Look after yourself

Some people cause problems for themselves and for others by simply ‘looking out for number one’ – that is, putting themselves, first, second and last. One of the problems with this approach to life is that it contributes to a vicious circle. The more self-centred people are, the more they contribute to other people feeling shunned, disregarded and even disrespected. While being treated like that may spur some people to be even more considerate to, and supportive of, others to counterbalance the negative experience they have had, that is not always the result. For many people there is a danger that other people’s selfishness and the negative consequences it brings lead them to withdraw into themselves, to adopt the attitude of: ‘Well, if other people are not going to consider my needs, why should I consider theirs? This is an example of a ‘category error’. ‘They’ becomes extended from ‘selfish, inconsiderate people’ (‘they’ don’t consider my needs’) to all people (so I will not consider ‘their’ needs). A specific category (selfish people) has now been extended to include people in general.

However, referring to this as a category error gives the impression that it is a rational matter, an error in thinking. In reality, though, it is more of an emotional response. It is more about feelings than thoughts. Being self-centred can be seen as a form of emotional protection: if I don’t get involved in other people’s concerns, they can’t hurt me. This is similar to the emotional ‘thick skin’ that people develop when they become burnt out, when they shut themselves off emotionally.

The other side of the coin, though, is when people are not self-centred enough, when they neglect their own needs – perhaps because they are anxious about being seen as selfish or inconsiderate. The technical term for this is being ‘other directed’ – that is, you focus first and foremost on other people’s needs. While in many ways this is a noble and positive thing to do, it is not without risks.

If we put other people’s needs first and last, we may end up neglecting our own needs. History is full of examples of people who created major problems for themselves (and for others) by not ensuring that their own needs were met. For example, I have met parents who have made themselves ill by sacrificing their own needs for the needs of their children – but their children then suffer as a result of one of both of their parents being ill.

What it boils down to, then, is that you will be ill-equipped to help others meet their needs if you are not attending to your own needs. I had a colleague once who gave up her job because she could no longer sustain the pressure of addressing other people’s needs while paying no attention to her own. The longer she remained in the job, the more convinced she was that she was heading for a ‘breakdown’. In addition, when I was a manager I had to work closely with one team member to make sure that she did not burn out because she had developed a dangerous habit of ignoring her own needs.

Looking after yourself is not about being selfish. Being selfish is a matter of focusing on your own needs at the expense of other people’s needs; looking after yourself is about making sure that you are in a strong, safe and healthy position to help others. The two things are entirely different, so we need to make sure that we are not falling into the (sadly all-too-common) trap of shying away from our own needs because we are falsely equating focusing on our own needs with being selfish. At times the price we can pay for making this mistake can be very high indeed.

Don’t disempower yourself

There are some people who can be so insensitive, dismissive and even abusive towards others that they have the effect of disempowering them, by which I mean putting them down, taking the wind out of their sails and undermining their confidence. This is bad enough, but what I have also noticed over the years is that there are just as many people – if not more – who do that to themselves. And that is what I mean by ‘self-disempowerment’. There appears to be no shortage of people who disparage themselves and undermine themselves (for example, through what is known as ‘negative self-talk’, such as telling yourself: ‘I can’t’ before you have even tried).

Sometimes this can be linked to depression. For example, people who are depressed are often unduly harsh towards themselves. Many times in my career I have found myself having a discussion with someone struggling with depression that involved basically trying to get the message across that, if they were being as harsh on other people as they are on themselves, they would consider themselves to be quite an unpleasant person. It is as if they are turning their frustrations inwards upon themselves.

Sometimes it can be linked to anxiety. If I tell myself I can’t do something, I don’t have to face up to the possibility of failure – or so it may seem. In reality, I am guaranteeing failure by not trying, but if I tell myself I can’t do it, then I don’t have to take the risk. In a way, it’s a form of bad faith, trying to deceive ourselves into seeing the situation in a way that appears less risky or threatening.

But very often it has nothing to do with either depression or anxiety – it is just a pattern of behaviour (and thought and feeling) that we have developed. This may be a response to how other people treat us – if enough people tell us we can’t, we soon start believing we can’t. Or there may be 101 other reason for how this state of affairs has come about. One thing that is likely to be common across the board, though, is negativity – self-disempowerment is characterised by a tendency towards negativity, defeatism and even cynicism.

But, what is most important is that we should recognise that it doesn’t have to be this way. What has been learned can be unlearned, anxieties can be conquered and depression can be relieved in the right circumstances. Self-esteem is a concept that is often overused and oversimplified, but this is a situation in which it is very relevant. If we don’t have at least a basic level of self-worth and self-respect, we will struggle to get past negativity.

This does not mean that there are easy answers or magic solutions, but it does mean that, if you are prone to self-disempowering tendencies there are steps you can take – you don’t have to resign yourself to it and write yourself off by saying ‘I can’t help it; it’s the way I am’ or ‘It’s my nature’. These are just other ways of disempowering ourselves. Similarly, if you are involved in supporting others who are prone to self-disempowerment, you can take heart in knowing that it is not an impossible task.

Some people oversimplify the matter by just urging people to ‘Be positive’. To someone who has developed self-disempowering ways of operating, that’s not likely to mean much to them. What can be more helpful is recognising what can be controlled and taking steps to control it. That way, you can try to move from ‘I can’t’ to ‘Oh, I did!’. The concept of tentative confidence can be helpful. ‘Consolidated‘ confidence is when you are able to say to yourself: ‘I know I can do this’, because you know you have done it before – your confidence comes from learning from experience. To reach this stage we need to start by saying: ‘I don’t know whether I can do this, but I’m going to have a damn good try!’. In that way tentative confidence can be a stepping stone to consolidated confidence – we can go from strength to strength, provided that we don’t write ourselves off before we even start.

 

Read and write

There has been some scaremongering going on that involves suggesting that reading and writing are dying out, in their present form at least. I’m not so sure that I would go that far, but things are certainly changing. Let’s start with reading.

The traditional idea was that much learning was done by reading and subsequently applying the knowledge gained to situations you encounter. The more reading you did, the better equipped you were to deal, in an intelligent, informed way, with the challenges life threw up for you, whether at work or in your private life. However, a very clear pattern that I have noticed is that many people now are not reading to anywhere near the extent they used to. A common way of learning now goes something like this: I want to learn how to do x, so I put into Google: ‘How to do x’. What then comes up will be either a short set of written instructions or, increasingly a ‘how to’ video. While this can be a really useful and effective way of learning very practical things, it has a lot of limitations.

Learning by reading exposes us to a wide range of idea and perspectives and that then gives us a basis for comparing and contrasting, developing our own critical perspective, rather than just taking what one person sets before us at face value. Such reading will also stimulate new ideas, new avenues of exploration and study. It encourages us to develop our own perspective, to synthesise ideas from different sources and approaches.

There is much more to learning than just finding a guide on ‘how to do x’. Practical skills are important, but the ability to explore and critically examine ideas and form your own views is an essential basis for more sophisticated forms of learning – for example, the learning needed for the type of complex situations you will encounter if your work involves having to influence other people in some way (whether you are trying to help them, manage, them educate them or sell to them in some way).

And what about writing? One of the reasons I wrote my Effective Writing e-book is that I was very aware that a lot of people struggle with getting their message across in writing. This is partly because of changes in technology – text speak, for one thing, and trying to express everything in an abbreviated form in emails for another. But, I believe it also partly relates to the fact that fewer people seem to be reading these days. The less you read, the less exposed you are to different writing styles, different devices for getting your message across clearly and effectively. And the less confident you will be with spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Writing is important not only for communicating successfully, but also for (i) impressing people; and (ii) consolidating and extending your learning and understanding. Poor spelling, poor or non-existent punctuation and dodgy grammar may not be the end of the world in the overall scheme of things, but if you are trying to impress someone for whatever reason, not being able to write well will stand in your way to a great extent. I have some sympathy with the argument that things like spelling shouldn’t matter as long as you get your message across, but the fact remains that they do matter – they will give people a bad impression.

Writing also helps you think through your understanding. Trying to explain something to someone else (in a letter, report or essay, for example) can help to deepen and/or extend your own understanding. This is why schools, colleges and universities ask students to write essays – not just for assessment purposes, but also to consolidate learning.

So, reading and writing are tools that can be really useful for us in so many ways. We can use them, sharpen them and get the best results from them, or we can leave them gathering dust in our toolbox, just using them to the bare minimum when we have to.

Reference

Thompson, N. (2013) Effective Writing, an e-book published by Avenue Media Solutions and available on Kindle and other e-book platforms.

See also: Thompson, N. (2011) Effective Communication: A Guide for the People Professions, 2nd edn, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

 

If it doesn’t work, stop doing it. If it works, do it more

We are well aware, of course, that if something doesn’t work, we should stop doing it – although that knowledge doesn’t necessarily prevent quite a few people from pressing on regardless with tactics that just don’t deliver the required results. Part of the problems is the power of habit (particularly when such habits have become ingrained in the culture and become part of the expected norms of the workplace concerned. So often people get into an established way of working that they feel comfortable with and stick with it, whether or not it actually works. Much of the time they don’t even know whether or not it is working. So embedded are they in this standardised way of working that they do not take time out to gauge whether what they are doing is making a positive difference. In some cases it may actually be making the situation worse.

I have spoken to many groups of people (on training courses, at conferences or in consultancy projects) about the importance of evaluating our efforts. I have highlighted the dangers of pressing on regardless, without having a clear picture of whether what we are doing is actually helping us to move forward. Huge amounts of time, effort, energy and scarce resources can be wasted through working practices that have not been evaluated. This is not only inefficient, but can also have an adverse effect in terms of morale. Ineffective practices are unlikely to generate much job satisfaction or opportunities for creativity and learning, so unquestioned habitual practices are bad news all round.

However, there are two common responses I have encountered and have had to deal with when raising the issue of evaluating working practices. The first is the ’We don’t have time’ response. I am then faced with the challenge of trying to get across – tactfully and constructively – the message: So, you have got time to waste on ineffective and inefficient practices that undermine morale and block progress, but you haven’t got time to look at whether what you are doing is actually worth doing? It’s a question of using time to save time.

The second common response goes along the lines of: ‘We don’t have the expertise to evaluate our work’. This displays a confusion between formal, research-type evaluation carried out by experts (an activity that can have an important role to play in many circumstances) and day-to-day evaluation processes. What evaluation boils down to is being clear and focused about: (i) what you are trying to achieve; and (ii) whether or not you are achieving it. Often the problem lies with either: (i) a failure to establish in the first place what was to be achieved (that is, the goal-setting phase has been omitted from the work process); or (ii) objectives have been developed that are too vague, making it difficult to establish whether or not they have been achieved.

Evaluating our work efforts is not rocket science, and it gets easier with practice. The key, as I have already suggested, is clarity – particularly clarity of focus. Habit and unquestioned cultural norms tend to act as a fog, serving as a barrier to clarity and generating a lack of focus. Consequently, we need to understand evaluation as part of reflective practice – being prepared to think about (and think through) what we are doing and not just rely on habit and routine to get us through the day.

By making evaluation a part of our working lives, we are in a strong position to know what doesn’t work, so that we can stop doing it, and appreciate what does work, so that we can do more of it.

Be lucky

I’ve never given any credence to the idea that you ‘make your own luck’, as if chance in life can be ruled out in some way. But there is a very real sense in which we can affect the luck we have. We can’t stop chance occurrences from happening, but there is much we can do about how such matters affect us.

The Ancient Greeks spoke of the constant tension in life between Cosmos (order) and Chaos (disorder). Many things happen along straightforward lines. They are regular, predictable and orderly – natural processes, for example. But that is only half the story. There are also things that happen at random, in unpredictable, disorderly ways. For a long time there was a scientific orthodoxy that assumed that everything in the universe followed predictable patterns. Those things that appeared to be random were following patterns that science was yet to discover and understand. As Einstein famously said: God does not play dice with the Universe. However, quantum science, as it has come to be known, is now challenging that orthodoxy and helping us to understand that there are indeed random elements in the Universe – chance is real and not just an illusion that scientists have yet to dispel.

So, if we have to accept that we are all subject to chance, how can we make sure that we can ‘be lucky’? Well, it all depends on our reaction to chance events, how we respond to them. So, we can’t stop certain things from happening, but we can control what we do about them. We can be negative and defeatist and just moan about some untoward event that has happened. Or, we can cast off any such cynicism and look closely at what we can do positively about the situation we are in. It comes down to something I have discussed with many, many groups of people over the years (on training courses, at conferences, when being a guest speaker at a university and so on): when we encounter a situation we are not happy with we have two main choices: on the one hand we can spend our time complaining about has happened and bemoaning our fate, thereby contributing to low morale (hence making a bad situation worse). Or, on the other hand, we can pull together and support one another in doing the best we can in difficult circumstances (and thereby make a contribution to boosting morale, rather than lowering it).

So, we don’t make our own luck if by that we mean we can prevent or counteract all chance happenings – that simply isn’t realistic. There are so many things that will happen that we can neither control nor influence. However, we can ‘be lucky’ by making the most of the opportunities chance throws up for us – capitalising on the positives, making the best of the negatives – rather than allowing ourselves to be trapped in a vicious circle of disempowering negativity.

Luck and chance are about opportunities. Chance happenings will close off certain opportunities, but will open the door to certain others. If we see luck as something we just have to learn to live with, we will be missing the opportunities that are presented by chance events, whether those events are positive or negative, welcome or unwelcome. It’s what we do with them that counts.

Don’t procrastinate

Why put off until tomorrow what you can put off to the day after?, as the old joke goes. But the price we pay for procrastination is no laughing matter. We have known for a long time that one of the key elements that contributes to stress is not having a sense of control. The more out of control we feel, the more stressed we are likely to get, and that can then have all sorts of detrimental effects.

A common reason for procrastinating in the first place is anxiety – for example, putting things off that we don’t feel comfortable or confident about doing (the things we do feel comfortable and confident about are likely to be the things we do first). So, what can easily happen is that our anxiety leads to procrastination, procrastination reduces our sense of control, which creates stress, and that, in turn, increases our anxiety. So, a vicious circle has been established. And, as is so often the case with vicious circles, once they start they can be really difficult to get out of.

Now consider the alternative. We plan our work, we establish our priorities and work our way methodically through them, so that anything that gets left until tomorrow is the least important (not what we feel least comfortable or confident about – which may well be very important stuff). As a result of this, we are likely to have a greater sense of control and therefore feel less stressed, which should then make us feel less anxious. We will then have fewer things that we feel uncomfortable and unconfident about – so it is good news all round! What we have done is take a vicious circle (negative and destructive and a significant source of problems) and developed it into a virtuous circle (positive and constructive and a significant source of confidence and motivation).

I have had the opportunity to speak to a large number of groups of people about this, on training courses, for example. A common response is words to the effect of: ‘That sounds a good plan, I will try to do that’, to which I would normally reply: ‘Why are you saying you will try to do this? Why aren’t you saying that you will do this? It’s 100% within your control’. The ensuing discussion gets them thinking about what they need to do to make the changes in approach. It helps them to realise that saying that they will ‘try’ cedes a degree of control – so they are already falling foul of the problem they are trying to solve.

Of course, the irony here is that the ‘I will try’ approach can easily become a form of procrastination in itself. That is, they go away from the course with the intention of giving it a go, but they soon get wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of their normal workplace routines, and before long, the idea has disappeared, left for ‘another day’.

 

So, if you are going to get the benefit of this more positive and effective approach, you need to grasp the nettle and make it happen. If you don’t, you are back onto the slippery slope of procrastination. It’s in your own hands. Take control and make it happen or let the control slip from your hands. Empower yourself or disempower yourself: the choice is yours.

Count your blessings

Consumerist messages are all around us: buy, spend, consume. Underpinning these is the powerful message that success in life is defined by your spending power. But it’s more than that; there is a strong message too that we should be constantly striving for more: spending more, which means earning more, constantly wanting more. We should never be satisfied with what we have got, because that will mean we will desire less and therefore spend less.

This sort of materialism is problematic at a number of levels. In particular, it has the unfortunate effect of making it less likely that people will count their blessings and appreciate what they already have. This can be at a simple, straightforward level. For example, wanting to buy that new item of clothing may mean that great clothes you already have gather dust in the wardrobe. But, it can also apply at a broader level, in the sense that we can lose sight of the positives of our lives. Positive can easily come to be defined as whatever is new, shiny and exciting – all quite superficial compared to what is really important in our lives.

When we add to this the fact that news media tend to focus largely on negative stories – wars, terrorist incidents, disasters, crimes and so on – we can see that there is another strong cultural message that detracts from the positives in our lives. The negativity fed to us daily reinforces the message that happiness is to be found in materialist consumption – spending money! So it takes us back to the idea that what is important is what we buy. We may joke about ‘retail therapy’, but there is a very serious message about being part of a culture that defines satisfaction in consumerist terms. This is ironic when you consider that consumerism, by its very nature, breeds dissatisfaction. When you have bought the latest desired item, there is always another one to entice you into spending further.

Wealth tends to be defined in financial terms these days, again reflecting the consumerist materialism that is all around us. But, originally, the term ‘wealth’ was much broader. Wealth is what makes you rich, but how riches are defined can be much wider than just your bank balance or stocks and shares. What makes us rich is much more than money, spending power or possessions.

An important concept here is that of ‘social capital’. This refers to the benefits we get from social connections and relationships, the ‘people’ resources we can draw upon. And, regardless of material wealth, people differ enormously in terms of the social capital they have access to. Some people who devote much of their time and energy to material gain can lose out in social capital terms – they are too busy ploughing their own financial furrow to gain the benefits of wider human connections. By contrast, some people who have very little materially may be very wealthy because of the riches they have in their life associated with people and relationships, not money and possessions.

There is also ‘cultural capital’ to consider. The benefits of education and a thirst for learning, the pleasures of the arts and music and other cultural ‘riches’ can be of far more value than being able to afford the latest shiny object or being able to show off our material wealth.

So, when it comes to counting your blessings, to working out how ‘rich’ you are, don’t forget to include your social and cultural capital, as these can generally do far more for your well-being than straightforward material rewards.

Set positive goals

A lot of what has been written about goal setting is simplistic and misleading, as if to suggest that if you set goals, somehow your life will be transformed. But, despite this hype, there is much value in setting goals for yourself. This is because it gives you a sense of purpose, something to strive towards and, as such, can be an important source of motivation.

However, the goals you choose have to be meaningful and realistic. Meaningful goals relate to things that matter to us, things that are important to us in our lives. Goals that are linked to other people’s ideas about what our goals should be or what direction we should be taking our lives in are unlikely to be strong sources of motivation. And, of course, they need to be realistic, otherwise we are simply setting ourselves up to fail. But we also need to recognise that there are two aspects to being realistic: nature and scope. By nature I mean the type of goal you are setting. For example, you may set yourself the goal of achieving a particular promotion, but that may be unrealistic because you cannot control the decision-making process about who gets the promotion. You can influence it by doing an extremely good job, impressing at interview and so on, but you cannot control it. However brilliant and well suited to the job you are – there is always the possibility that there is another candidate who is even more brilliant or even better suited to the job (or at least someone who appears so to the panel). So, getting the promotion may well be a worthwhile and valid aspiration, it’s not really suitable as a goal.

By the scope of a goal, I mean how realistic the goal is in terms of terms of the extent you can reach. For example, if your goal is to lose weight, being unrealistic about how much you can lose or how quickly you can lose it will not be helpful. Again, it is a matter of setting yourself up to fail.

So, to be an effective source of motivation, goals need to be both meaningful and realistic. But there is one other things they need to be if you are to get then most benefit from them: they need to be positive. This is because framing goals (and other things, for that matter) in negative terms is likely to lead you into a negative mode of thinking. Like the ‘rubbernecking’ that goes on when a road accident has occurred (and which can lead to further accidents) – we can easily get drawn to negativity. Consider too what happens if you are instructed not to think about pink elephants: what is it you think about? So, when it comes to goal setting, negativity is very much to be avoided.

Positive versions are very much to be preferred:

 Negative goals                                                                  Positive goals

To lose weight                                                                   To eat more healthily and to exercise more

Not to lose my temper so easily                                    To learn to keep calm at all times

To be less defensive                                                       To try to learn from criticism

Of course, in reality, you would need to be more specific than this – the more specific the goal, the easier it is to work out whether or not you are meeting it or how close you are getting. It can be helpful to divide goals into overall aims (to eat more healthily) and specific goals (eat more vegetables).

So, are you clear about your goals? Are they meaningful and realistic? And are they framed in positive terms? Then, you’re all set to go!

Don’t confuse motion with action

How busy someone is and how productive they are can be two very different things. Being busy can become a vicious circle. We can get so busy and have so many plates to keep spinning that we don’t actually manage to make much headway; we achieve relatively little. We can then become demoralised because we feel we aren’t getting anywhere. When morale goes down energy levels go down too. Less energy makes us less productive. Being less productive means we feel we have to do more, so we become busier, but not necessarily more productive.

If we are not careful it can lead into a vicious circle of stress too. If our energy levels are low, but we have a lot to do, we can feel overwhelmed. We can then feel that we have little control over our work and that’s what opens the door to stress.

So, what can be done about this? Well, the first thing we need to do is to stop and think (good old reflective practice). Pressing on regardless and not trying to get to grips with the challenges we face is not likely to help at all. We then need to work out what it is that we are trying to achieve, what our various goals are. We then need to weigh up the various activities that we get engaged in and categorise them in terms of how useful they are when it comes to achieving whatever it is we need to get done. We can use the traffic lights approach for this:

RED These are things that are just not getting us anywhere. Perhaps we are involved in these out of habit or tradition, a powerful force in any organisation (many unproductive meetings, for example) or may have evolved without any plan or specific direction. This type of dead time is more common in organisational life than most people realise. The more worn out people are, the more this happens, so an important step forward is to cut out from your schedule those things that don’t actually get you moving in the direction you need to go in.

AMBER These are activities that may help you move forward or may not, depending on a number of factors. Some of these you will need to let go of, but others may well be worth retaining. Working out which is which can be difficult and may need a lot of thought. Sometimes it can be helpful to discuss these in supervision or with a mentor if you get chance, as an independent view of the situation can often be helpful.

GREEN These are the things that are positive and productive; they help you move forward. Make sure you hold on to these and, if you can, do more of them. Ironically too many RED or AMBER activities can often mean that the positive activities get squeezed out. For example, I have lost count of the number of people who have told me that they get too busy to think and largely do their work on automatic pilot – they have lost sight of how dangerous it is to be doing their job without thinking about what they are doing. They are also not realising that if they did more thinking (planning, analysing, reviewing and learning), they might be more effective and less likely to get drawn into the RED or AMBER zones.

This approach won’t work for everyone, but it can make a big difference. It can help to make sure that all the effort you put into your work is worthwhile and helps you to get somewhere (or decide on a difference tack if it is not getting you anywhere).  The more pressurised the work setting the more valuable – and necessary – this approach can be,

Be assertive

Assertiveness is a widely misunderstood term. Many people use it to mean being stroppy or difficult, unaware that this is a significant distortion of the philosophy underpinning the idea of assertiveness. For example, on training courses I have been running I have many times come across comments to the effect of: ‘If I were assertive, I would be disciplined’ or ‘If I were assertive people would give me a really hard time’.

To a certain extent I can understand where the confusion stems from. Part of the idea of assertiveness is the recognition that you need to stand up for your rights and not let people exploit you. But standing up for your rights by being combative or aggressive is certainly not what assertiveness is about – quite the opposite in fact.

Being assertive is about attempting to negotiate win-win outcomes. It involves having the interpersonal skills to move forward without pushing people into a corner, while also not allowing them to push you into a corner. Some people develop these skills in growing up, it is part of their upbringing. Other people develop them through training and/or professional experience in the field. Yet others go through their life without ever learning these skills, and can lose out significantly because of that.

Some people oversimplify assertiveness by assuming that it is just a matter of compromise, of ‘meeting in the middle’. Compromise is certainly one potentially useful assertiveness technique, but it is just one amongst many. Another important one is what is known as ‘principled negotiation’. This differs from the traditional idea of ‘positional negotiation’ where the parties involved adopt their own negotiating position and try to coerce the other party into accepting it or at least moving towards it (pay negotiations have traditionally taken this form). Principled negotiation, by contrast, is a process whereby those involved identify their differences and explore possible ways of achieving an outcome that everyone is happy with (or is at least prepared to accept). This can often be done without generating any unnecessary tension or bad feeling (as opposed to positional negotiation which has a tendency to generate a lot of tension and ill feeling).

So, the philosophy of assertiveness is certainly not about getting into trouble, being disciplined or getting a hard time. Who would want to discipline someone who has the skills to create solutions that re acceptable to everybody concerned? That’s more likely to lead to promotion than to disciplinary proceedings!

However, there are two important caveats to be aware of. First, it is possible to get yourself into trouble if you misunderstand assertiveness and think of it simply as insisting on having your own way and possibly doing that in a combative, hostile or unprofessional way. Sadly, quite a few people have told me of situations where they ‘stood up for themselves’, but they did it in such a way as to alienate other people. They have lost sight of the fact that it is all about trying to get your needs met, but without preventing other people from getting their needs met, where possible. In more straightforward terms; don’t let other people do the dirty on you, but make sure you don’t do the dirty on them either.

Second, we have to recognise that some people will not play ball. No matter how skilled you are they will hold on to their position, their territory and may even resent your efforts to move forward constructively. Assertiveness is very useful, but as with all tools or techniques, it has its limitations. However, even when assertiveness doesn’t work, it has one very significant advantage: it helps you to identify people who may be ruthless and unprepared to give an inch. Knowing who those people are can help you to make sure that you are, as far as possible, safe from them. If you are unaware of the dangers they pose you can find yourself in a vulnerable position and unprepared.

So, assertiveness is not a magic answer, but it is a very important tool that can be highly effective most of the time, warn you of dangers on those occasions when it is not effective, while also helping to boost your confidence and your credibility in your interactions with others.