Don’t let forms shape your practice

I have often encountered situations on training courses about report writing and record keeping where people say things like: ‘We can’t do that; the form won’t let us’. Of course, forms are a way of recording and collating information and therefore have an important part to play. However, recognizing the value of forms and allowing them to dictate our work practice are two different things. If the forms help, that’s great, but if they are framed in such a way that they are unhelpful, shouldn’t we be changing the forms, rather than changing our practice to suit the form? So, an important question to ask is: How do we get a form changed? What are the feedback mechanisms we can use to let the appropriate people know that these tools (for that is what forms are) are not well suited to purpose and need to be revised? The effort required to do this could be well repaid by the progress made and is certainly a better alternative to allowing forms (rather than our professional knowledge and values) to shape our practice.

Everyone has 24 hours in their day

‘I don’t have enough time’ is a commonly heard claim in busy workplaces, and there is certainly a great deal of evidence to show that time pressures are very significant for a high proportion of people these days. However, what we have to recognize is that everybody has the same amount of time – 24 hours in each day, seven days in each week and so on. It is not the amount of time available that distinguishes some people from others in terms of work pressures; rather, it is what we try to do with that time. If we try to do too much, we can end up spreading ourselves too thinly and end up being far less productive than we might otherwise have been if we had planned our use of time more strategically. Similarly, some people respond to high levels of pressure by burying themselves in their work and do not take time to step back, plan, set priorities or develop effective strategies for managing that level of pressure. They risk getting stuck in a ‘hamster wheel’ of relentless pressure that does not get them very far at all. Managing high levels of pressure is a very challenging enterprise, but we very much need to develop strategies for doing so and not allow ourselves to try to do the impossible by being unrealistic about what can be achieved in the time available – for example, by internalizing, or colluding with, other people’s unrealistic expectations, rather than challenging them.

Accept what you can’t change

‘Facticity’ is the technical term for the things we cannot change, the things that are beyond our control. There will always be such things, and we have to get used to that. Some people have a problem because they tend to be defeatist. They accept things that they don’t need to accept – they fail to recognize that there are steps they could take to address their problems. However, the problem I am talking about here is the opposite of that. It refers to situations where people know there is nothing they can do, but they try to do it anyway. For example, someone who is interviewed for a job, but is unsuccessful may not be willing to let go of this fact. They may rail and rage against their potential employer, as if they have done them a significant injustice, rather than accept that, in the interviewing panel’s view, another candidate was better suited to the job. Not getting the job does not mean that you are a failure or that you are inadequate; it simply means you were not their first choice. Change what you can change, by all means, but railing against what you cannot change is a waste of time and energy and succeeds only in generating unnecessary bad feeling.

Conflict can be constructive

Conflict can range from mild disagreement to violent confrontation, and, especially in its stronger forms, can be extremely destructive. However, it would be a significant mistake not to recognize that, in the right circumstances and if handled skilfully and confidently, conflict can actually be constructive. This is because carefully controlled conflict can spur innovation, free people up from tramline thinking, generate considerable learning, provide opportunities for people who have previously been at loggerheads with one another to respect one another, allow us to see situations from new perspectives, and so on. Conflict can be understood to be like fire. If it is controlled and handled carefully, it can be very productive and helpful, but if allowed to go unchecked, can be enormously destructive, raging out of control and drawing in a wide range of people who get harmed in the process. Developing the skills of handling conflict effectively is therefore a very important basis for best practice in tackling problems.

Find the right pace

When it comes to working with people and their problems getting the pace right is perhaps one of the most difficult things to do, but do it we must. That is because if we are going too slowly we may miss opportunities to move forward – for example, ‘missing the boat’ when someone is in crisis and motivated to make important changes. If we move too swiftly, we may create (or exacerbate) insecurity and anxiety and thereby hamper progress in terms of whatever need we are trying to meet or problem we are trying to solve. So, how do we judge what is the best pace? There is no hard and fast rule, but mainly it comes from looking closely at the situation, gauging reactions to our input and picking up the clues about how comfortable or otherwise the person(s) involved appear to be. Difficult though this may be, it gets easier with experience, provided that we stay tuned in to the need to consider pace as an important feature of our efforts to help.

Customer care: Getting it right

We don’t get a second chance when it comes to first impressions, and yet sadly many organizations pay relatively little attention to how people are greeted when they have their first contact with the organization concerned. If we want to make a positive difference, then it is important that we get off to a good start by giving a positive, welcoming message, letting people know that they are valued and respected. Much of ‘customer care’ is basic communication skills, but there can sometimes be additional challenges involved (for example, where someone is irate or threatening). Of course, however difficult such situations may be, we need to remain focused and respectful – even if we feel very uncomfortable. This will help to make sure that, after the person concerned has calmed down, they will appreciate how well they were treated. If, on the contrary, we allow the tensions involved to prevent us from being helpful and supportive, we can be creating significant difficulties for ourselves (and/or our colleagues) further down the road if the message we are giving out is that resolving our own discomfort is more important than providing genuine customer care.

There’s no need to shout

Stereotyping can be seen as a very real danger when you consider how often we are fed inaccurate, distorted and oversimplified stereotypes by the media. There is therefore a very strong need to be ‘stereotype aware’ and try to makes sure as far as possible that we do not allow ourselves to be influenced by them. One such stereotype that I have come across time and time again is the assumption that certain people are likely to be hard of hearing and that it is therefore necessary to shout. Older people are a prime target for this type of stereotyping, but disabled people are not immune to it either. While the incidence of hearing loss is indeed greater in the older population than in the general population, this is far removed from assuming that all older (or disabled) people have a degree of hearing loss. It is easy enough to adjust our volume if we need to, and so there is no need to shout as a general rule, as that just reinforces stereotypes and can be intimidating. But, such is the prevalence of stereotypical thinking that very many people resort to raising their voice without even realizing that they are doing so.

Dadirri listening

Listening, of course, is more than just hearing. It is about paying attention to someone in a way that creates a genuine human connection. Sometimes that connection is enough to enable the person concerned to feel stronger, more confident and better supported in dealing with their difficulties. Listening is an important first step in terms of exploring potential solutions, but at times listening is enough on its own to find the strength to move forward positively. ‘Dadirri’ is a concept drawn from Australian aboriginal culture which refers to the type of listening that creates that all-important bond, listening that gives a strong and genuine message that we are concerned and that we are here to help without judgement. It could be described as listening with our heart, rather than just with our ears. When you have been on the receiving end of such listening you will know about it, as you will feel the positive, empowering effects of it. Learning how to develop dadirri listening is therefore an important step forward for us to take.

You don’t know how I feel

Many people confuse sympathy (sharing the same feelings as someone else) and empathy (being able to recognize someone else’s feelings and being able to respond appropriately, but without necessarily having those feelings ourselves), while others settle for apathy, in a state of semi-burnout. But clearly empathy is what we need to aim for: being able to be supportive of others who are wrestling with emotional issues, but without facing the same emotional challenges ourselves. However, what is very clear is that this is not simply a matter of saying: ‘I know how you feel’. This is a very unhelpful and potentially quite counterproductive way to respond, partly because: (i) we do not know how someone else feels (for example, if I am helping someone who has just lost their father, the fact that I have lost my father does not mean that I know how they feel, as our respective experiences of losing a father may have evoked very different feelings); and (ii) making such a comment means we are focusing on our own feelings, rather than those of the person we are trying to help.

Tolerate silence

In working with people, emotions are never very far away. Being able to tune in to other people’s emotions, to be aware of our own and get the balance of head and heart right is often referred to as ‘emotional intelligence’. A key part of this is being able to tolerate silences. When someone is distressed or otherwise in the grip of strong emotions, they may fall silent, and that silence can feel very uncomfortable for us. We can be very tempted to jump in and ask a question or just fill the gap in some way. Understandable though this may be, it can be quite problematic because we are, in effect, giving the person concerned the message that dealing with our own discomfort is more important than giving them the emotional space they need. If we are able to resist the temptation of filling the silence, we give the much more positive and supportive message that we are there for them, that they are not facing their difficulties unsupported. And what an important message that can be.