There tends to be a strong emphasis these days on ‘positive thinking’ and optimism. While there is much to be said for the benefits of such an approach, we also need to be aware of some of the dangers associated with it. One is for problems to be swept under the carpet in our desire to focus on the positive elements of a situation and thereby de-emphasize the negative or problematic aspects. What can be much more fruitful is to ensure that we acknowledge the problems we come across, but then adopt a positive approach by focusing on solutions. This is a matter of finding a constructive balance. On the one hand, it is dangerous to ignore problems in some misguided sense of positivity, but on the other it can make problems worse if people allow concerns about such problems to predominate – that is, if they wallow in the negativity problems can produce. Being positive about problem solving can give us the best of both worlds: we are not naively ignoring problems, but nor are we allowing their negativity to undermine us. Indeed, such a positive approach to problem solving is an important basis for empowerment, for supporting other people in resolving their own difficulties.
Harold Garfinkel made a name for himself as a sociologist by changing certain aspects of a social situation and seeing what the consequences would be. In this way, he was able to identify implicit social rules by breaking them. This process became known as Garfinkeling. An example would be to change the gender of a person in a certain situation (in order to highlight the gender role assumptions being made) and seeing what difference that makes. Changing age group can also be enlightening in terms of highlighting ageist assumptions. For example, I once came across a geriatrician who would challenge ageist statements by saying: ‘Would you have made that comment if this person had been 30 years younger?’. Garfinkeling, then, is a useful tool for highlighting discriminatory assumptions by reversing some aspect of the situation so that previously taken-for-granted assumptions become apparent. Try it. It can be fun as well as enlightening.
We live in what seems to be an increasingly consumerist society where helping people seems to be interpreted mainly as giving them some sort of service. We seem to have lost sight of the well-established notion that the best resource we can offer people is ourselves – what textbooks have traditionally referred to as ‘use of self’. By showing concern and interest and forging a meaningful human connection with people we can often be much more helpful to them than by referring them to a service which may or may not be of benefit to them. Some may argue that most people professionals don’t have time to do that these days, but I would argue that, if you have the skills and confidence, it is possible to capitalize on ‘use of self’ in a relatively short period of time. It is in large part a matter of changing our mindset from a service delivery one to a problem-solving, empowerment one.
Most workplaces seem to be very pressurized places these days. One of the dangers of this is that some people respond to pressures in ways that can make the situation worse. For example, it is not uncommon for busy people not to take a break. They seem to think that they are so busy that they just have to press on. But if we don’t give our bodies and our minds the opportunity to recover from the strain we put them under in pressurized circumstances, we risk making ourselves ill through stress. We are also more likely to make mistakes, to be less creative, to fail to learn, to be more anxious and defensive in our practice, to gain less job satisfaction and ultimately burn ourselves out. It is only in exceptional circumstances that we should have to work through time that should be set aside for taking a break. If that is happening regularly, then either there is a fundamental issue around work overload that needs to be addressed or we are not being sufficiently disciplined in our self-care and we are allowing ourselves to risk being overstretched, with potentially serious consequences.
‘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.
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.
This distinction comes from the work of Buber, a theologian. I-Thou refers to interactions that are premised on dignity and mutual respect. These can be enriching and humanizing for both parties. I-it interactions, by contrast, are purely instrumental, purely about getting the job done with the minimum of human connection – not necessarily rude or discourteous, but with no warmth or feeling. These interactions can be dehumanizing not only for the person on the receiving end of such an approach, but also the person who initiates this type of interaction. Some people rely on I-it interactions because they have no motivation to rise above simply getting the job done. However, even people who are committed to I-Thou interactions and the advantages they bring can slide into I-it interactions at times – for example, when they are under high levels of pressure, are working in a context of low morale or have other concerns that are distracting them from doing their job to the best of their ability. This can be dangerous, as it can create a vicious circle: interacting with people at an I-it level can make us far less effective, potentially lead to complaints and/or dissatisfactions, bringing additional pressure which can then make it all the more likely that we respond to others in an I-it way.
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.
Often confusion arises because there is a lack of clarity about who is responsible for what. The more pressurized the situation is, the more likely this problem is to occur. This confusion can breed anxiety and that anxiety, in turn, can lead to fuzzy thinking which then contributes to confusion about boundaries. There is therefore much to be gained from being clear about where the boundaries lie. It is important to be clear about what you are personally responsible for in any given situation. But it is also important to be clear about what part you play in any shared responsibility. Are the others who share that responsibility clear about their contribution and are you all clear about how you are going to exercise your shared responsibility? Are you also clear about what is not your responsibility so that you can avoid stressing yourself out by worrying about matters that are someone else’s responsibility? Establishing clarity about boundaries not only makes our own position easier to manage, it also provides a much firmer basis for working in partnership.
Email has proven to be a very effective communication tool, saving a great deal of time, money and effort compared with the pre-email days. However, email has also brought problems, not least the well-documented ‘flame wars’ where miscommunication upon miscommunication has produced a series of heated interchanges that would probably have never happened in face-to-face circumstances. One problem that has received far less attention is the tendency to overuse email, to use it as the tool of communication, rather than one amongst many. For example, some matters can be much better dealt with by a telephone conversation or even a face-to-face meeting. And, while email has replaced letters in many situations, there remain many circumstances where a letter is a better solution – for example, where an extra degree of formality is called for or in responding to serious concerns. So, while email is an excellent tool, we need to make sure that we don’t allow it to take over and leave no room for other methods of getting our message across.