Don’t confuse experience with learning

It is commonly assumed that the more experience a person has, the more learning they will have done, and thus the more they will have to offer, but it’s important to realise that this is a very unsafe assumption to make. We don’t have to go far generally to come across someone who has a lot of experience, but has learned relatively little from it. There can be people with three years’ experience in a particular field who have done an excellent job of drawing out the lessons from that learning, of really making that experience count in terms of improving their practice and developing their confidence. But, there can also be people with thirty years’ experience who have done very little learning during that time. The technical term for this is ‘plateauing’ – that is, climbing to begin with, but then levelling off and not getting any higher (in terms of knowledge, skills and effectiveness).

‘Experience is the best teacher’ is a saying that we used to hear a lot at one time, despite the fact that it isn’t true. It is what we do with experience that is the best teacher. Just having an experience will teach us nothing, of course. We have to draw out the learning from that experience for it to really make a difference to us. We should not confuse experience (which provides the raw materials for learning) with actual learning, just as the ingredients of a cake are not the cake – it’s what you do with the ingredients that produces the cake. This is why learning support processes like supervision, mentoring and coaching can be so invaluable, because they can play a very helpful role in ‘processing’ experience, making sense of it in ways that enable us to learn and develop.

What is also important about this is that it helps us to understand the importance of an active approach towards learning. To get the most out of the learning opportunities life presents to us (whether in our working lives or our private lives), we need to play an active role, we need to make things happen. Unfortunately, the way our education system works, the opposite is often what is encouraged – a passive approach where other people take charge of our learning (teachers, trainers, tutors and so on) and we tend to go along with what they decide, what they organise, what they prioritise and so on. But, we are increasingly recognising that the people who are most successful in converting their experience into learning are the ones who adopt an active approach to their own learning needs (‘self-directed learning’, to use the technical term).

Sadly, having lots of experience, but not having learned much from it can actually be counterproductive – that is, we are not only missing out on learning, but the boredom and lack of stimulation in experiences that are not producing learning can numb our senses, reduce motivation and job satisfaction, discourage creativity and contribute to burnout. Consequently, a lot of workplace problems (and, indeed, potentially in our personal lives) can boil down to experience without learning, without the stimulation, reward, motivation and progress that learning can bring.

A lot of basic learning happens spontaneously (young children learning how to walk, for example), but the more advanced and complex the learning, the more we need to make the effort to bring it about, rather than make the mistake of just assuming that experience will automatically produce learning. Each day, week, month or year of experience will no doubt make us older, but it will not necessarily make us wiser.

Make your feelings known

A much-used literary and dramatic device is for it to be apparent to the reader or viewer that someone has strong feelings (of love, for example), but is not expressing them and is losing out in some way as a consequence. As the plot develops, the feelings eventually become known and they all live happily ever after, or not, as the case may be.

But, outside of the world of fiction and drama, the question of when and how to express feelings is a significant one. Some people can go to the other extreme and blurt out their feelings inappropriately, leading to embarrassment for themselves and others. So, the two extremes of ‘Keep your feelings to yourself’ and ‘If you feel, it say it’ are not helpful.

This is where the idea of emotional intelligence comes in, having the ability to ‘read’ situations in such a way as to be able to work out when it is appropriate and helpful to make our feelings known and to be clear about what is the best way of expressing them in those particular circumstances. For example, when we are feeling anger, letting it gush out in a rage is rarely going to be helpful and could cause significant problems. But, this does not mean we need to keep it to ourselves. It may be more helpful to allow the situation to calm down and then say something like: ‘I start to feel angry when X happens’ (with X being whatever was provoking the anger). It can then be followed up by a constructive suggestion, such as: ‘So, it would be helpful if you did not …’, or whatever it takes to move the situation forward positively. How can we realistically expect to improve the situation if the people who are angering us are not made aware (in a non-threatening, constructive way) that they are doing so?

But it is not just negative feelings that are better out than in. Many people seem to find it extremely difficult to tell their loved ones that they love and appreciate them. Perhaps they make the mistake of assuming that they know and it therefore does not need saying. However, whatever is causing it, what is highly likely is that it is causing difficulties in a high proportion of cases. In both my personal and professional lives I have come across numerous examples of relationships that started to falter because feelings of love were not expressed; they were taken for granted and therefore not reinforced or revitalised when they needed to be.

Being human is full of paradoxes, and one of them is that we are both robust and fragile at the same time. Expressing our feelings and receiving reassurance, validation and affirmation can make a huge positive difference, while finding ourselves in emotionally barren and unsupportive territory can undermine our confidence and well-being. There is therefore much to be said for making our feelings known, provided that we are tuned in to how to do so in helpful ways.

Another paradox is that we are both rational and emotional beings. While many people focus on the rational side and play down the emotional elements of being human, it does not alter the fact that feelings are a very powerful influence on our behaviour, our thoughts and how we relate to one another. If we neglect the emotional dimension and see feelings as things to be kept under wraps for the most part, we are doing ourselves a disservice and working on the basis of a very limited understanding of what it means to be human.

Find the right balance when it comes to risks

Life is a risky business. Whatever we do, whichever way we turn, we take risks. For the most part they are fairly minor risks, with relatively minor consequences if things go wrong. But, it is not at all uncommon for us to take life or death risks (using electricity, driving a car, being a passenger or even a pedestrian, for example). Risk is very much a part of everyday life. This has a number of implications, two main ones in particular.

First, it shows how skilful we tend to be at managing risks. Over the years I have run many training courses on risk assessment and management and made this point about how skilled people generally are. The usual response to this comment has been one of surprise, reflecting a degree of anxiety and a relative lack of confidence around risk issues. Such anxiety can (and often does) lead to a tendency to be overcautious about risk (being ‘risk averse’, to use the technical term), to underestimate our ability to cope with risk and thereby overestimate the chances of things going awry. For example, some parents can be overprotective towards their children, genuinely attempting to keep them safe, but causing other problems in the process, not least in relation to the children’s development and their need to learn how to keep themselves safe by managing risks. A similar problem can apply to older or disabled people.

Second, because we are so skilful at handling risk for the most part, we can sometimes be complacent about the dangers involved. Driving is a good example of this. Far too many accidents are caused by drivers forgetting that they are in charge of a machine that can kill if it is not handled carefully, being navigated among a number of other moving machines that can kill if they too are not handled carefully. A more cautious approach to motoring would no doubt save many of the lives that are lost each year in road traffic accidents.

And this is where the idea that we need a balanced approach to risk comes in. Forgetting how skilful people are at managing the risks involved in their life can make many of us overcautious and therefore unduly restrictive at times. But, by the same token, the fact that we are so skilled can also make us complacent about risk and lead to a lack of caution in situations that require a more careful approach if we are to stay safe (and keep others safe). There are, then, two problematic extremes to avoid, one where we are overestimating the risks involved and another where we are underestimating them. The aim, clearly, must be to develop a balanced approach to risk, one in which we are not allowing anxiety to push us into an overreaction, but nor are we allowing complacency to bind us to significant dangers.

For many people it may take quite some time to develop such a balanced approach, but the efforts involved should be well repaid. There are many dangers around us that we need to be aware of (and responsive to) if we are to avoid the harm that such dangers can bring about. But there are also significant problems we can encounter if we go beyond awareness and responsiveness and enter the territory of being ‘risk averse’ – that is, of losing sight of that much-needed balance by allowing ourselves to be overcautious. We owe it not only to ourselves, but also to the other people in our lives (personal and professional) to make sure that we achieve the right balance when it comes to risk.

Don’t criticise what you don’t understand

Many years ago I came across the idea that, the further away from something you are, the simpler it appears, and that idea has stuck with me. What it was referring to was the tendency for complex matters to seem quite simple and straightforward from a distance. If you don’t have a full grasp of a situation, it is very easy indeed to oversimplify and thereby rely on a distorted picture that can be very unhelpful in a number of ways (not least in creating unnecessary tension and ill-feeling).

Consider, for example, the case of domestic violence. So often I have heard people say words to the effect of: ‘If he is hitting her, why does she stay there? Why doesn’t she leave him?’. Ah, if only life were that simple! Such situations are usually hugely complex, with all sorts of dilemmas and difficult decisions to make. Simplistic attitudes and a judgemental approach to something they don’t understand will often mean that people are being unsupportive of others precisely at a time when most support is needed.

This can lead to a vicious circle in which people who feel bitter, disappointed, angry and/or hurt by a lack of support and what they, quite understandably, see as a negative and unsympathetic attitude, they may then struggle to be supportive of others (note that I say ‘may’ – it is by no means certain that they will not be supportive, but it can and does happen). They are certainly likely to find it more difficult to be positive and supportive of others in such circumstances.

Another example would be a social media discussion I saw recently about efforts to help a homeless man. ‘Why doesn’t he just get a job?’, said one less than compassionate contributor, clearly unaware of (or choosing to ignore) the fact that getting a job without an address is nigh on impossible and that it is highly likely that the reason he became homeless in the first place (being abused, for example) may well be quite an obstacle to getting, and holding down, a job. And, of course, it ignores the fact that there are far more people looking for jobs than there are vacancies. Criticising what you don’t understand is therefore not only unjustified, unwise and unhelpful, it can also be quite harmful – part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

A further example would be when someone lets you down in some way and you start to condemn them for doing so without first finding out their side of the story. Indeed, it a common source of embarrassment is for Person A to criticise Person B, only to find out later that Person B had very good reason for letting Person A down (they were victims of a crime, for example, or were taken seriously ill, or other such fully understandable reason for not being able to fulfil a commitment they made).

It is therefore very important that we resist the temptation to criticise what we do not understand, to make judgements about people and/or their actions without understanding their story, without having the full picture. So, if we don’t understand someone’s actions, we should be ‘walking a mile in their moccasins’, rather than jumping to conclusions that can so easily be not only unfair, but also positively harmful (and, as we have seen, also potentially embarrassing and a possible blot on our own character or reputation).

Sadly, this tendency for people to criticise what they do not understand is a very common phenomenon and one that is constantly reinforced by some sectors of the mass media. Not rushing to judgement is a skill and value statement that we would do well to nurture and support, if not actually insist on.

Consider what your legacy will be

We can look back over our past and savour the beautiful and important moments as well as learn from the not so beautiful and the not so positive experiences. Equally, we can look back and dwell on the negatives, the mistakes, the regrets. We can also look forward and consider our future, plan ahead, anticipate and look forward positively. Or, we can look to the future with dread and anxiety, fearing the worst and thereby make our current situation quite an unpleasant one. So, whether we look forward or look back, we can focus on the positives, the negatives or a mixture of the two.

But, what we have to recognise is that all this is likely to have an impact on the present, on our current circumstances. Memories form a key part of who we are and how we make sense of the world. Similarly, our future – our hopes, aspirations, fears and plans – shape (and, in turn, are shaped by) where we are up to in the present. In technical philosophical language, we are ‘temporal beings’ – that is, our present, past and future interweave in complex ways. People who tell you to ‘just live in the present moment’ are not taking account of the fact that the present moment is rooted in both the past and the future. The better we understand our past and future (as well as our present), the better we understand ourselves – and the better equipped we will be to make the most of our lives.

Another aspect of this is that we can also imagine ourselves in the future looking back over (what will then be) our past. This can be a useful exercise to do to give us a sense of perspective. It can help us to appreciate what we have got going for us and give us a clearer picture of what we want out of life. It involves thinking about our legacy, the ‘you-shaped hole’ that each of us will eventually leave at the end of our days.

This isn’t about being ‘morbid’, it’s about getting a better overview of our lives. Imagining ourselves at some point in the future looking back over our lives can give us a sense of legacy, a sense of what will be left behind when we go. This isn’t about anything grand or ambitious, medals won or honours achieved – it is about what positive difference we have made.

Can we anticipate looking back proudly on our legacy and feel satisfied with what we have contributed through our life? Or do we fear being disappointed by what we see when we look back? Either way, what can we do between now and then to make sure that we feel good about what we expect our legacy to be. It might well be helpful in shaping our sense of purpose and direction, an important part of our spirituality and therefore of our well-being.

There is no right answer to any of this; it is all about having a sense of ownership of our lives – an awareness that the future is not written in stone and that by thinking in terms of our potential legacy, we can play an important role in shaping that future and making it as positive as possible – for ourselves and for the people we care about.

Many people that I have suggested this activity to have come back to me to say they found it very helpful – not necessarily easy, especially to begin with, but useful in providing a way of envisaging how we want our lives to go and what we need to do to increase the chances of it working out that way.

 

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.

Listen to both sides

Every one of us on the planet is a unique individual, a person in our own right, with our own unique perspective. Of course, there are various things that people can have in common – the influence of culture and upbringing, for example. We will share certain views with particular groups of people because of political affiliation, religious belief, educational experience or whatever, and so there will generally be considerable overlap between, say, my perspective and that of many other people. However, there will not be a single person whose outlook will be exactly like mine. Even identical twins will have significant differences of perspective on certain issues.

One of the implications of this is that conflict is inevitable. By conflict, I do not mean aggression, hostility or violence – these are the consequences of unresolved or mishandled conflicts. Human beings are very effective conflict managers for the most part. We tend to be quite skilled at making sure that we interact peacefully and have a number of strategies and rituals for helping us to do so. For example, a queue is one such strategy, in so far as it enables us to avoid conflicting interests degenerating into a free for all or set of aggressive encounters.

Conflicts often arise from differences of perspective. What to one person was friendly banter was perhaps to another a person a demeaning put down. Much of this stems from cultural expectations (turning down what is regarded in my culture as an invitation that I am free to accept or decline as I see fit may, in someone else’s culture, be regarded as a slight, an offensive refusal to accept the hospitality offered). Cultural differences can be a great source of learning and enrichment, but they can also be the basis for conflict.

Language is also a key factor. However effective we may be at putting our messages across clearly and unambiguously, there is always scope for misunderstanding and misperception, due to the nature of language itself and how it operates. Consider, for example, the word ‘sanction’ which can have opposite meanings depending on the context. It can indicate approval (‘The proposal has been sanctioned by head office’) or disapproval (‘Ian’s failure to attend the meeting is likely to result in sanctions against him’).

When we are called upon to respond to situations involving conflict (between ourselves and another party or between two other parties), it is therefore essential that we take into account the different perspectives involved. ‘There are two sides to every story’ may well be a cliché and an oversimplification of some complex interactions, but it none the less has more than a grain of truth in it.

So, when it comes to managing a situation where two or more people are in conflict it is important not to take sides and try and determine which person (or group) is ‘correct’. What is much more helpful is trying to facilitate the process of people understanding each other’s perspective and thereby reaching an acceptable accommodation – you hear both sides and help them listen to each other too. This is why mediators are trained to remain neutral and support people in resolving their own conflicts, rather than bring their own perspective to bear and thereby just complicate the situation further.

Where you find yourself in direct conflict with one or more parties (individuals or groups), try to understand their perspective to enable you to move towards a resolution. This is not about ‘giving in’ or letting go of your own views, but, rather, trying to find a constructive way forward based on mutual understanding. As well as this being much more effective it has the added bonus that you are likely to earn respect. Win a battle, you generate resentment; lose a battle and you generate contempt; avoid a battle by skilfully negotiating a positive way forward for all concerned and you generate considerable respect (which then puts you in a stronger position for managing any future conflicts).

Book Review: Sociology of the American Indian by Gerry R. Cox

Sociology of the American Indian by Gerry R. Cox, Edwin Mellen Press, ISBN 9 781495 503191

Guest post by Dr Sue Thompson

The discriminatory treatment of minority groups is something that still exercises us to this day, but it has a long history. A significant part of this history is the way Native American nations were displaced and marginalised by the European settlers. Much has changed since those early days, but the legacy of those events is still with us.

In this important text, sociologist Professor Gerry Cox provides a fascinating and thought-provoking overview of a range of key issues relating to the life experiences of contemporary American Indian groups. At over 600 pages it is a lengthy tome that offers a wealth of insights spread across twenty-five chapters. Topics covered include the complexity of Native American cultures, ways of dealing with loss, spiritual practices, family, afterlife practices, healing, beliefs and traditions, burial practices and the erosion of tribal languages.

The author clearly has extensive expertise in this area and shows great sensitivity to the life experiences of the peoples he discusses. What comes across very clearly is a strong commitment to highlighting important issues and the complexities involved, and, in so doing, moving away from the stereotypes and oversimplifications associated with dominant cultural representations of American Indians.

As the title indicates, the subject matter is approached from a sociological perspective, and this is an important part of what makes it such an interesting read. The author brings important elements of Native American lives into focus with his sociological lens.

This book is an important counterbalance to the simplistic distortions of the cowboys and Indians mentality that has suffused so much of the popular representation of American Indians. It will be of interest to anyone interested in the richness and diversity of human cultures.

Robert Adams – a sad loss

Robert Adams was one of the most successful and highly respected authors of his generation. His death on New Year’s Eve at the age of 70 therefore means that the world of human services is now much the poorer.

He was a prolific author and editor, with his work being extremely well received in social work and social care and the human services more broadly. He shared with me and many others a commitment to trying to make sure that social work was not seen as something separate from the wider field of intervening in human problems. In all this his compassion and integrity came shining through.

Jo Campling, the renowned publishing adviser, was keen that Robert and I should work together, as she described us as kindred spirits. Two planned projects on which Robert and I could collaborate both collapsed through no fault of our own, so we never did get chance to work together directly, although I did have chapters published in several of his edited collection books. But, more importantly, we did become friends.

Robert had a long and varied career, but in whatever field he worked he was well aware of the importance of values and of the need to act in accordance with them. His complete consistency in this was a key part of what made him such a special person and such an asset to our profession.

In addition to his very impressive human services publishing track record, Robert was also a crime writer, producing several crime novels that were well received. This is further evidence of what a talented and resourceful man he was.

Sadly not everyone in the caring professions is a caring person, but Robert certainly was. If ever there was a role model for being a member of the caring professions Robert was it. I personally will miss Robert a great deal, but more significantly, the field of human services education will miss him immensely. Thankfully, Robert leaves an extensive legacy of a range of excellent publications that will offer important insights to current and future generations of students, practitioners and managers.

Dr Neil Thompson

www.neilthompson.info

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