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.
Stereotyping can be seen as a very real danger when you consider how often we are fed inaccurate, distorted and oversimplified stereotypes by the media. There is therefore a very strong need to be ‘stereotype aware’ and try to makes sure as far as possible that we do not allow ourselves to be influenced by them. One such stereotype that I have come across time and time again is the assumption that certain people are likely to be hard of hearing and that it is therefore necessary to shout. Older people are a prime target for this type of stereotyping, but disabled people are not immune to it either. While the incidence of hearing loss is indeed greater in the older population than in the general population, this is far removed from assuming that all older (or disabled) people have a degree of hearing loss. It is easy enough to adjust our volume if we need to, and so there is no need to shout as a general rule, as that just reinforces stereotypes and can be intimidating. But, such is the prevalence of stereotypical thinking that very many people resort to raising their voice without even realising that they are doing so.
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.
Many people confuse sympathy (sharing the same feelings as someone else) and empathy (being able to recognize someone else’s feelings and being able to respond appropriately, but without necessarily having those feelings ourselves), while others settle for apathy, in a state of semi-burnout. But clearly empathy is what we need to aim for: being able to be supportive of others who are wrestling with emotional issues, but without facing the same emotional challenges ourselves. However, what is very clear is that this is not simply a matter of saying: ‘I know how you feel’. This is a very unhelpful and potentially quite counterproductive way to respond, partly because: (i) we do not know how someone else feels (for example, if I am helping someone who has just lost their father, the fact that I have lost my father does not mean that I know how they feel, as our respective experiences of losing a father may have evoked very different feelings); and (ii) making such a comment means we are focusing on our own feelings rather than those of the person we are trying to help.
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.
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.
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.
From time to time we find ourselves in situations where we are find it difficult to comprehend what has happened – times of loss, crisis or sudden change, for example. It is as if our head knows, but our heart hasn’t caught up, and so ‘it doesn’t seem real’ can be a thought that runs through our mind. This is a perfectly normal phenomenon and nothing to be concerned about in itself. However, we need to be wary of two potential problems. One is that, when we find ourselves in such a situation, we may make decisions that we later regret because we have been destabilized by the change that has occurred. For example, some people can respond quite rashly in situations where they are confused about what is happening. Second, if we are trying to help somebody who is in a ‘heart hasn’t caught up with head’ situation, we have to bear in mind that they may not be taking on board what we are saying to them because of the sense of emotional shock they are experiencing. We therefore have to choose our moments carefully in working with someone in such circumstances.
Communication goes awry quite regularly, which is not surprising when you think about how much of it we do in any given day. One common way in which communication breaks down is when what is said (or written) does not cover both topic and comment. The topic is what we are talking about and the comment is what we are saying about it.
They can be articulated separately (‘You know that book on stress I lent you? [topic] I will need it back soon if that’s OK [comment]’) or together (‘Can you please let me have that book on stress I lent you back soon?’). Either is fine when both are covered, but often, there is a topic identified, but it is not clear what the comment is (‘You’ve got my book on stress, haven’t you?’). Is this simply a comment to check that the book is still in their possession or is it an indirect request for it to be returned? It is not clear.
Similarly, effective communication can be undermined by making a comment without specifying the topic – something that commonly evokes a response along the lines of: ‘Sorry, I’m not clear what you’re referring to?’. What can be much worse, though, is when the topic is not specified and the person listening makes a false assumption about what the topic is – and then we have a recipe for major misunderstanding and miscommunication. So, it pays to make sure that we are always clear in communicating both topic and comment.
A question I have asked many individuals in one-to-one discussions and groups of people I have been working with has been: Are you living your life or is your life living you? This is not just playing with words; it is a very, very important question. It has major implications.
I have been involved in some very interesting and enlightening discussions as a result of asking that question. It has helped so many people realise that their approach to their life in so many ways is a passive one. Things happen to them; they accept them, learn to live with them; and then more things happen.
The irony of this is that we are constantly making choices, whether deliberate decisions or choices we make without even realising that we are doing so. And yet, despite all those opportunities to make changes, to move in a direction we would be happier with, so many of our choices result in maintaining the status quo, the passive life.
Many self-proclaimed gurus have made a great deal of money (or tried to) by offering magical solutions that can make you more successful, happier and better off in so many ways. A recurring theme in these is the process of ‘getting hold’ of your life, recognizing what is holding you back and then moving forward. Of course, by their very nature, these things tend to oversimplify complex issues, but their basic premise is fairly sound. But, we don’t need a magic solution; we just need to look carefully at what the comfortable routines we rely on are and, for each one, decide whether they are helping or hindering. That will then give us the basis of a plan for moving forward (preferably with the support of at least one person we fully trust). This is not necessarily simple or easy, but nor does it involve any magic spells or potions, literally or metaphorically.
We are habit-forming creatures and, for the most part, that is no bad thing. Habits unclutter life to a certain extent and give us a sense of familiarity, rhythm and security. They also save us a lot of time and effort. However, they also have their downside. They can block off interesting avenues of exploration; they can numb us so much that we miss important subtleties and miss out on important opportunities. They can stifle us.
Habits are inherently conservative, which is what can make them useful (they give us stability), but it is also what can make them problematic. We can so easily become controlled by our habits; we can become their puppets, rather than being the puppet masters.
Much of the time we are not even aware that we are relying on a habit; we slot so easily and comfortably into them. In a very real sense, our habits are part of who we are – our characteristic behaviours, our attitudes and what we feel comfortable (or ‘at home’) with. The French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, used the term, ‘habitus’ to refer to our own private world, our own sort of personal culture. Its links with both habit and habitat are not coincidental – it is where we live, figuratively speaking and the routines that keep us there.
Our habitus is a source of comfort and security for the most part, but it can also become a prison if we allow ourselves to get too locked into it, no longer open to new experiences, opportunities and risks.
So, that brings us back to this key question: Are you living your life or is your life living you? To what extent you are successful in life (however you define success) is likely to depend in no small measure on how you answer it.