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.

Think!

There are two ‘sides’ to our brain and nervous system. One deals with routine matters that we don’t have to think about – the things we just do, like walking and breathing. Then there is the part of our brain and nervous system that deals with the things we do consciously. Most of the time we rely on the former and only call on the latter when we need to. That is, much of what we do is carried out with little or no conscious thought – and that’s a mixed blessing.

On the positive side, it means that there is much we can get done with minimal effort, leaving us to focus our mind on other things. On the negative side, it means that there is a danger that we may do things on ‘automatic pilot’ that really do need our full attention. In a general sense, just think about how many road traffic accidents are caused by people not concentrating, by drivers not having their mind fully on driving safely. And in a professional sense, we need to be careful that we are not doing important things in a routinised, unthinking way.

This brings us to an important part of reflective practice, namely the ability to stand back from a situation and clarify what is happening, what we are doing, what we need to be doing, what pitfalls we need to be aware of, and so on – what is often called ‘reflection-in-action’. This involves switching from the side of the brain and nervous system that deals with automatic, unthinking actions to the other side, the side that deals with conscious thought. It involves becoming more alert (more ‘mindful’, to use the currently popular terminology), more tuned in to our surroundings and our circumstances.

Unfortunately, being called upon to focus in more consciously in this way can make some people feel anxious. In my experience this is often because of negative experiences in the education system where they have been criticised (or even mocked) for their efforts to think things through. For other people, because they are busy, they can make the mistake of assuming that they are too busy to think; they feel under pressure to just ‘get on with it’, as if thinking is a waste of time. Some organisations can cause problems too, because many have a culture that discourages thinking. Thinking is sees as ‘down time’, something you do instead of working, rather than an essential part of effective professional practice. Of course, some thinking can be a waste of time if it is unfocused, ill informed or misdirected.

What is also important to recognise is that, although thinking is something we can all do to at least a basic level, it is possible to develop our skills to a more advanced level. For example, there are analytical skills that involve, among other things, being able to recognise significant patterns and interconnections in a given situation. The good news is that it is possible to develop those skills over time, to become more effective thinkers. A key element of this is practice. That is, the more we think, plan and analyse (that is, the more reflective we are), the more skilful we will become over time. By contrast, the more intellectually lazy we are (that is, the more we shy away from thinking), the more we are denying ourselves the opportunity to improve our thinking skills.

Some people will warn of the danger of thinking too much, of ‘overthinking’, but generally that is more to do with anxiety than thinking, and that is a different kettle of fish altogether. Then there will also be the people who complain thinking is no substitute for doing – just thinking about something does not produce results. But I don’t think anyone is really advocating thinking instead of doing; it’s more a case of thinking to help doing, to try and make sure that what we do is safe, appropriate and effective.

Know your blind spots

No one has 360-degree vision. When we are focusing on something, everything else is out of focus, so there will be many important things that are there, right by us, but we don’t see them. That is fine most of the time, but on occasions it can be really problematic if we don’t make ourselves aware of those blind spots. How often have you felt like kicking yourself because, after the event, you have realised that you missed something significant and really wished you hadn’t?

What is boils down to is that perception is an active process. Our senses don’t just simply alert us to what is around us in a direct way, with us passively receiving the sense data. What actually happens is that our senses are constantly filtering out much of what is presented to them. Much will depend on purpose. What is it we are doing? What are we trying to achieve? Answers to those questions and others will shape what is highlighted by our senses and what is filtered out. For example, imagine a painter and decorator entering a room to prepare for carrying out work there. What they notice will be linked to what they need to know in terms of the materials needed, any particular complications or whatever else a painter and decorator needs to know. Now imagine that a health and safety inspector subsequently enters the same room. They are likely to pay no attention at all to how many rolls of wallpaper would be needed or whether the doorframes would need to be sanded down. But what they are likely to notice is that loose electrical socket in the corner that could be highly dangerous or the pile of boxes in the other corner that is so high and so badly stacked that it is only a matter of time before someone brushes against it and gets seriously injured. They went in to the same room, but saw different things and came away with different conclusions, and therefore will no doubt behave differently as a consequence.

What we notice (and don’t notice) therefore depends largely on what we are doing and why we are doing it. But that is not the only factor. Much can also depend on habit and taken-for-granted assumptions. For example, if we are used to trusting someone and have never had cause to question their loyalty to us, we may not notice the way they are exploiting or undermining us. Habit is a powerful force, and generally a very helpful one, but it does have its downside – it can blind us to important issues or potential dangers

So, what is the magic answer? How do we become more tuned in to these blind spots that can stop us moving forward positively at times (because we didn’t spot the opportunities) or put is in danger (because we didn’t spot the hazards)? Of course, there aren’t any magic answers, but there are things we can do. Let’s go back to the two sets of issues we have already looked at. First of all, the purpose of your activity – being clear about what your purpose is can help to keep you focused and that is a good thing, of course. But what you can also do is to think about how a situation might go wrong or how opportunities may be missed. This involves being sensitive to your surroundings – focusing carefully on what is important, but not doing that to the exclusion of all else. For example, a parent focusing on their career to enable their children to have a good standard of living may focus narrowly on work issues and not spend enough time with their children – thereby providing well for them financially, but perhaps not so well emotionally. The challenge, then, is to be holistic: focus narrowly when you need to, but also take a broader look at the situation too.

Second, in terms of habits and assumptions, this is where self-awareness comes in. If you review for yourself what your habits and assumptions are in certain situations, you will find yourself in a stronger position to avoid blind spots – you will be more tuned in to the potential issues to be missed because you allowed yourself to get stuck in tramlines, rather than go where your spirit takes you more creatively.

 

Know your triggers

We all have certain things that get under our skin, things that are likely to get us annoyed, irritated or distressed. These are known as ‘triggers’. Some triggers are shared by a wide range of people (if not by everybody) – for example, losing face or being humiliated. But there are also triggers that are specific to each individual. For example, what gets me really riled may have little or no effect on you, and vice versa. It depends on a number of factors, not least past experiences, future aspirations and, of course, our values. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Our past experiences can be significant in so far as they can leave us sensitive about certain issues , feeling vulnerable about one or more things that have proven painful or problematic for us – a ‘once bitten twice shy’ scenario. That is, the past has taught us to be wary of certain situations. Sometimes we will be only too aware of precisely what it is that is triggering a strong response in us, we may have a vivid memory of what has hurt us in the past. But at other times, the connection may not be so clear; we may have a strong reaction, but not be able to pinpoint what the trigger was. That can leave us feeling confused and perhaps insecure (and potentially leave others around us feeling confused and insecure too).

Our aspirations have an important part to play too. For example, if we are hoping to achieve something important in the future (let’s call it x), and something happens that blocks our path to x (or threatens to do so), this may again serve as a trigger to provoke a strong emotional reaction in us. So, it’s important to understand that our triggers can be linked to the past or the future. In some circumstances there may be elements of both.

Our values also have an important part to play. Our values are, by definition, what we value, those things that are important to us. Events or circumstances that offend or unsettle our values in some way can serve as a very powerful trigger. For example, if a major part of our value system revolves around a commitment to fairness and we encounter a situation where someone is being treated unfairly, it is highly likely that it will trigger a strong response, such as anger.

Of course, triggers can set in motion positive processes too – provoking satisfaction, joy and so on. But when we add together triggers from our past experience, our future aspirations and our ever-present values, we can see that these are important influences on our behaviour, our emotional responses and our interactions with others. It is for this reason that getting to know what our triggers are can be a very wise move. Having a degree of self-awareness about these can help us to anticipate difficulties, prepare for potentially challenging situations and feel more confident because of our greater sense of control.

What we shouldn’t do, though, is focus too closely on those triggers and risk obsessing about them. That’s the difference between being self-aware (which is a good thing) and being self-conscious (which is not so good). We have to be balanced about it, of course.

Once we have a good grasp of our own triggers we will then find ourselves in a stronger position to tune in to the triggers of other people – and that applies in our private, personal lives as well as in our working lives. The more skilful we become at these matters, the more effective we can be in various aspects of our lives.

 

 

 

Make full use of support

Sadly there are many people who seem to feel that they can – or at least should – get through life without support. For many people, asking for support is seen as a weakness, as if only inadequate people need – or ask for – support. This sort of stoic or ‘macho’ approach is both ill-founded and potentially dangerous. We need to be very clear that this perspective on support is something we need to move away from.

A major part of the problem is that western societies tend to be characterised by a strong emphasis on individualism, and this involves a conception of each of us as a more or less fully independent, autonomous individual. This is set up as some sort of ideal, resulting in any need for support potentially being seen as less than ideal – as a form of failure, in a sense. Of course, the reality is that this is a distortion of the true picture. We are all unique individuals, of course, but we are unique individuals in a social context – to divorce the individual from that social context is to tell only one part of the story (which then makes it a very misleading story).

Throughout my career I have been involved in various roles that have entailed providing support to a wide range of people. Three things that stand out for me from that experience are:

  • So many people left it until the eleventh hour to ask for support. Of course, I did my best to help people when called upon to do so, but there were very many occasions where I could have helped them so much more if they had come to me sooner. This was partly because we could have nipped problems in the bud if I had been aware of them sooner and could have intervened earlier, and partly because, by the time they came to me for help they were often already worn down and at a low ebb. Getting help sooner could also have saved a lot of heartache and suffering for them.
  • People commonly apologised for asking for support. This has been a marked feature of people seeking support from me over the years. It has always struck me as strange that this should be the case. People help and support one another all the time, and yet it can so frequently be seen as something we need to apologise for. Support can, of course, be beneficial for both parties, giver and receiver. Giving support can give us a sense of self-worth, a sense of being useful that can bring a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction.
  • They were generally glad they did ask for support. Despite how common it has been for people to approach asking for support in a guarded, apologetic or reluctant way, the usual outcome was that they were really glad that they had got past their reluctance. And, of course, I am sure that my experience is not unusual in this regard. This makes it all the sadder that a reluctance to seek support (or to accept it when offered) holds so many people back.

So, if you are one of those people who are reluctant to ask for support, you need to ask yourself why that is, how much it is costing you in personal terms and what you can do to change the situation. Supporting one another is an important part of being human, so this strange idea that seeking or using support is to be seen as a last resort proves to be quite a costly one.

Book review: The Establishment: And How They Get Away with It

The Establishment: And How They Get Away with It, by Owen Jones, Penguin (2015): ISBN 978 0 1 141 97499 6

Owen Jones has established himself as a highly respected social commentator, first in his column in The Independent and more recently in The Guardian. This book extends and consolidates that reputation. In a clear, well-written text he provides a powerful and convincing critique of the Establishment, the institutionalised power interests that have such a far-reaching effect on ordinary people.

Across eight chapters he offers an impressive analysis of how certain groups of people have the ability to present their vested interests as the interests of the country or the economy or the social order in general. His scope is broad, encompassing politicians, the media, the police, and, of course, wealthy capitalists. In each case he provides evidence and argument to back up his case that the Establishment continues to succeed in pulling the strings of power to suit their own needs and interests at the expense of the wider population.

This is a narrative that captures the elitism underpinning the UK social, economic and political systems. In particular it highlights well how the definition of the ‘centre ground’ has been shifted way to the right. The extreme free-market approach that has become established as the norm would, not so very long ago, have been seen as very right wing. One of the results of this is that what was previously seen as ‘centrist’ and moderate is now presented as left wing, and what was previously seen as left-wing Labour movement ideas are now construed as extremist.

This is a very important book that should be closely read by anyone who shares a commitment to social justice. It provides invaluable insights that cast important light on key aspects of our society and the political direction it is going in.

 

Beware of stereotypes

A stereotype is a distorted and often exaggerated depiction of some aspect of reality. As such, stereotypes are potentially very dangerous because they can influence our thoughts, feelings and actions in misleading ways. Confusing an oversimplified and distorted picture of something with the complex, multi-level reality it actually represents is clearly not a wise step to take.

So far, so straightforward, but what is often not realised is that (i) stereotypes are far more prevalent than people generally realise; and (ii) they work both ways – that is, we can both stereotype others and be stereotyped by others. Let’s consider each of these in turn.

The mass media are very important influences in modern society, often having a profound and far-reaching impact on how we perceive reality. We tend to become so used to the media that we rarely realise what effect they are having on us. When those influences are rooted in stereotypes, we can find ourselves in difficulties, relying on someone else’s definition of reality. This is often a definition that reflects certain people’s power interests and the discriminatory assumptions that uphold them. For example, there is a stereotype that presents unemployed people as ‘scroungers’ unwilling to work, rather than as people denied work by an economic system that prioritises profits over human needs. This is not to say that such ‘scroungers’ do not exist, but rather that it is dangerous to do what stereotypes generally do, which is to take one aspect of reality and present it as the whole picture.

Despite so often being inaccurate and misleading, stereotypes are none the less very powerful in their influence. Consider, for example, the common (stereotypical) assumption that women talk more than men do. Compare that assumption with what the research on the subject tells us and a very different picture emerges.

Stereotypes feature regularly in advertisements (spotting stereotypes in ads can be both fun and enlightening), television programmes (think about how police work tends to be portrayed in crime dramas, for example – do you think police work is really like that?) and in news reporting (indeed, especially in news reporting). Stereotypes are, sadly, all around us, and we are oblivious much of the time to the effect they are having on us.

We should also be wary of the oft-quoted idea that there is an element of truth in all stereotypes (as if to suggest that they are not so far from reality after all). Some – but certainly not all – stereotypes are an exaggeration of reality and do therefore contain an element of truth, but they are still distortions and therefore potentially dangerous things to base our ideas or actions on.

So, clearly, we should be very careful not to rely on stereotypes (which basically means unlearning much of what we have been taught by the media), but we also need to be wary of the danger of being stereotyped ourselves. Some people have said to me words to the effect of: ‘If other people choose to stereotype me, that is a sign of their ignorance and is their problem not mine; I am not going to change my behaviour because of them’. While I can fully understand the feelings behind this view, it is still one that can lead to significant problems. If we are subject to a certain stereotype and our behaviour reinforces that stereotype in the minds of others, we could lose out significantly because of this. For example, we could fail to get a job we really wanted because we reinforced rather than challenged a stereotype. Yes, I agree that it should not be this way, but it would be naïve not to recognise that it is this way.