We get so used to seeing the world from our own point of view that it is easy to forget that how other people see it can be very different. For example, what is routine and straightforward to you can be quite scary and unsettling to someone else who does not have the experience of that type of situation that you have. So, it is important at all times to remember that other people are not inside your head with you – we need to be careful not to be ‘egocentric’ by assuming that our ‘take’ on the situation is the only way to see it. The idea of perspective taking is that of putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes as far as possible. This can come from a mixture of imagining how they might be feeling and actually checking out with them what their perspective is.
Sometimes the difficulties we face in organizations can seem so deep rooted and so extensive that we can feel there is nothing that can be done about them. A pervasive sense of defeatism and hopelessness can easily set in. This is especially the case where morale is low. The result can be a vicious circle: defeatism contributes to low morale and low morale makes people feel helpless. In reality there is often much that individuals can do – especially when working collectively – to make a positive difference. Organisational cultures – whether positive or negative – are basically sets of habits, and habits can be changed. Start to explore possibilities rather than assume that there aren’t any.
Many a problem has been caused by someone putting something in writing in a way that led to misunderstanding. What you intended to convey and what is interpreted by the reader can sometimes be very different indeed. For example, what you intended to be friendly advice could be perceived as issuing instructions. These mismatches arise because communication does not take place in a vacuum. When you write something you will be doing so within a context of your own circumstances and your own frameworks of meaning. The person reading what you have written will be doing so within their own context and their own frameworks of meaning, and so there is plenty of scope for misunderstanding. What can be helpful is this: if you are writing a letter or report, imagine you are the intended recipient and have just opened and read it. That is, put yourself in the recipient’s shoes. Are you sure, when you look at it from this perspective, that what you have written will convey what you wanted it to?
There are some things that each one of us is responsible for – that is, they are individual responsibilities. I have to do what I have to do and you have to do what you have to do. Some things are shared responsibilities – that is, we have to do them together. Teamwork is a good example of this. Developing effective teamwork is the responsibility of every team member, not just the leader. Then there are also responsibilities that belong to other people – they are not mine, they are not yours, they are not ours. It is important to be aware of these boundaries as it can be quite problematic and potentially stressful if: (i) we do not fulfil our individual responsibilities; (ii) we do not contribute to our shared responsibilities; or (iii) we overload ourselves by taking on responsibilities that are not ours, that belong elsewhere. The detrimental consequences of losing sight of these boundaries can be quite significant.
Physical contact is a very powerful form of communication. It can be powerfully negative – for example, touch used in a threatening or aggressive way or as an invasion of privacy – or powerfully positive as a means of conveying support, concern, affirmation and validation. Provided that we have the sensitivity to know where the boundary is between supportive and intrusive touch, we can use touch to express empathy and concern, build trust and make an important contribution to helping people who are facing considerable challenges or who would benefit from human connection at a time of difficulty. Do you know of anyone who uses touch very sensitively and effectively? Watch them closely when you can and see what you can learn from how they use it.
The idea that ‘grief is the price we pay for love’ is a longstanding one. When we love (a person, a thing, a job or whatever) we may make an emotional commitment or investment (‘cathexis’, to use the technical term). When we lose who or what we have invested in we feel the emptiness of the emotional void that has been created by that loss. This can affect us at different levels (physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually) and can have a hugely powerful impact on our lives. Some people make the mistake of assuming that grief applies only to death, but, of course, it can arise as a result of any significant loss. If we make the mistake of not taking account of grief in people’s lives, we can be basing our actions and interactions on a very partial and distorted picture of the situation.
To lose face means to become embarrassed or to feel that your standing has been diminished. Unfortunately, if we are not sensitive enough in our interactions with other people, we can easily unintentionally make them lose face – for example, by implying a criticism of them. In some cases this can lead you an aggressive reaction. This is because, if people are faced with a choice between losing face and reacting strongly, many will choose the latter. Indeed, feeling diminished or humiliated is a common cause of aggressive or even violent reactions. We therefore need to make sure that we are skilful enough to avoid contributing to situations where people lose face. Saving face means, on the one hand, not embarrassing ourselves, but also making sure we don’t unwittingly embarrass anyone else. This is partly basic good manners, but it is also about being able to tune in to the situation we find ourselves in and being alert to any potential sources of losing face. For example, in circumstances where someone is, or has been, upset or angry, they are more likely to regard an ill-chosen comment as a slight. This does not mean that we should be ‘walking on eggshells’, but it does mean that we may create problems if we just press on without considering the dangers of causing someone to lose face.
Some people seem to think that an apology is an admission of guilt or even of negligence and are therefore very careful not to utter the word ‘sorry’. This is very unfortunate, as saying sorry can defuse a tense situation, while not saying sorry when an apology could have helped a great deal can inflame a situation quite significantly. But often it isn’t a deliberate strategy to withhold an apology; it’s simply a matter of allowing work pressures to distract us to the extent that we lose sight of basic manners. Our own pressures stop us from seeing the situation from the other person’s point of view and thereby prevent us from taking their feelings into account. A classic example of this is when a complaint is made about something of low to medium importance, evokes an unapologetic response which is interpreted as being ‘fobbed off’, which then leads to a much stronger complaint being made – a deeper hole has been dug, and totally unnecessarily.
There are some obvious signs of aggression and potential violence, such as reddening of the face, threatening gestures and so on. However, it is important to realize that there are many other, more subtle clues that can alert us to the potential for aggression and violence. In situations where we anticipate someone may become aggressive (where we have to deny their request, for example), we need to be using our nonverbal communication skills and watching carefully for signs that tension is growing. There is often an escalation. For example, it may start with something quite minor and normally imperceptible (drumming of fingers, moving about uneasily in their seat and so on). There are things we can do to minimize the chances of aggression and violence (effective listening, for example), but ultimately, if you feel you are in real danger of being assaulted it is wise to leave the situation at the earliest opportunity – for your own protection and also for their protection, as having a criminal assault charge against them is likely only to make their situation worse.
In the previous tip I talked about how distractions can get in the way of effective communication, but in this one I want to look at how distracting someone can be a helpful thing to do in certain circumstances. It is a technique well known to many parents: to distract their child when they are misbehaving, getting upset or otherwise being demanding. But few people recognize that it can also work well with adults (provided that it is not done in a patronizing way). It can be useful when someone is anxious and/or fixated on a particular concern, depressed or agitated. It has to be done tactfully and sensitively, but it can make a very positive difference in the right circumstances. For example, if someone is focusing purely on the negatives of a situation, it can be helpful to try and balance this out by helping them to focus on the positive aspects of their circumstances.