Use holding emails

Email communication is a very strong feature of modern working life for a high proportion of people. It can be a very convenient and helpful form of communication, but it can also be highly problematic in a number of ways. One such way is the common (but thankfully not universal) expectation that responses will be more or less instant. This can lead to two sets of difficulties. One is that the person receiving an email may feel under pressure to reply there and then (when perhaps a more considered response would be wiser) and another is that the person sending the email can feel they are being ignored if they do not receive a prompt response. One way of addressing this problem is for the recipient to send a ‘holding’ message, something like: ‘Thank you for your message. I will give the matter my careful consideration and come back to you as soon as I can’. This will prevent hurried ill-thought-through messages being sent and will also stop the sender sending follow up messages to see if their first message had been received. This technique also prevents us from feeling overwhelmed by email and therefore prone to getting stressed about it.

 

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.

 

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.

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.

Start your own book of the month club

When I worked with students on a full-time basis, I would suggest that, once they went out into the big wide world as qualified professionals, they should make sure that they continued to learn and develop. In particular, I would urge them to continue to read about their profession and build up their knowledge base over time. I would suggest to them that they should buy a book every month when they received their salary payment, so that it became an established pattern for them. I have since met several of those ex-students who have told me that they did just that and were glad they did, as it helped them to not only keep learning, but also to retain a sense of professionalism, recognizing that their work is rooted in an important professional knowledge base. So, how do you make sure that you are continuing to learn and maintaining your sense of professionalism?

Make a note of important ideas

I regularly run courses on which, despite having been given handouts with space for notes about each part of the course, a high proportion of the participants will not write down a single word. Perhaps they all have photographic memories or maybe they believe that learning happens by magic – they just have to hear what is being said and don’t need to remember it or apply it in any way; it will just automatically make them better at their jobs without any effort on their part. Similarly, many people have a good idea, don’t write it down and later struggle to remember what their important insight was. I don’t understand why so many people appear to be reluctant to make a note of important matters that come to their attention, but they are clearly losing out. So, do you have a system for making notes of important ideas and issues or are you happy to risk losing out by failing to learn from your experiences?

Question routines

Routines can be very helpful, as they enable us to deal with straightforward matters quickly, easily and efficiently. However, there are two potential problems with this. One is the danger of ‘routinization’, which is what happens when we overgeneralize and adopt a routine approach to non-routine situations – that is, we fail to distinguish between those situations that are simple enough to be dealt with in a routinized way and those that are not. The other danger is that routines become part of a culture and continue to be used long after the situation that first led to their development has ceased to apply. That is, they have become habits which were useful to begin with but are no longer helpful but continue to be used because no one has thought to do anything different. It is therefore important to question our routines from time to time, to see whether we are: (i) overextending them to non-routine situations; and/or (ii) still using routines that have long since lost their usefulness.