Remove distractions where possible

Effectiveness in working with people relies to a large extent on being able to communicate successfully, to make a genuine and meaningful connection with the person(s) concerned. Distractions can get in the way of this (for example, a television being on during a home visit or noise coming from an adjacent room). We need to be tuned in to how problematic such distractions can be, and this is for two reasons. First, it makes it harder for both parties to ‘connect’ where there are distractions; and, second, if it is clear that you are aware of such distractions and you are doing nothing about it, both your credibility and your effectiveness go down significantly. So, having the presence of mind to identify distractions and the negotiation skills necessary to reduce or minimize them is an important foundation for good practice in the people professions. Sadly, I have seen so many people try to press on despite distractions and pay the price when it would have been far more effective to recognize the significance of the distraction and try to do something about it.


Don’t take it personally

In the people professions we will often come across people who are distressed, agitated or otherwise in a bad place. Often this will result in their being unkind or worse towards others, including ourselves – even though we may be doing our best to help and support them. They may swear at us, insult us or even physically attack us. Now, while such behaviour is not acceptable and should therefore not be condoned, we should also recognize that we would be wise not to take such matters personally. It is much more likely that they are taking their frustrations out on the role we occupy or the organization we represent or, ironically, may be venting their dismay and/or wrath in our direction because they feel safe enough with us to do so (a very backhanded compliment!). Encountering such negative feelings is difficult and challenging enough, so we have to make sure we do not make it worse by taking it personally when in most situations that is not likely to be the case.


Aim for adult-adult

Transactional analysis, or TA for short, is now often seen as old-fashioned, but good ideas have a tendency to endure beyond fashion. TA teaches us that we should aim for interactions with others that are characterized as adult-adult (that is, based on mutual respect and consideration) rather than parent-child (based on dominance), parent-parent (a power battle) or child-child (neither person taking ownership of the situation). This is a very simple framework of understanding, but it can be very useful in a variety of circumstances. For example, supervision at work can be very effective and empowering when it is adult-adult, but can create resentment and distance when it is carried out on a parent-child basis. So, are you relating to people in an adult-adult way, as this is what is likely to bring out the best in both parties? Is someone behaving towards you in a parent-child way? If so, how can you influence the situation to make it a more effective adult-adult set of interactions?

Respect cultural differences

The idea of cultural sensitivity is now a well-established one, but my experience has taught me that many people do not fully understand the implications of that. For example, many times I have come across people who assume that it applies only when dealing with somebody whose skin colour is different from one’s own. In reality, it is much more complex than this, as there will generally be cultural differences that relate to class, region, profession or vocation, linguistic group and so on. Culture is a much broader and more inclusive concept than it is generally given credit for. Our own cultural backgrounds and experiences will have been a profound influence on who we are (our identity), our sense of where we fit in the world and where we are going (our spirituality). So often breakdowns of communication and other problems have their roots in one person seeing the situation from their own cultural standpoint, while one or more others see it from different cultural standpoints.


Acknowledge problems, but focus on solutions

There tends to be a strong emphasis these days on ‘positive thinking’ and optimism. While there is much to be said for the benefits of such an approach, we also need to be aware of some of the dangers associated with it. One is for problems to be swept under the carpet in our desire to focus on the positive elements of a situation and thereby de-emphasize the negative or problematic aspects. What can be much more fruitful is to ensure that we acknowledge the problems we come across, but then adopt a positive approach by focusing on solutions. This is a matter of finding a constructive balance. On the one hand, it is dangerous to ignore problems in some misguided sense of positivity, but on the other it can make problems worse if people allow concerns about such problems to predominate – that is, if they wallow in the negativity problems can produce. Being positive about problem solving can give us the best of both worlds: we are not naively ignoring problems, but nor are we allowing their negativity to undermine us. Indeed, such a positive approach to problem solving is an important basis for empowerment, for supporting other people in resolving their own difficulties.

Try Garfinkeling

Harold Garfinkel made a name for himself as a sociologist by changing certain aspects of a social situation and seeing what the consequences would be. In this way, he was able to identify implicit social rules by breaking them. This process became known as Garfinkeling. An example would be to change the gender of a person in a certain situation (in order to highlight the gender role assumptions being made) and seeing what difference that makes. Changing age group can also be enlightening in terms of highlighting ageist assumptions. For example, I once came across a geriatrician who would challenge ageist statements by saying: ‘Would you have made that comment if this person had been 30 years younger?’. Garfinkeling, then, is a useful tool for highlighting discriminatory assumptions by reversing some aspect of the situation so that previously taken-for-granted assumptions become apparent. Try it. It can be fun as well as enlightening.


Use of self

We live in what seems to be an increasingly consumerist society where helping people seems to be interpreted mainly as giving them some sort of service. We seem to have lost sight of the well-established notion that the best resource we can offer people is ourselves – what textbooks have traditionally referred to as ‘use of self’. By showing concern and interest and forging a meaningful human connection with people we can often be much more helpful to them than by referring them to a service which may or may not be of benefit to them. Some may argue that most people professionals don’t have time to do that these days, but I would argue that, if you have the skills and confidence, it is possible to capitalize on ‘use of self’ in a relatively short period of time. It is in large part a matter of changing our mindset from a service delivery one to a problem-solving, empowerment one.


Take a break

Most workplaces seem to be very pressurized places these days. One of the dangers of this is that some people respond to pressures in ways that can make the situation worse. For example, it is not uncommon for busy people not to take a break. They seem to think that they are so busy that they just have to press on. But if we don’t give our bodies and our minds the opportunity to recover from the strain we put them under in pressurized circumstances, we risk making ourselves ill through stress. We are also more likely to make mistakes, to be less creative, to fail to learn, to be more anxious and defensive in our practice, to gain less job satisfaction and ultimately burn ourselves out. It is only in exceptional circumstances that we should have to work through time that should be set aside for taking a break. If that is happening regularly, then either there is a fundamental issue around work overload that needs to be addressed or we are not being sufficiently disciplined in our self-care and we are allowing ourselves to risk being overstretched, with potentially serious consequences.

Don’t try to do the impossible

The Avenue e-learning course, Successful Time and Workload Management, is based on four rules of time and workload management. One of those rules is: too much work is too much work. That is, if you have too much to do in the time available, then you need to find different ways of doing things rather than just try to do more than is possible and quite feasibly work yourself into a vicious circle in which your work pressures become increasingly unmanageable. A key word here is ‘strategizing’. Don’t try to do the impossible by trying to do two days’ work every day. Use reflective practice to explore strategies for managing the pressures you face so that you are not overwhelmed by them. Strategizing won’t provide magic answers, but it will certainly put you in a much stronger position than trying to do the impossible.  

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.