partly a cultural matter, as many cultures involve unwritten rules about how we come across to other people. For example, it is quite common in the culture I was brought up in for people, on receiving praise or a compliment, to respond with comments like: ‘It was nothing’ or ‘No, not at all’. Such comments can give the impression that we lack confidence and thereby deny us the credibility we need to influence people and make a positive difference. A response like: ‘Thank you, that is good of you to say so’ is likely to be a wiser one to give. So, what we need to do, then is strike a balance between coming across as arrogant and hiding our light under a bushel, as the saying goes.

But, we also have to make sure that we are allowing our self-belief to get the better of us. However capable, competent and confident we may be, we all have our limitations. Consequently, we need to be careful not to overstretch ourselves, to put ourselves in situations where, in effect, we are setting ourselves up to fail. We still need to be cautious, but there is a major difference between being prudently cautious and writing yourself off before you have even tried to do something. In other words, we need to have confidence in ourselves, but we must not allow that confidence to cross the line and become complacency.

Self-belief is not about thinking you are better than other people – it is not about a sense of superiority; it is about a sense of what the textbooks tend to call ‘personal efficacy’, and much of that is about gaining other people’s trust by starting off by trusting yourself.

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).