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.

Don’t let forms shape your practice

I often encounter situations on training courses where people say things like: ‘We can’t do that; the form won’t let us’. Of course, forms are a way of recording and collating information and therefore have an important part to play. However, recognizing the value of forms and allowing them to dictate our practice are two different things. If the forms help, that’s great, but if they are framed in such a way that they are unhelpful, shouldn’t we be changing the forms rather than changing our practice to suit the form? So, an important question to ask is: How do we get a form changed? What are the feedback mechanisms we can use to let the appropriate people know that these tools (for that is what forms are) are not well suited to purpose and need to be revised? The effort required to do this could be well repaid by the progress made and is certainly a better alternative to allowing forms (rather than our professional knowledge and values) to shape our practice.

 

Everyone has 24 hours in their day

‘I don’t have enough time’ is a commonly heard claim in busy workplaces, and there is certainly a great deal of evidence to show that time pressures are very significant for a high proportion of people these days. However, what we have to recognize is that everybody has the same amount of time – 24 hours in each day, seven days in each week and so on. It is not the amount of time available that distinguishes some people from others in terms of work pressures; rather, it is what we try to do with that time. If we try to do too much, we can end up spreading ourselves too thinly and end up being far less productive than we might otherwise have been if we had planned our use of time more strategically. Similarly, some people respond to high levels of pressure by burying themselves in their work and do not take time to step back, plan, set priorities or develop effective strategies for managing that level of pressure. They risk getting stuck in a ‘hamster wheel’ of relentless pressure that does not get them very far at all. Managing high levels of pressure is a very challenging enterprise, but we very much need to develop strategies for doing so and not allow ourselves to try to do the impossible by being unrealistic about what can be achieved in the time available – for example, by internalizing, or colluding with, other people’s unrealistic expectations, rather than challenging them.

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.

Find the right pace

When it comes to working with people and their problems get the pace right is perhaps one of the most difficult things to do, but do it we must. That is because if we are going to slowly we may miss opportunities to move forward – for example, ‘missing the boat’ when someone is in crisis and motivated to make important changes. If we move too swiftly, we may create (or exacerbate) insecurity and anxiety and thereby hamper progress in terms of whatever need we are trying to meet or problem we are trying to solve. So, how do we judge what is the best pace? There is no hard and fast rule but mainly it comes from looking closely at the situation, gauging reactions to our input and picking up the clues about how comfortable or otherwise the person(s) involved appear to be. Difficult though this may be, it gets easier with experience provided that we stay tuned in to the need to consider pace as an important feature of our work.

 

Silence does not equal consent

This is a mistake I made many times early in my career: making a suggestion or proposal, having no one object to it and then assuming that the lack of explicit objection constituted agreement to what I had put forward. I then had the unpleasant experience of watching my plans fall apart as people did not cooperate with them or play their part in moving things forward – or even, on some occasions, actively sabotaged what I was trying to do. It only slowly became apparent to me that they were never really ‘on board’ in terms of what I had proposed but, for whatever reason, had chosen not to voice their disagreement. So, there is a very important lesson in this: we cannot assume that silence equals consent. A lack of explicit disagreement is not the same as agreement. So, if we are relying on others to bring our plans to fruition, we need to make the effort to ensure that they are genuinely in agreement and make it clear that if they are not, they should say so.