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.

I-Thou, not I-it

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.

 

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.

 

Clarify boundaries

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.

 

 

Choose the right communication method

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.

Say thank you

Saying please and thank you is a basic part of what we are taught as children. But saying thank you is more than just good manners. It is a way of showing appreciation and of cementing cooperative working relations. While it is certainly not uncommon for people to say thank you to one another in the appropriate circumstances, there are also very many occasions when it is not said and when it could have been very helpful to do so. There are also many times when it is said in a curt or routine way that does not really convey appreciation – it comes across as just a social ritual, rather than a meaningful (and effective) communication. Try two things as an exercise. First, watch carefully as people interact (whether in real life or on TV or in films) and note how often thank you is not said (or not said convincingly) and consider how different the interaction might have been if a genuine thank you had been said. Second, try saying thank you meaningfully whenever the opportunity arises (without going overboard!) and see what response you get from people.

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.

Accept what you can’t change

‘Facticity’ is the technical term for the things we cannot change, the things that are beyond our control. There will always be such things, and we have to get used to that. Some people have a problem because they tend to be defeatist. They accept things that they don’t need to accept – they fail to recognise that there are steps they could take to address their problems. However, the problem I am talking about here is the opposite of that. It refers to situations where people know there is nothing they can do, but they try to do it anyway. For example, someone who is interviewed for a job, but is unsuccessful may not be willing to let go of this fact. They may rail and rage against their potential employer, as if they have done them a significant injustice, rather than accept that, in the interviewing panel’s view, another candidate was better suited to the job. Not getting the job does not mean that you are a failure or that you are inadequate; it simply means you were not their first choice. Change what you can change, by all means, but railing against what you cannot change is a waste of time and energy and succeeds only in generating unnecessary bad feeling.

 

Conflict can be constructive

Conflict can range from mild disagreement to violent confrontation, and, especially in its stronger forms, can be extremely destructive. However, it would be a significant mistake not to recognize that, in the right circumstances and if handled skilfully and confidently, conflict can actually be constructive. This is because carefully controlled conflict can spur innovation, free people up from tramline thinking, generate considerable learning, provide opportunities for people who have previously been at loggerheads with one another to respect one another, allow us to see situations from new perspectives and so on. Conflict can be understood to be like fire. If it is controlled and handled carefully, it can be very productive and helpful, but if allowed to go unchecked, can be enormously destructive, raging out of control and drawing in a wide range of people who get harmed in the process. Developing the skills of handling conflict effectively is therefore a very important basis for best practice in working with people.

Conflict can range from mild disagreement to violent confrontation, and, especially in its stronger forms, can be extremely destructive. However, it would be a significant mistake not to recognize that, in the right circumstances and if handled skilfully and confidently, conflict can actually be constructive. This is because carefully controlled conflict can spur innovation, free people up from tramline thinking, generate considerable learning, provide opportunities for people who have previously been at loggerheads with one another to respect one another, allow us to see situations from new perspectives and so on. Conflict can be understood to be like fire. If it is controlled and handled carefully, it can be very productive and helpful, but if allowed to go unchecked, can be enormously destructive, raging out of control and drawing in a wide range of people who get harmed in the process. Developing the skills of handling conflict effectively is therefore a very important basis for best practice in working with people.