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.

Customer Care: Getting it right

We don’t get a second chance when it comes to first impressions, and yet sadly many organizations pay relatively little attention to how people are greeted when they have their first contact with the organization concerned. If we want to make a positive difference, then it is important that we get off to a good start by giving a positive, welcoming message, letting people know that they are valued and respected. Much of ‘customer care’ is basic communication skills, but there can sometimes be additional challenges involved (for example, where someone is irate or threatening). Of course, however difficult such situations may be, we need to remain focused and respectful – even if we feel very uncomfortable. This will help to make sure that, after the person concerned has calmed down, they will appreciate how well they were treated. If, on the contrary, we allow the tensions involved to prevent us from being helpful and supportive, we can be creating significant difficulties for ourselves (and/or our colleagues) further down the road if the message we are giving out is that resolving our own discomfort is more important than providing genuine customer care.

Dadirri listening

Listening, of course, is more than just hearing. It is about paying attention to someone in a way that creates a genuine human connection. Sometimes that connection is enough to enable the person concerned to feel stronger, more confident and better supported in dealing with their difficulties. Listening is an important first step in terms of exploring potential solutions, but at times listening is enough on its own to find the strength to move forward positively. ‘Dadirri’ is a concept drawn from Australian aboriginal culture which refers to the type of listening that creates that all-important bond, listening that gives a strong and genuine message that we are concerned and that we are here to help without judgement. It could be described as listening with our heart rather than just with our ears. When you have been on the receiving end of such listening you will know about it, as you will feel the positive, empowering effects of it. Learning how to develop dadirri listening is therefore an important step forward for us to take.


Tolerate silence

In working with people emotions are never very far away. Being able to tune in to other people’s emotions, to be aware of our own and get the balance of head and heart right is often referred to as ‘emotional intelligence’. A key part of this is being able to tolerate silences. When someone is distressed or otherwise in the grip of strong emotions, they may fall silent, and that silence can feel very uncomfortable for us. We can be very tempted to jump in and ask a question or just fill the gap in some way. Understandable though this may be, it can be quite problematic because we are, in effect, giving the person concerned the message that dealing with our own discomfort is more important than giving them the emotional space they need. If we are able to resist the temptation of filling the silence we give the much more positive and supportive message that we are there for them, that they are not facing their difficulties unsupported. And what an important message that can be.

Who is being awkward?

It is not uncommon for us to find ourselves in situations where we are wondering: ‘Why is so and so being so awkward?’. In such circumstances we tend to focus on their behaviour or attitude, but this can be misleading. That is because the chances are that, while we are thinking they are being awkward, they are probably thinking we are being awkward. So, what can often happen is that a situation that is rooted in a conflict between two parties is not recognized as such by either of them, each putting the difficulties down to the other’s ‘awkward’ behaviour. While some people are often uncooperative for their own reasons, in the majority of cases believing that someone is being awkward should alert us to a conflict situation which should be addressed as such – that is, we need to look at the situation in terms of the interactions between us (and any conflicts of interest, perspective, goals or values that might be underpinning them) and not simply in terms of the other person’s behaviour.


Choose your friends wisely

A common theme in the psychology literature is the distinction between introverts and extroverts. The former tend to prefer their own company and see social interaction as a necessary evil, rather than something to be enjoyed. The latter, by contrast, are likely to seek out and cherish social contact and may not feel comfortable when alone. These ideas have been very influential, despite the fact that they (the popularised versions at least): (i) take no account of the social circumstances (the role of culture, for example) that can be so influential in shaping behaviour and social interactions; and (ii) also tend to polarize people (that is, put them at one extreme or the other, without recognizing that people can be located along a continuum from one extreme to the other (and will move along that line in different circumstances or at different times).

What they represent is a tension around social distance. That is, certain people at certain times will feel that they are too closely connected to others and will want more personal space (traditionally, the introvert stance). Other people at other times will crave less social distance – that is, they will want as much social contact as possible (traditionally, the extrovert stance). Imagine somebody being upset for some reason (they have been offended perhaps). Some people will want to be alone and will find other people’s presence uncomfortable, while others would seek out other people’s presence, as that would help them start to regain their emotional balance.

There is no right or wrong about these things; it is about what works when and for whom. So, what does this mean about choosing friends? Basically, it means that, in making friends with people, we are taking risks. The more friends you have, the more support you potentially have available and the more opportunities for social interaction. But, it also means that the more opportunities there are for people to let you down, a higher chance of conflict arising and the greater the potential for your personal space to be intruded upon.

Much will depend on how important each of these different factors are to you. People with extrovert tendencies may operate on the basis of the more friends the better, and thereby increase the chances of the negative possibilities creeping in. People with introvert tendencies, by contrast, are likely to be more selective in who they accept, or seek out, as friends, and could therefore lose out in terms of missing opportunities for potentially fruitful friendships. This is yet another example of the importance of balance.

Much will also depend on where along that continuum your friends tend to hang out. For example, an extrovert person may find having extrovert friends a blessing and may find introverted friends hard work. Likewise, an introvert person may struggle with too many extrovert friends because they may take up too much of his or her personal space, but may feel very comfortable with fellow introverts.

Thinking in these terms won’t give you a formula for choosing your friends wisely, but it should give you some helpful food for thought.

The existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, famously said that hell is other people, meaning that other people can so easily get in our way, frustrate us or generally cause us problems. He had a point, of course, but what he didn’t say is that heaven is, or can be, other people too. That is why friends are so important and valuable to us, and that is also why it is so important to choose our friends wisely. We don’t have complete control over who does or does not become our friend, but don’t make the mistake of thinking we don’t have any.

Find the small things that make a big difference

If you cast your mind back to science lessons at school, you will probably remember learning about leverage. That is, you will have learned that a pivot or fulcrum can enable us greater lifting power – it gives us leverage. This can also apply in a more indirect, metaphorical sense. This is what I mean by the small things that can make a big difference.

Smiling is a simple, but important example. Trite though it may seem, interacting with people with a smile on our face can make a huge difference to how we are perceived and how people respond to us (although it has to be a genuine smile and not a forced one). Another case in point would be using someone’s name when talking to them. This can make a very positive difference when it comes to forming a rapport and winning trust, although it has to be done sensitively – unlike the salesman who once added my name to every sentence. I was tempted to ask him which training course he had been on that had advised him to use people’s name to try and ‘seal the deal’. Of course, it did the precise opposite; it wrecked any possible deal.

But, it isn’t just in direct personal interactions that we can use this leverage. I was lucky enough to find early in my career that following something up in writing could make a huge difference. For example, if I was trying to encourage someone to undertake a particular task or move in a particular direction, I found that reinforcing my message in writing significantly increased the chances of success. It was as if the authority of the printed word added extra emphasis to the message I had been giving verbally.

In my education and training work, what I have also discovered is that helping people adopt self-directed learning can make a huge difference to their development. Most people allow others (teachers, trainers, tutors, managers) to be in control of their learning. Taking hold of your own learning, putting yourself in the driving seat is a small move, but with huge potential consequences, as self-directed learning, tailored to your own specific needs, is by far the most effective form of learning.

There is no standard, set list of the small things that can make a big difference. These will vary from setting to setting, situation to situation, person to person. Consequently, if you are to get the benefits of this, you will need to think the issues through for yourself. Of course, the examples I have given should point you in the right direction and give you a foundation to build on.

This will involve thinking about the sorts of situation you tend to find yourself in (whether in your working life or private life). What are the things that cause you most difficulty or take up most resources to deal with? These are the situations where making a positive change could make a big difference and produce very positive results. Are there any changes you could make (any pivots you could take advantage of) that would be small in themselves, but big in terms of the difference they make. Do give it a try as it is surprising how often small changes can make a big difference – as my advisory and consultancy work has shown me time and time again.

You don’t have to be alone in doing this. Discuss it with friends and/or colleagues, see what they think, see how you can help each other (they may come up with things you may never have thought of, and vice versa).

Don’t hide

There will often be times when it is wise to take a backseat, to keep your head down and not get involved. Some situations are best avoided, as the hassle of getting involved far outweighs any potential benefits. But, there will also be times where we are tempted to bow out, to slip quietly away and leave it to other people to sort things out when perhaps that is not the wisest strategy.

For example, there will be times when someone is being treated unfairly or in a way that undermines their dignity (bullying clearly comes into this category). We may be tempted to stand back and pretend we haven’t noticed. However, much of such bullying (and other forms of unacceptable behaviour) flourishes precisely because people do not challenge it.

I am not suggesting that you ‘cause a scene’ or put yourself at risk, but often all that is necessary is for it to be made known, subtly and gently, that you are aware of what is going on. That will often be enough to stop the behaviour from continuing. Knowing that they have at least some degree of support can also encourage the person on the receiving end to feel more confident in doing something about it – or at least not feel so isolated or vulnerable. By contrast, if we, in effect, hide we are giving the perpetrator a subtle message that what they are doing is acceptable.

Another example would be a training course I once attended. There was only one female participant and the male trainer was being consistently patronising towards her. The response from her and the other male participants was nervous laughter, which just seemed to encourage him even more. I decided that I could not let this pass, but was conscious that it could be uncomfortable for everyone (including the woman concerned) and thereby block learning if I openly made an issue of it. So, instead, every time he did it, I pointedly made eye contact, frowned and shook my head. This soon had the desired effect. I reinforced my point on the evaluation form at the end of the course. I subsequently received an email from the company who had commissioned him to say that they would not be using his services again. Let’s hope he learned the lesson from that.

But, it isn’t just bullying or discrimination that we should not hide from. I was once siting in a hotel lobby and I noticed an elderly woman try to use the revolving door. The door was moving slowly and so she pushed on it to try and make it go faster. The result was that the built-in safety feature made it stop. This made her push even more, thereby making sure that the door stayed firmly still. She was now trapped, unable to proceed and unable to go back out. I could see that she was getting distressed. I could also see a man sitting nearby who had witnessed what was going on but chose to ‘hide’, to bury his nose in his newspaper, leaving the woman at the mercy of modern technology designed to protect her. I got up to go across and tell her that she just needed to stop leaning on the door and it would start to move again, but another woman, closer to her, beat me to it, and the ordeal was quickly over. A distressed, but now relieved, person was able to escape. The ‘rescuer’, I noticed, glared at the man with his newspaper who had decided that alleviating the woman’s distress was less important than not getting involved.

As is so often the case, it is a matter of balance, neither putting ourselves at risk, nor failing to be decent citizens by hiding.

Negotiate expectations

When two or more people come into contact with one another there is already a set of expectations, social rules about how to relate to other people. These are part of culture. In addition, there are sets of expectations that apply to specific situations – consider, for example, the rules that govern buying something in a shop, ordering a drink in a café or a bar, and so on. Breaking these rules (jumping the queue, for example) can cause a lot of bad feeling and displeasure.

But there is more to it than this. When you form a relationship of any kind with someone, a set of expectations specific to that relationship will quickly develop. Having these expectations is generally a positive thing; it enables our interactions to run smoothly, with a minimum of tension. However, such expectations are not always positive. For example, in an abusive relationship, the expectations or unwritten rules will generally suit the abuser, but at the expense of the person being abused.

But, even in non-abusive situations, there can be expectations that are problematic for at least one person. Consider, for example, how many arguments between partners begin with: ‘Why is it always me who is expected to …?’ and it Is not just in our private lives that these things can happen. The workplace is full of sets of expectations too, mainly positive, but sometimes negative and unhelpful.

Bullying situations would be one example of this. The bully’s expectation is that they can treat you badly and, if you complain, they are likely to twist the situation to make it look as though the problem is you being unreasonable. But, again, it is not just in these extreme situations that expectations can be problematic.

However, it is essential that we realise that such expectations are not necessarily written in tablets of stone. Expectations can generally be renegotiated. For example, consider comments like:

  • ‘I’ve noticed that it is generally me who does x, maybe we should think about sharing out that task in future. That would give me more time to get y and z sorted.’
  • ‘I’ve been thinking. We seem to have got into the habit of x. Perhaps it would make more sense if we looked again at how we deal with these things.’
  • ‘Have you noticed that you are the one who tends to do y? I’m quite happy for you to do it most of the time, but do you think there is any chance I could do it sometimes?’

Note that these statements are not hostile. They are not attacking or criticising the other person. They are genuine attempts to renegotiate expectations. The idea behind this strategy is that, if you are reasonable, supportive and cooperative in how you tackle the issues, you are putting gentle pressure on the other person to be reasonable, supportive and cooperative in return. There are no guarantees, of course, but this approach is used very effectively on a day-to-day basis by large numbers of people.

So, the first step is to identify what the expectations are that are causing you problems or holding you back in some way. The next step is to think carefully about how those expectations could be renegotiated to improve the situation. Where possible, try to think of ‘win-win’ outcomes – that is, changes that benefit the other person as well as you, thereby making it more likely that they will agree to what you are suggesting.

But, perhaps the most important point to note is that you don’t have to be a slave to other people’s expectations. You don’t have to agree to lose out.