Choose your friends wisely

A common theme in the psychology literature is the distinction between introverts and extroverts. The former tend to prefer their own company and see social interaction as a necessary evil, rather than something to be enjoyed. The latter, by contrast, are likely to seek out and cherish social contact and may not feel comfortable when alone. These ideas have been very influential, despite the fact that they (the popularised versions at least): (i) take no account of the social circumstances (the role of culture, for example) that can be so influential in shaping behaviour and social interactions; and (ii) also tend to polarize people (that is, put them at one extreme or the other, without recognizing that people can be located along a continuum from one extreme to the other (and will move along that line in different circumstances or at different times).

What they represent is a tension around social distance. That is, certain people at certain times will feel that they are too closely connected to others and will want more personal space (traditionally, the introvert stance). Other people at other times will crave less social distance – that is, they will want as much social contact as possible (traditionally, the extrovert stance). Imagine somebody being upset for some reason (they have been offended perhaps). Some people will want to be alone and will find other people’s presence uncomfortable, while others would seek out other people’s presence, as that would help them start to regain their emotional balance.

There is no right or wrong about these things; it is about what works when and for whom. So, what does this mean about choosing friends? Basically, it means that, in making friends with people, we are taking risks. The more friends you have, the more support you potentially have available and the more opportunities for social interaction. But, it also means that the more opportunities there are for people to let you down, a higher chance of conflict arising and the greater the potential for your personal space to be intruded upon.

Much will depend on how important each of these different factors are to you. People with extrovert tendencies may operate on the basis of the more friends the better, and thereby increase the chances of the negative possibilities creeping in. People with introvert tendencies, by contrast, are likely to be more selective in who they accept, or seek out, as friends, and could therefore lose out in terms of missing opportunities for potentially fruitful friendships. This is yet another example of the importance of balance.

Much will also depend on where along that continuum your friends tend to hang out. For example, an extrovert person may find having extrovert friends a blessing and may find introverted friends hard work. Likewise, an introvert person may struggle with too many extrovert friends because they may take up too much of his or her personal space, but may feel very comfortable with fellow introverts.

Thinking in these terms won’t give you a formula for choosing your friends wisely, but it should give you some helpful food for thought.

The existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, famously said that hell is other people, meaning that other people can so easily get in our way, frustrate us or generally cause us problems. He had a point, of course, but what he didn’t say is that heaven is, or can be, other people too. That is why friends are so important and valuable to us, and that is also why it is so important to choose our friends wisely. We don’t have complete control over who does or does not become our friend, but don’t make the mistake of thinking we don’t have any.

Find the small things that make a big difference

If you cast your mind back to science lessons at school, you will probably remember learning about leverage. That is, you will have learned that a pivot or fulcrum can enable us greater lifting power – it gives us leverage. This can also apply in a more indirect, metaphorical sense. This is what I mean by the small things that can make a big difference.

Smiling is a simple, but important example. Trite though it may seem, interacting with people with a smile on our face can make a huge difference to how we are perceived and how people respond to us (although it has to be a genuine smile and not a forced one). Another case in point would be using someone’s name when talking to them. This can make a very positive difference when it comes to forming a rapport and winning trust, although it has to be done sensitively – unlike the salesman who once added my name to every sentence. I was tempted to ask him which training course he had been on that had advised him to use people’s name to try and ‘seal the deal’. Of course, it did the precise opposite; it wrecked any possible deal.

But, it isn’t just in direct personal interactions that we can use this leverage. I was lucky enough to find early in my career that following something up in writing could make a huge difference. For example, if I was trying to encourage someone to undertake a particular task or move in a particular direction, I found that reinforcing my message in writing significantly increased the chances of success. It was as if the authority of the printed word added extra emphasis to the message I had been giving verbally.

In my education and training work, what I have also discovered is that helping people adopt self-directed learning can make a huge difference to their development. Most people allow others (teachers, trainers, tutors, managers) to be in control of their learning. Taking hold of your own learning, putting yourself in the driving seat is a small move, but with huge potential consequences, as self-directed learning, tailored to your own specific needs, is by far the most effective form of learning.

There is no standard, set list of the small things that can make a big difference. These will vary from setting to setting, situation to situation, person to person. Consequently, if you are to get the benefits of this, you will need to think the issues through for yourself. Of course, the examples I have given should point you in the right direction and give you a foundation to build on.

This will involve thinking about the sorts of situation you tend to find yourself in (whether in your working life or private life). What are the things that cause you most difficulty or take up most resources to deal with? These are the situations where making a positive change could make a big difference and produce very positive results. Are there any changes you could make (any pivots you could take advantage of) that would be small in themselves, but big in terms of the difference they make. Do give it a try as it is surprising how often small changes can make a big difference – as my advisory and consultancy work has shown me time and time again.

You don’t have to be alone in doing this. Discuss it with friends and/or colleagues, see what they think, see how you can help each other (they may come up with things you may never have thought of, and vice versa).

Don’t hide

There will often be times when it is wise to take a backseat, to keep your head down and not get involved. Some situations are best avoided, as the hassle of getting involved far outweighs any potential benefits. But, there will also be times where we are tempted to bow out, to slip quietly away and leave it to other people to sort things out when perhaps that is not the wisest strategy.

For example, there will be times when someone is being treated unfairly or in a way that undermines their dignity (bullying clearly comes into this category). We may be tempted to stand back and pretend we haven’t noticed. However, much of such bullying (and other forms of unacceptable behaviour) flourishes precisely because people do not challenge it.

I am not suggesting that you ‘cause a scene’ or put yourself at risk, but often all that is necessary is for it to be made known, subtly and gently, that you are aware of what is going on. That will often be enough to stop the behaviour from continuing. Knowing that they have at least some degree of support can also encourage the person on the receiving end to feel more confident in doing something about it – or at least not feel so isolated or vulnerable. By contrast, if we, in effect, hide we are giving the perpetrator a subtle message that what they are doing is acceptable.

Another example would be a training course I once attended. There was only one female participant and the male trainer was being consistently patronising towards her. The response from her and the other male participants was nervous laughter, which just seemed to encourage him even more. I decided that I could not let this pass, but was conscious that it could be uncomfortable for everyone (including the woman concerned) and thereby block learning if I openly made an issue of it. So, instead, every time he did it, I pointedly made eye contact, frowned and shook my head. This soon had the desired effect. I reinforced my point on the evaluation form at the end of the course. I subsequently received an email from the company who had commissioned him to say that they would not be using his services again. Let’s hope he learned the lesson from that.

But, it isn’t just bullying or discrimination that we should not hide from. I was once siting in a hotel lobby and I noticed an elderly woman try to use the revolving door. The door was moving slowly and so she pushed on it to try and make it go faster. The result was that the built-in safety feature made it stop. This made her push even more, thereby making sure that the door stayed firmly still. She was now trapped, unable to proceed and unable to go back out. I could see that she was getting distressed. I could also see a man sitting nearby who had witnessed what was going on but chose to ‘hide’, to bury his nose in his newspaper, leaving the woman at the mercy of modern technology designed to protect her. I got up to go across and tell her that she just needed to stop leaning on the door and it would start to move again, but another woman, closer to her, beat me to it, and the ordeal was quickly over. A distressed, but now relieved, person was able to escape. The ‘rescuer’, I noticed, glared at the man with his newspaper who had decided that alleviating the woman’s distress was less important than not getting involved.

As is so often the case, it is a matter of balance, neither putting ourselves at risk, nor failing to be decent citizens by hiding.

Aim for thriving, not surviving

Strange though it may sound, good enough sometimes isn’t good enough. Very often people are so busy that they will settle for getting things done to just about an acceptable standard and then start to focus on the next task, rather than get the first thing as far beyond ‘just good enough’ as possible. What we end up with then is mediocrity at best.

There is a technical term for this: satisficing. This is a made-up word, derived from combining satisfactory with sacrificing. It refers to the tendency for people to settle for what is satisfactory and thereby sacrifice producing the best results possible. Freud captured this idea when he said that the good is the enemy of the best, by which he meant that we can so easily fail to fulfil our potential by not looking beyond what is good enough.

Imagine being asked at a job interview: ‘How will you ensure that you achieve the most positive outcomes in your work?’ and replying with: ‘I won’t; as long as things are basically good enough, that will do me’. Not very impressive, is it?

But, it isn’t just about impressing (prospective) employers. It’s also a spiritual matter, in the sense that our personal strivings are what help us to get a sense of meaning, purpose and direction. Ironically, in the modern world personal strivings can so easily become materialistic: more money, more material goods, more of the things that ultimately don’t make much real difference to our spiritual well-being. It is ironic because focusing on material goals, rather than goals of achieving the best we can, will make it less likely that we will flourish enough in our work to earn the necessary income.

I am not suggesting that we should all become perfectionists, as that too brings its problems. We need to be balanced in our approach. Aiming for achieving the best we reasonably can is likely to give us a much better quality of life in a number of ways, not least in terms of giving us a stronger sense of purpose and, of course, the satisfactions to be gained from making as much of a positive difference as we can.

What can stand in the way of achieving our best is the problem of low morale. Operating in a culture of low morale will tend to sap motivation, undermine hope and, in so doing, make it more likely that we will settle for good enough. And, as is so often the case with low morale, this can lead to a vicious circle in which settling for surviving, rather than thriving, contributes to, and reinforces, low morale which then has the effect of making us more open to settling for just good enough.

Of course, it can be difficult to be positive and aim for thriving if you do happen to be faced with a context of low morale, but this means we then have to ask ourselves whether we want to struggle to do our best, despite the low morale (and thereby play at least a small part in eating away at that low morale), or make do with mediocrity (and thereby allow the low morale to eat away at us).

So, what is your idea of the best results you can achieve and what do you need to do make sure you are doing your best to achieve them? How can you make sure that setting for just good enough is a last resort, something you would only do when you really have to?

But, if you are already committed to thriving, rather than just surviving, how can you help those around you to appreciate the benefits of this approach and support them in adopting it?


Negotiate expectations

When two or more people come into contact with one another there is already a set of expectations, social rules about how to relate to other people. These are part of culture. In addition, there are sets of expectations that apply to specific situations – consider, for example, the rules that govern buying something in a shop, ordering a drink in a café or a bar, and so on. Breaking these rules (jumping the queue, for example) can cause a lot of bad feeling and displeasure.

But there is more to it than this. When you form a relationship of any kind with someone, a set of expectations specific to that relationship will quickly develop. Having these expectations is generally a positive thing; it enables our interactions to run smoothly, with a minimum of tension. However, such expectations are not always positive. For example, in an abusive relationship, the expectations or unwritten rules will generally suit the abuser, but at the expense of the person being abused.

But, even in non-abusive situations, there can be expectations that are problematic for at least one person. Consider, for example, how many arguments between partners begin with: ‘Why is it always me who is expected to …?’ and it Is not just in our private lives that these things can happen. The workplace is full of sets of expectations too, mainly positive, but sometimes negative and unhelpful.

Bullying situations would be one example of this. The bully’s expectation is that they can treat you badly and, if you complain, they are likely to twist the situation to make it look as though the problem is you being unreasonable. But, again, it is not just in these extreme situations that expectations can be problematic.

However, it is essential that we realise that such expectations are not necessarily written in tablets of stone. Expectations can generally be renegotiated. For example, consider comments like:

  • ‘I’ve noticed that it is generally me who does x, maybe we should think about sharing out that task in future. That would give me more time to get y and z sorted.’
  • ‘I’ve been thinking. We seem to have got into the habit of x. Perhaps it would make more sense if we looked again at how we deal with these things.’
  • ‘Have you noticed that you are the one who tends to do y? I’m quite happy for you to do it most of the time, but do you think there is any chance I could do it sometimes?’

Note that these statements are not hostile. They are not attacking or criticising the other person. They are genuine attempts to renegotiate expectations. The idea behind this strategy is that, if you are reasonable, supportive and cooperative in how you tackle the issues, you are putting gentle pressure on the other person to be reasonable, supportive and cooperative in return. There are no guarantees, of course, but this approach is used very effectively on a day-to-day basis by large numbers of people.

So, the first step is to identify what the expectations are that are causing you problems or holding you back in some way. The next step is to think carefully about how those expectations could be renegotiated to improve the situation. Where possible, try to think of ‘win-win’ outcomes – that is, changes that benefit the other person as well as you, thereby making it more likely that they will agree to what you are suggesting.

But, perhaps the most important point to note is that you don’t have to be a slave to other people’s expectations. You don’t have to agree to lose out.

Don’t rush!

‘Less haste, more speed’ is a well-known and oft-quoted proverb, but how often do we forget the wisdom on which it is based? Modern life tends to be very busy and can be highly pressurised. A common reaction to this is for people to speed up, to try to do things in a rush. However, this is a big, big mistake. Rushing is at the root of many of the problems people experience in life.

This is for a variety of reasons. First, rushing means that we are much more likely to make mistakes – and, at times, those mistakes can have major consequences. Consider, for example, when you have made a mistake or you have been on the receiving end of someone else’s mistake. How often did the mistake arise because the person concerned was rushing, not paying sufficient attention to what they were doing?

Second, one of the key factors in stress is control. People can generally cope with a high level of pressure, provided that they have sufficient control over the demands being made on them, while even a relatively modest amount of pressure can produce a stress reaction if control is lacking. Rushing takes away our sense of control; when we are rushing, we tend to feel that we are losing our grip, that control is slipping away from us. Rushing can therefore be very counterproductive when trying to avoid stress. It can contribute to a vicious circle. The more pressure we are under, the more we rush; the more we rush, the less of a sense of control we have; the less of a sense of control we have, the more stressed we are; and on it goes.

Third, we have to consider what message rushing is giving other people. For example, a sales assistant in a retail context who is rushing in serving a customer is likely to be giving (unwittingly) a message to the effect that they do not have time for the customer, and therefore that the customer is not important (or even that the customer is not welcome). So, next time you are rushing, think carefully about what message you are likely to be giving to other people involved in the situation.

Rushing, despite being highly counterproductive for the reasons outlined here, can easily become the ‘default’ setting for some people. They become so used to rushing that this becomes their normal response to the demands they face. For some people, rushing gives them a sense that what they are doing is important, so important that they can’t hang around and just have to ‘get on with it’. So, they get self-esteem from it. This is highly dangerous, of course, because it means they are unlikely to be thinking carefully about what they do, are doing minimal planning, are not anticipating potential pitfalls and are therefore missing opportunities to be creative and are highly unlikely to be learning or developing.

Avoiding rushing does not, of course, mean going to the other extreme of dawdling or wasting time. It is, rather, a matter of balancing the pace at which we work with the attention the tasks concerned need for us to do them properly.

So, the temptation to rush is one that we very much need to resist. The more pressure we are under, the more we need to be thinking carefully about what we do, about how best to manage those pressures, how best to draw on the support available to us, and so on. Simply trying to get things done at an unnatural pace creates far more problems than it solves. By avoiding rushing, we can become more skilled in managing pressures and more confident in doing so.

Choose wisely

‘I couldn’t help it’, ‘I had no choice’ and ‘It wasn’t my fault’ are commonly heard comments, but how often are they actually true? How often are we unaware of the choices we have been making or are actually trying to disguise the fact that what we did was based on a choice (or set of choices) we made?

Of course, there will often be situations where we don’t have a choice, where things are beyond our control. For example, if we spill water on our lap, we can’t choose whether or not to get wet (although we could choose to try not to get wet by putting a plastic sheet or equivalent across our lap – if we wanted to). But, in general terms we are making choices all the time, even though we may not realise it much of that time. This is partly because so many of our choices are ‘habitualised’ – that is, we have made the same choice so many times that we now more or less do it on automatic pilot, as it were. But, a habitualised choice is still a choice, in the sense that we can choose to behave otherwise. We don’t have to do something just because it is what we normally do. Consider the legal implications of this. If you tend to drive too fast and, as a result of that, you cause an accident in which somebody dies or is seriously injured, you will be held responsible for your actions – saying that it was your habit to drive that fast does not mean that you are not responsible for the choice(s) you make and their consequences.

What also complicates matters is that so-called common sense will often mislead us into thinking that we are not making choices when in fact we are. This takes us back to the ‘I couldn’t help it’ type of response I mentioned earlier. These types of situation are quite common – for example, when someone fails to do something they promised to do and claims it was due to factors beyond their control, when in reality it was down to choices that were made.

What we have to recognise is that, whatever situation we are in, there will always be choices – however limited the range of options due to the circumstances, there will always be options (even if we do not like any of those options). And, of course, the choices we make will always have consequences, sometimes minor, sometimes major.

This is why it is important that we choose wisely. This involves, first of all, being aware of the choices we are making (including the habitualised choices) and not trying to pretend that matters within our control are not our responsibility. This is not about blame, it is about ownership. It is about empowerment.

Once you are aware of the choices, you can consider the various options and the associated consequences that arise from them. Thinking carefully about the respective consequences can then help us make wise choices.

Of course, our choices will often be made on the basis of our feelings, rather than rational thoughts, but it is still the case that being aware of those choices, the options available and the likely consequences can none the less be very helpful when it comes to choosing wisely. Choices rooted in emotional reactions are still choices. We can balance head and heart, especially if we are tuned in to our choice making and don’t play the game of trying to deny that so much of what we do is rooted in the choices we make.

Confront issues without being confrontational

‘I didn’t like to say’ is a comment commonly heard when it emerges that somebody has faced a difficult situation, but preferred not to address it. For example, imagine Person A is stereotyping Person B, but Person B feels uncomfortable about challenging this and therefore chooses to say nothing and accept the negative consequences of being stereotyped. The idea of assertiveness is that an assertive person is someone who tries to achieve win-win outcomes – that is, tries to make sure that each party benefits from the interaction. However, the ‘I didn’t like to say’ approach is actually likely, in many cases at least, to lead to a lose-lose outcome.

Consider this possibility. Person A treats Person B in a stereotypical way (making overgeneralised assumptions on the basis of gender, for example). Person B chooses not to challenge this, preferring the more comfortable option of just letting it go. Person B therefore loses out. Person A remains oblivious to the harm their stereotypical thinking has done – unless, that is, Person C comes along at some point and makes reference to the stereotyping that has been going on. Person A may then feel very contrite and regretful about the unintended harm done, and also therefore lose out. Hence the idea of lose-lose outcomes. Consequently, adopting the ‘I didn’t like to say’ option can mean everyone involved loses out, clearly not a good result.

This is where the idea of confronting issues without being confrontational comes in. ‘I don’t like confrontation’ is another comment often heard, and quite understandably. But, we need to be quite specific about what is meant here. Usually, it is being confrontational (as opposed to the act of confronting) that is what people don’t like – that is, situations where people adopt an aggressive approach. They are aiming for a win-lose outcome (I win, you lose). But, with the rights skills and attitudes, it is perfectly possible to confront issues without being confrontational. For example, if I were to say to someone who is blocking my way: ‘Excuse me please, can I get past? Thank you’, I am confronting the fact that this person is blocking my way, but I am not doing it in a confrontational way; I am not creating any problems or ill-feeling for them. And this is the key: How can I avoid having problems and ill-feeling without creating problems and ill-feeling for the other person (back to win-win outcomes again)?

I mentioned the right skills and attitudes. A key skill is what is known as ‘elegant challenging’. This refers to being able to address issues in a positive and cooperative way, raising important issues sensitively and tactfully in order to minimise the risk of conflict escalating, while maximising the chances of making a positive difference. And, when it comes to attitudes, the key attitude can be characterised as: ‘I will respect you and treat you with dignity, but I will not allow you to treat me without such respect and dignity. I want this to work for both of us’.

So, whenever you are tempted to adopt an ‘I didn’t like to say’ approach, perhaps you should consider whether you like the consequences of letting things pass and risking a lose-lose outcome any better. But, of course, we don’t have to choose between two uncomfortable options. Being prepared to confront issues (that is, address them) without being confrontational can give us a very helpful way forward that is of benefit to all concerned. Adopting that aiming for win-win outcomes and being prepared to develop the skills involved are therefore steps well worth taking.

Have a ‘Not to Do’ list

Having a to do list is a long-established and very wise idea. It is so very easy to forget about something that you need to do. Important things can slip away if we have not made a note of them. One key advantage of having a to do list is that, when it gets too long, it is giving us two important messages:

  1. We may be trying to do too much and thereby be overstretching ourselves, On my Time and Workload Management e-learning course, I talk about four important principles, and one of those is: Too much work is too much – that is, we all have limits to what we can reasonably get through in terms of work or other tasks. Spreading ourselves too thinly is never a wise move and can create a number of significant problems.
  2. We should be thinking about prioritising. If it looks as though we can’t realistically get through all the tasks on the list, then we should at least make sure that we do the most important tasks first. That way, the tasks that don’t get done will be the least important ones. Sadly, it is not uncommon for people under pressure to fail to prioritise and to end up doing less important tasks, while the more important ones don’t get done. As you can imagine, this can be potentially disastrous.

So, there is no doubt that to do lists can be very valuable tools if used properly. But where does having a ‘Not to Do’ list come into the picture? Well, what you will find is that most people will do some things that are either not a useful thing to do or that are actually counterproductive.

There are many potential examples of things that are commonly done that we would be better off without:

  • Doing ourselves down I have run many courses on assertiveness over the years and one of the issues that has always come up has been the danger of, to use the technical term,  ‘self-disempowerment’. The classic example of this is the person who begins a comment with ‘I’m probably wrong, but …or some other self-deprecating statement of this kind.
  • Getting sidetracked Using social media is a major source of this problem. You go online to look up an important piece of information and then find that you have wasted time looking at a whole range of things. But, it isn’t just social media that can contribute to this phenomenon. If you start looking for examples of people getting sidetracked, it won’t take you long before you find them.
  • Ploughing a negative furrow Moaning that produces action can be very productive and a useful step in the process of bringing about positive change. However, if it does not lead to action, it can be a part of a vicious circle of negativity that serves as an obstacle to moving forward.

I could go on giving more and more examples, but I hope I have already illustrated my point, namely that we need to be aware of those things that cause us problems or hold us back. So, what I propose you do is to think very carefully about what should be on your Not to Do list. What are the things that you are prone to doing (mainly out of habit, perhaps, or because they serve as some sort of defence mechanism) that are potentially problematic? Once you have that list you can then start to think about what you can do to reduce the number of items on it or get rid of them altogether. Just think how much better your life would be if you could do that.

Don’t get trapped in a saying

Sayings can be very useful ways of briefly capturing important elements of wisdom. For example, the idea of ‘better safe than sorry’ has no doubt helped many people to avoid making rash decisions or launching into situations unprepared. So, they clearly have an important role to play as elements of whatever culture we are brought up in (different cultures will have different sayings, but there will, of course, be many common themes).

But, it isn’t all good news. This is because, for one thing, sayings can be contradictory. Compare ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ with ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’. Sayings therefore have limitations, and so we need to be careful and critical in how we use them. They are simplified representations of complex realities, so they can easily mislead us if we are not careful.

What can be particularly problematic is when a saying is used to justify unwise or unethical behaviour, and that is what I mean by ‘getting trapped’ in a saying – limiting ourselves to a very simplified understanding. For example, I have come across many occasions where people have used ‘Charity begins at home’ as an excuse for not supporting a worthy cause. Now, of course, we can’t support all the worthy causes out there, so people obviously have the right to choose which charities they support and which they don’t. However, charity begins at home can be used as an excuse not to support any humanitarian efforts at all.

Another example would be ‘Boys will be boys’ being used as an excuse for unacceptable behaviour. It also has sexist implications, of course, in implying that there are, or should be, different standards of behaviour between boys and girls. So, we have to be careful to make sure that we don’t allow the very familiarity of certain assumptions to mislead us into thinking that they are therefore valid assumptions.

A further idea expressed in a saying that can be problematic is that of: ‘The grass is always greener on the other side’. This warns us that we should be wary about making changes on the assumption that what we are changing to is better than what we already have. Of course, it is very wise not to get too excited about something until you know more about it and have had chance to weigh up carefully whether it is indeed better than what you already have. But, there is also the danger that adhering too strongly to this saying can make us unduly cautious and conservative, not willing to make changes or try new things. In other words, it can hold us back unnecessarily.

So, what I am definitely not saying is that we should never use sayings, that we should banish them or anything quite so extreme. But, what I am saying is that we have to be careful not to be seduced by the simplicity and familiarity of these adages or allow them to relax our critical faculties and be taken in by ideas that, in certain circumstances at least, can lead us into difficulties. So, when you come across a saying or you find yourself using one, just give a little bit of thought to what assumptions go with that saying and consider whether you are happy to be making those assumptions.

Sayings can be useful as quick summaries of established wisdom, and so they can be very helpful at times. But, we need to be cautious and not give them more credence than they deserve. We have to do our own thinking and not allow a saying to do our thinking for us.