The idea of the value of learning from our mistakes is well established, but unfortunately many people don’t manage to get the benefit of this. That is because they adopt a defensive approach to mistakes; they see them as things to cover up or deflect attention from. Nobody is perfect and so mistakes are inevitable, so there is little point in trying to give the impression that we never make mistakes. Some mistakes can be embarrassing, but most are not unless we are trying to come across as ‘mistake proof’. Some mistakes are quite serious, but the more serious they are, the greater the scope for learning. However, that’s not to say that even small mistakes cannot produce significant learning. But, of course, no mistake will produce learning unless we are prepared to be open to learning by admitting that we are not perfect.
In any project or task we undertake, it can be very easy to get engrossed and lose focus on why we are doing it. If, however, we can make sure we don’t lose sight of the why (the purpose), we will be in a stronger position to decide on the how (the method) and put it into practice. Sadly, though, it is not uncommon for people to become so busy doing something that they forget why they are doing it. They then lose sight of how best to move forward. Clarity about why we are doing something will make us more motivated to achieve our goals and give us a more helpful picture of the possible ways of achieving them. If other people involved in the situation are clear about why we are doing something, then they will be in a stronger position to play their part in making the project a success.
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.
How to manage a range of pressures is a challenge that we all face. A very worrying (but sadly not uncommon) scenario is when we allow home and work pressures to combine to overwhelm our coping resources. An alternative strategy is that of ‘compartmentalization’. This means training ourselves to focus on our home pressures when we are at home and our work pressures when we are at work and having a clear boundary between the two. Many people achieve this by having some sort of ritual that symbolizes the end of the working day and the return to home life – for example, by getting changed. Different rituals work for different people, but they can all play an important role in keeping our two domains separate so that we do not find ourselves in the situation where home and work pressures combine to leave us feeling stressed and ill-equipped to cope with the challenges we face.
It is now increasingly being appreciated that self-directed learning is the most effective form of learning. That is, if we are able to identify for ourselves what we want or need to learn and how we are going to learn it, we are likely to be more motivated and the learning gained will be more suited to our own specific needs. Unfortunately, though, many people adopt a passive approach to learning – they assume that it is someone else’s job to take the lead, an ‘expert’ in learning like a teacher, tutor, trainer or mentor. Of course, such people can be very helpful as guides, advisers, sources of encouragement, support and ideas, but the more control we have over our own learning, the more effective it is likely to be – and the more committed we will be to continuing to learn throughout our careers. Teachers, tutors, trainers and mentors can often provide helpful maps of the learning territory, but we need to determine our own itinerary if we are to get the best results
I have run very many training courses where I have asked the group: ‘How many of you prepare for meetings so that you are better equipped to get the best results from the time you are putting in?’. It is very rare for the majority of responses to be in the affirmative and quite often it is as little as 10% or so of the group. And yet, if you think about it, many people spend a great deal of time in meetings, much of which can be wasted, unproductive (if not counterproductive) time if it is not focused enough. It can therefore be helpful to do some pre-meeting preparation by asking yourself: (i) What do I want out of this meeting?; and (ii) What do I want or need to put into it? It may then be that, in some circumstances, you will decide that there is little point in attending. However, where you do attend you should be in a stronger position to gain some benefit from your attendance if you are clear about what you want to contribute and what you want to take from the meeting.
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.