Use holding emails

Email communication is a very strong feature of modern working life for a high proportion of people. It can be a very convenient and helpful form of communication, but it can also be highly problematic in a number of ways. One such way is the common (but thankfully not universal) expectation that responses will be more or less instant. This can lead to two sets of difficulties. One is that the person receiving an email may feel under pressure to reply there and then (when perhaps a more considered response would be wiser) and another is that the person sending the email can feel they are being ignored if they do not receive a prompt response. One way of addressing this problem is for the recipient to send a ‘holding’ message, something like: ‘Thank you for your message. I will give the matter my careful consideration and come back to you as soon as I can’. This will prevent hurried ill-thought-through messages being sent and will also stop the sender sending follow up messages to see if their first message had been received. This technique also prevents us from feeling overwhelmed by email and therefore prone to getting stressed about it.


Dress for the part

‘I should be able to wear what I want and not be judged’ said one participant on a training course I was running. I agreed with her, particularly the word ‘should’, but I had to point out that people do attach significance to what we wear, even though ideally that should not happen. Our clothing is part of nonverbal communication. Whether we intend it or not, whether we agree with it or not, what we wear provides information about us that other people will generally attach significance to. For example, you may be highly committed to a job you are applying for, but if you turn up for the interview wearing jeans and a T-shirt, it is highly likely you will be seen to be conveying a lack of seriousness towards that job. But less extreme examples apply on a much more frequent basis, so it is important to ask ourselves: is my choice of clothing today conveying the message I want to put across to people? This does not mean that we should always dress formally, but it does mean we need to be tuned in to what message our clothes convey in different circumstances.


Look for reasons not causes

People commonly talk about what causes a particular behaviour or reaction. However, as it is people we are talking about, it makes more sense to talk about reasons, rather than causes. Human beings exist in a social context that is very powerful in its wide range of influences and we are, of course, subject to certain biological forces and constraints. But none of this removes human ‘agency’, to use the technical term, the ability to make choices. If we are looking for causes not reasons, we can be neglecting some key aspects of how a situation arose or how it is likely to unfold. Of course, it would be naïve not to recognize that we do not have complete control over our circumstances, but it would also be very unwise to assume that we have no control over what happens to us, that we are just passive victims of circumstance. To make sense of a complex situation, we need to understand both the influences on choices and the reasons for the choices actually made.

Live to fight another day

This is not literally about fighting. It is about recognizing when it is not appropriate to deal with a situation here and now. When there are concerns that need to be addressed or conflicts that need to be worked through, it is often helpful to be responsive to those demands at the time, rather than miss the opportunity to nip the problem in the bud. However, in some circumstances it is wiser not to react at the time – for example, situations where an immediate response may inflame the situation or encourage a defensive reaction. In such situations it can be more effective to arrange a more suitable time and place to raise your concerns or deal with the issues involved – one that is more conducive to constructive dialogue. But it is very important to make sure that you do find a suitable time and place. There is a fine line between this idea of ‘living to fight another day’ and copping out from raising what could be an awkward or uncomfortable matter to deal with. On one side of that line is a wise approach to problem solving, while on the other lies a failure to address an important concern.


Don’t reply in anger

Anger is a powerful emotion, and one that no one is immune to. The physiological effect it has on us can be a strong spur to action, and so the temptation to respond there and then can be an intensely felt one. However, responding there and then can be highly problematic, as the intense emotion of the situation can distort our perceptions. It can also lead to an escalation in which our anger-driven response can ‘up the stakes’ emotionally and thereby lead to a worsening of the situation rather than defuse it. In addition, it can mean that we are responding without a full understanding of the situation, and that could lead to making the situation worse. The traditional idea of ‘count to 10’ has some merit, but it is not enough on its own, as the effects of anger can last for some considerable time – for example, they can become resentment. Anger is a valid response to many situations but we have to make sure that it is not allowed to create further problems or ill-feeling.

Why here? Why now?

When people come to us for help or reach the last straw when it becomes clear that they cannot continue without help, it can be very helpful to ask: Why here? Why now? In other words, it pays to be clear about what has made the difference between carrying on as before and seeking change. It is often the case that the problem(s) people need help with have been around for some time, but they have not sought help before. So, why now? What has been the key factor that has made the difference. The answer to that question may tell us a great deal about the situation, how it is perceived by the person(s) concerned and therefore what it means to them. It can also be helpful to ask: Why here? That is, why have they come to you? If there were other options available (and there usually are), why have they come here to seek your help? In some circumstances that too can cast important light on the subject. Failing to ask ourselves these questions can mean that we are missing out on important information.

Start your own book of the month club

When I worked with students on a full-time basis, I would suggest that, once they went out into the big wide world as qualified professionals, they should make sure that they continued to learn and develop. In particular, I would urge them to continue to read about their profession and build up their knowledge base over time. I would suggest to them that they should buy a book every month when they received their salary payment, so that it became an established pattern for them. I have since met several of those ex-students who have told me that they did just that and were glad they did, as it helped them to not only keep learning, but also to retain a sense of professionalism, recognizing that their work is rooted in an important professional knowledge base. So, how do you make sure that you are continuing to learn and maintaining your sense of professionalism?

Make a note of important ideas

I regularly run courses on which, despite having been given handouts with space for notes about each part of the course, a high proportion of the participants will not write down a single word. Perhaps they all have photographic memories or maybe they believe that learning happens by magic – they just have to hear what is being said and don’t need to remember it or apply it in any way; it will just automatically make them better at their jobs without any effort on their part. Similarly, many people have a good idea, don’t write it down and later struggle to remember what their important insight was. I don’t understand why so many people appear to be reluctant to make a note of important matters that come to their attention, but they are clearly losing out. So, do you have a system for making notes of important ideas and issues or are you happy to risk losing out by failing to learn from your experiences?

Question routines

Routines can be very helpful, as they enable us to deal with straightforward matters quickly, easily and efficiently. However, there are two potential problems with this. One is the danger of ‘routinization’, which is what happens when we overgeneralize and adopt a routine approach to non-routine situations – that is, we fail to distinguish between those situations that are simple enough to be dealt with in a routinized way and those that are not. The other danger is that routines become part of a culture and continue to be used long after the situation that first led to their development has ceased to apply. That is, they have become habits which were useful to begin with but are no longer helpful but continue to be used because no one has thought to do anything different. It is therefore important to question our routines from time to time, to see whether we are: (i) overextending them to non-routine situations; and/or (ii) still using routines that have long since lost their usefulness.

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.