Don’t criticise what you don’t understand

Many years ago I came across the idea that, the further away from something you are, the simpler it appears, and that idea has stuck with me. What it was referring to was the tendency for complex matters to seem quite simple and straightforward from a distance. If you don’t have a full grasp of a situation, it is very easy indeed to oversimplify and thereby rely on a distorted picture that can be very unhelpful in a number of ways (not least in creating unnecessary tension and ill-feeling).

Consider, for example, the case of domestic violence. So often I have heard people say words to the effect of: ‘If he is hitting her, why does she stay there? Why doesn’t she leave him?’. Ah, if only life were that simple! Such situations are usually hugely complex, with all sorts of dilemmas and difficult decisions to make. Simplistic attitudes and a judgemental approach to something they don’t understand will often mean that people are being unsupportive of others precisely at a time when most support is needed.

This can lead to a vicious circle in which people who feel bitter, disappointed, angry and/or hurt by a lack of support and what they, quite understandably, see as a negative and unsympathetic attitude, they may then struggle to be supportive of others (note that I say ‘may’ – it is by no means certain that they will not be supportive, but it can and does happen). They are certainly likely to find it more difficult to be positive and supportive of others in such circumstances.

Another example would be a social media discussion I saw recently about efforts to help a homeless man. ‘Why doesn’t he just get a job?’, said one less than compassionate contributor, clearly unaware of (or choosing to ignore) the fact that getting a job without an address is nigh on impossible and that it is highly likely that the reason he became homeless in the first place (being abused, for example) may well be quite an obstacle to getting, and holding down, a job. And, of course, it ignores the fact that there are far more people looking for jobs than there are vacancies. Criticising what you don’t understand is therefore not only unjustified, unwise and unhelpful, it can also be quite harmful – part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

A further example would be when someone lets you down in some way and you start to condemn them for doing so without first finding out their side of the story. Indeed, it a common source of embarrassment is for Person A to criticise Person B, only to find out later that Person B had very good reason for letting Person A down (they were victims of a crime, for example, or were taken seriously ill, or other such fully understandable reason for not being able to fulfil a commitment they made).

It is therefore very important that we resist the temptation to criticise what we do not understand, to make judgements about people and/or their actions without understanding their story, without having the full picture. So, if we don’t understand someone’s actions, we should be ‘walking a mile in their moccasins’, rather than jumping to conclusions that can so easily be not only unfair, but also positively harmful (and, as we have seen, also potentially embarrassing and a possible blot on our own character or reputation).

Sadly, this tendency for people to criticise what they do not understand is a very common phenomenon and one that is constantly reinforced by some sectors of the mass media. Not rushing to judgement is a skill and value statement that we would do well to nurture and support, if not actually insist on.

Consider what your legacy will be

We can look back over our past and savour the beautiful and important moments as well as learn from the not so beautiful and the not so positive experiences. Equally, we can look back and dwell on the negatives, the mistakes, the regrets. We can also look forward and consider our future, plan ahead, anticipate and look forward positively. Or, we can look to the future with dread and anxiety, fearing the worst and thereby make our current situation quite an unpleasant one. So, whether we look forward or look back, we can focus on the positives, the negatives or a mixture of the two.

But, what we have to recognise is that all this is likely to have an impact on the present, on our current circumstances. Memories form a key part of who we are and how we make sense of the world. Similarly, our future – our hopes, aspirations, fears and plans – shape (and, in turn, are shaped by) where we are up to in the present. In technical philosophical language, we are ‘temporal beings’ – that is, our present, past and future interweave in complex ways. People who tell you to ‘just live in the present moment’ are not taking account of the fact that the present moment is rooted in both the past and the future. The better we understand our past and future (as well as our present), the better we understand ourselves – and the better equipped we will be to make the most of our lives.

Another aspect of this is that we can also imagine ourselves in the future looking back over (what will then be) our past. This can be a useful exercise to do to give us a sense of perspective. It can help us to appreciate what we have got going for us and give us a clearer picture of what we want out of life. It involves thinking about our legacy, the ‘you-shaped hole’ that each of us will eventually leave at the end of our days.

This isn’t about being ‘morbid’, it’s about getting a better overview of our lives. Imagining ourselves at some point in the future looking back over our lives can give us a sense of legacy, a sense of what will be left behind when we go. This isn’t about anything grand or ambitious, medals won or honours achieved – it is about what positive difference we have made.

Can we anticipate looking back proudly on our legacy and feel satisfied with what we have contributed through our life? Or do we fear being disappointed by what we see when we look back? Either way, what can we do between now and then to make sure that we feel good about what we expect our legacy to be. It might well be helpful in shaping our sense of purpose and direction, an important part of our spirituality and therefore of our well-being.

There is no right answer to any of this; it is all about having a sense of ownership of our lives – an awareness that the future is not written in stone and that by thinking in terms of our potential legacy, we can play an important role in shaping that future and making it as positive as possible – for ourselves and for the people we care about.

Many people that I have suggested this activity to have come back to me to say they found it very helpful – not necessarily easy, especially to begin with, but useful in providing a way of envisaging how we want our lives to go and what we need to do to increase the chances of it working out that way.


Don’t lose sight of the little things that can make a big difference

It is very wise to be clear about your priorities and make sure that you attend to them. So much time, effort and energy can be wasted if you spend time on lesser matters and lose sight of the most important. It makes sense that the big, important issues need to come first. However, there is also much to be gained from appreciating the little things. The two ideas are not incompatible.

It is perfectly possible to focus primarily on the main issues you face, while also setting aside some time for the things that, at first view, may not seem to matter much, but which can actually be of great importance and value. What I am talking about is taking the opportunity to take a step back, relax and, in a sense, ‘smell the roses’. It is very easy to get so caught up with the big issues that we lose sight of other aspects of our lives, the little things that can being satisfaction, joy and hope.

This is an important part of self-care. If we are constantly focused on moving forward and therefore looking directly ahead, we may miss important and useful things that are not immediately in front of us. It is important to be focused, of course, but there is a difference between being focused and being blinkered and too narrowly concentrated. For example, how many people have been so intensely focused on their career or business that they miss out on watching their children grow up? How many people lose sight of their interests and hobbies because they are wedded to their strong sense of needing to move forward all the time? I remember one man telling me he had recently attended a concert for the first time in years and he had come away from it in tears and with mixed feelings. They were partly tears of joy because he had enjoyed the music so much, he had found it so uplifting at a time when he very much needed his spirits raising. But, in part, they were tears of sadness, because the experience made him realise that, despite his immense love of music, he had spent very little time in recent years listening to it or getting the benefits of it, because he had been so focused on making a success of his career. He realised he had let go of something that mattered to him a great deal because he had become too narrowly focused on his career.

An important part of this is our idea of success. What does success mean to you? If it is purely career success, then what are you missing out on? Of course, this is not to say that career success is not a noble and worthwhile goal to pursue, but allowing it to be all encompassing at the expense of other important matters and thereby, in the process, failing to ‘smell the roses’ is potentially very problematic.

This is partly about work-life balance, but it is also broader than this. It is about building in the flexibility to our lives to be able to pursue important goals, but also, at the same time, giving yourself time and space to savour the various things that seem small, but which can have a big impact on our quality of life.

Do you know what those small but significant things are in your life? Are you making sure that you are keeping them in mind and not letting them drift? Are you managing to get that balance right?

Focus on communication

Communication is such a central part of our lives that we tend to take it for granted, it fades into the background, like the wallpaper. That is perfectly normal, but it can also be problematic. Consider language, for example.

We largely live our lives through language. Much of our work is through language; we form relationships through language; we fall out through language. Much of our leisure time is enjoyed through language. Imagine, for example, trying to go for, say, a week without using language. We wouldn’t get very far would we? (not least because we tend to think through the medium of language).

But the way we use language can be problematic. Misunderstandings are very common, sometimes with minor consequences, sometimes with major harm as a result. This especially applies to written language. This is because when we speak, we use a very complex and sophisticated system of intonation – that is, we can generally understand what people mean from not just what they say, but the way they say it (the tone and pitch, for example). In writing, though, the nearest we have to this sophisticated system is punctuation and that is a poor substitute, even when people use it properly (and, of course, many people don’t). Consequently, the scope for misunderstanding and ill-feeling is much greater when we communicate in writing.

Email is a particularly significant form of communication in this regard. This is because it is a bit of a hybrid between spoken and written language. People getting themselves into a tangle through email is sadly a very common occurrence. LinkedIn and Facebook messages can function in much the same way.

But, communication is much more than language. While language is certainly a primary form of communication, it would be unwise to think of it as the only form of language. Indeed, nonverbal communication can be much more powerful. For example, where there is a mismatch between what we say and what our body language says, it tends to be the latter that is paid attention.

We learn the basic of nonverbal communication as we grow up, but most people seem to stick with the basics, while others take the opportunity to take their nonverbal communication skills to a much more advanced level, in terms of both being able to pick up the subtle signals from other people’s body language and being able to use their own body language in highly effective ways. So, are you in the former group or the latter? Are you happy to stick with the basics you learned as a child or are you able to take your skills to a more advanced (and therefore more effective) level?

But, let’s be clear that nonverbal communication is not just about body language. There is also our behaviour to consider. One of the principles of communication theory is that you cannot not communicate. That is, whether you are trying to communicate or not, people will interpret not only your body language, but also your behaviour – it will give them ‘messages’, which is, after all, what communication is all about. For example, if you tell someone you will arrive at 2pm, but you don’t get there until 2.35, didn’t ring ahead to let them know you were going to be late or apologise for being late when you do get there, it is likely to be interpreted that you believe your time is more important than theirs. It implies that you feel you have the right to inconvenience them if you wish. Now that may well not be what you intended to communicate, but that is not the point. It is the message that is received that counts, not the one you did or did not intend to convey.

All in all, then, there is a great deal to be gained from being more ‘communication aware’ than is normally the case.

NB The brand new third edition of Neil’s book, Effective Communication, is due to be published in April 2018.

Don’t let fear of failure hold you back

Fear of failure is a very powerful emotion that can do a lot of harm. It can prevent people from trying new things and therefore lead to them missing out on some potentially enriching and empowering experiences. In the same way that you can’t win a raffle if you don’t buy a ticket, you can’t benefit from an experience if you deny yourself the opportunity to have it.

As is often the case in life, a vicious circle can easily arise:

  • I am not confident enough to get involved in a particular activity because I am afraid that I will fail.
  • I limit my opportunities for learning and development.
  • I may feel I am letting myself down for not getting involved, and feel bad about this.
  • This can reduce my self-esteem and keep my confidence level low.
  • I may let people down by restricting myself in this way (especially if I am a parent or have people relying on me).
  • I can feel bad about this and may even feel annoyed with myself.
  • This can reduce my self-esteem and confidence further.
  • This can then lead me to restrict even further the activities I feel safe enough to participate in.
  • If people become aware of this they are likely to have less respect for me and will trust me less.
  • If I become aware of this, I can have even less confidence in myself.

… and so it goes on.

Fear of failure is understandable and can even be useful. If we had no fear of failure whatsoever, we could easily find ourselves in situations where we are seriously out of our depth. The trouble comes when we make an unrealistic appraisal of the level of risk involved in a particular situation (we are ‘risk averse’, to use the technical term).

What we need to be able to do, then, is look at the specific risks involved in a situation carefully without under- or overestimating them. One helpful way of doing this is to consider two questions:

  1. How likely am I to fail? In other words, realistically, what are the chances of you failing in whatever it is you are considering? It can be helpful to be as clear as possible about what exactly is it you are afraid of – that is, to have a clear and explicit picture of precisely what could happen that you dread so much. Are you really likely to fail or is it just your confidence letting you down?
  2. How serious would it be if I did fail? Would it be such a big deal if you did fail? What would the actual consequences be and what difference would they make to me? Is it purely the embarrassment of failure? The clearer you can be about these issues, the better.

 Being clear about your fears can help you manage them.

What can also be important to bear in mind is that failure is not necessarily a bad thing. Important successes in life will generally follow on form failure – that is, failure is part of the route to success, partly because of the learning to be gained from failure and partly because of the motivation and determination to succeed that failure will so often spur.

Sadly, many people don’t seem to realise that failure is an everyday occurrence – just keep your eyes open and it won’t be long before you see some sort of failure happening, even if it is just something minor. Failing is part of life, it is part of success.

Don’t underestimate yourself

Some people regularly stray into arrogance territory, by which I mean that they overestimate their own importance and their own capabilities. Indeed, this is a common theme in movies and dramas: the person who annoys others with their inflated self-belief and then eventually gets their comeuppance. It makes for satisfying viewing.

However, what I think is far more common is for people to go to the other extreme, to underestimate their importance, their capabilities and the difference they can make. This is often a matter of a lack of confidence (possibly linked to self-esteem issues), but that isn’t always the case. In a significant number of cases it is simply that we have genuinely underestimated what we can do. We haven’t tried, so we don’t know what our capabilities actually are. It is one of those cases where fear of failure will actually bring about failure.

So, the point I want to emphasise is this: Don’t believe you are too insignificant to make a difference. There are plenty of cases on record of individuals making a big difference, and I am not talking about special cases here or award-winning heroes. I am talking about ordinary people who wanted to make a difference, gave it a try and found that they were more influential than they had realised. Of course, it won’t happen every time, but it won’t happen ever if you don’t try. And where it doesn’t work out, you can learn from the experience.

For example, I have often worked with new groups of staff (newly qualified workers, for instance) who have told me that, as newcomers, no one will take any notice of them, so there is no point raising any issues, as no one will listen. On every occasion this has happened, I have made the same comment in response, namely that it will often be the opposite – that is, new people coming in who are not yet ‘embedded’ in the workplace culture will generally bring a fresh perspective and notice things that people who have worked there a while have lost sight of. The contribution of newcomers can therefore be invaluable.

Of course, much will depend on how you put your ideas across. If it seems to your colleagues that you are sweeping in and criticising before you have even got to settle in, then you will create a lot of ill feeling and make yourself unpopular (and thereby make it less likely that you can make a difference). So, tact and sensitivity are the order of the day.

What it boils down to is getting the balance right. On the one hand, you don’t want to overplay your hand and come across as an arrogant know it all, but nor do you want to write yourself off by assuming you don’t have a part to play.

And, of course, if you really do want to make a difference, then it is best to be part of a group with common aims, rather than just a lone ranger. So, who are the people who are like minded? Who are the people you could team up with to make whatever positive difference is needed?

 There is no magic formula; much of it is about trial and error and then learning from your experience. But, you don’t have to make all the mistakes yourself. You can learn from watching what others do, seeing what works for them and what doesn’t. But, just assuming that you can’t make a difference is likely to hold you back and it is not just you who loses out – think of all those people who also lose out from not hearing your ideas.


Don’t believe everything you read

I will be very happy if we ever reach a time when people are no longer naïve enough to say: ‘It must be true, I read it in the newspaper’, but I am not holding my breath. While complete falsehoods and fabrications may well be the exception, opinions being expressed as facts is a very common phenomenon. And, of course, even when factual information is presented, how it is presented can be very significant. For example, consider the difference between: ‘The team achieved an impressive success rate of 82%, a slight improvement on last year’s major achievement of 81%’ with ‘The team failed in almost 1 in 5 cases for the second year running’. The facts are the same, but how they are delivered is very different, of course. Presenting information in a written form (especially to a mass audience) is not a politically neutral or value-free undertaking.

But it isn’t just newspapers that this applies to. The written word tends to have more power and influence than the spoken word in most situations. Putting something in writing can deliver the message more forcefully and therefore more effectively in the majority of situations. So, we have to be careful to make sure that we are not allowing the written word to influence us unduly.

For example, I have many years’ experience of teaching critical thinking skills to students and, in doing so, impressing upon them the importance of not taking texts at face value, of being prepared to look beneath the surface, to examine assumptions and so on. But what I have found in those situations is a significant proportion of students who struggle with this and, when asked why they are finding it so difficult, their responses have indicated that they did not feel confident enough to challenge the authority of the written word. Sadly, this opens the door to all sorts of abuses, as it means that anyone who has the wherewithal to get their views into print has a degree of power that needs to be scrutinised (in the sense that all use of power needs to be open to scrutiny in a democratic society), which escapes such scrutiny because of this tendency to assume that the written word is not to be questioned.

Writing something down does not make it ‘the truth’, but nor can we assume that it isn’t true either – these things need to be weighed up carefully, with neither undue reverence, nor undue cynicism. As in so many things, it is a matter of balance.

The advent of the internet has made this even more of a pressing issue, as far more people now have the opportunity to make what they write available to a wider audience (as is reflected in the problem of ‘trolling’ that has caused so much pain and distress for so many people). This means that we need to be especially sceptical about what we read online and especially careful in questioning its validity and verifying its source. It is all too easy for people to use the internet to put their views in writing in biased, distorted and potentially harmful ways – that is, to use the power of the written word in illegitimate ways. Communication is power in action, and so we need to make sure, as far as we can, that such power is used in legitimate ways.

This isn’t about being paranoid, it is about being sensible, using our intelligence to ensure that the power of the written word is not being allowed to create problems for us or for others.

Feel free to disagree

Conflict is a broad term. It can range from minor disagreements to out-and-out war, with various degrees of antagonism in between. Relatively minor conflicts can escalate to much more serious situations, and so it is understandable that people will so often be very wary of entering into even a minor conflict for fear of it developing into something of more major proportions.

However, this wariness comes at a price, as it means that we can become reluctant to air any disagreements. One unfortunate consequence of this is what is known as ‘groupthink’. This refers to a group of people who are involved in a process of decision making in which some members – sometimes the majority, even – disagree with the direction that one or more people are taking the group in. They foresee difficulties, even potentially catastrophic ones, but do not speak up for fear of ‘rocking the boat’ and of being seen as out of step with the group. A common consequence of this is that the decision made backfires and results in a poor outcome, and those people who had not spoken out wishing that they had. Those who are brave enough to admit that they were not happy with the group’s decision (but did not say so at the time) could well then find themselves being pilloried for keeping their concerns to themselves.

In a group context disagreement has a positive role to play (provided that it is done in a civilised way), in so far as it can highlight difficulties, provide opportunities for learning and, as in the case of groupthink already mentioned, avoid poor decision making. Having someone disagree with you can introduce new perspectives and insights and help you gain a fuller and more helpful picture of the situation.

But it isn’t just in a group context that disagreement can be positive. We are all different people, with our own unique perspective on life, and so it is inevitable that differences and disagreements will arise. Pretending these differences don’t exist is not a wise strategy, of course. It is much better to be aware of these differences and use them constructively – this is part of what is meant by ‘valuing diversity’, recognising that differences in perspective are potentially very useful as a source of learning, broadening our horizons and avoiding unfair discrimination.

It is important to realise that disagreement is not simply a matter of one person being wrong and another being right – both might be right in their own way, reflecting different aspects of the situation, or different perspectives on it. You don’t have to look far before you come across one or more examples of this. It is quite common for people to be arguing about something that they actually agree on in large part!

What is really important when it comes to disagreement is to do it in what I referred to earlier as a ‘civilised’ way. What I mean by this is an assertive approach – that is, one that does not involve trying to force the other person(s) to accept your point of view, nor allowing them to force their point of view on you. It is about being open minded and being prepared to consider other people’s views and perspectives – it is essential that we do not confuse disagreeing with fighting. Fights have winners and losers (or sometimes just losers on both sides), whereas disagreements can be positive and constructive, with everyone winning if they are handled tactfully and sensitively.

So, while disagreements can escalate into more serious conflicts, they can also be helpful and productive for all concerned. The key to it is about how we disagree – in a spirit of moving forward constructively or in a spirit of antagonism.


Reframing negatives as positives

Every cloud has a silver lining may well be a cliché, but that does not mean that the idea does not contain more than an element of truth. Of course, it would be an exaggeration to argue that every negative (cloud) has within it a positive (a silver lining) of some description, but it is certainly the case that negative events will often also bring some degree of positivity.

In a sense, this is a reflection of the complexity of life. There is a very common tendency to want to simplify things as much as possible, and that often leads to an oversimplification, a distortion of reality – a situation has to be either good or bad; it can’t be a mixture of both. Proverbs and slogans will often fall into this category. What we are dealing with, then, is the need to recognise that the complexity of life means that a high proportion of the situations we encounter will have both positive and negative elements – both light and shade. It can be helpful to be aware of this when engaged in situations seen predominantly as negative. If we are not careful, we can allow the negative impact of a situation to blind us to any positive elements.

Much of this has to do with perception. It is very easy to perceive a situation that has a strong negative element to it in purely negative terms and thereby lose sight of other aspects. We see what is in focus (the negatives) and disregard the blurry bits that are not in focus (the positives). This is understandable, as it reflects a defence mechanism – that is, our tendency to identify and focus on threats, aspects of a situation that pose a risk to us. That in itself, is a good thing, of course, but it needs to be balanced out by a more holistic view that sees the bigger picture, including the positives.

One important aspect of this is what is known as ‘reframing’. This can be a very useful tool. It involves redefining negative issues in positive terms – for example:

  • I am disappointed I didn’t get that job -> I am glad that the tension over that job application is over now.
  • Being ill recently has been a major inconvenience -> Being ill has made me realise that I need to take things easier and look after myself better.
  • I was really annoyed that Sam let me down -> It is good to know that, apart from Sam, I have so many people in my life that I can rely on for help when I need it.

One note of caution, if you are trying to help someone else to reframe (that is, it isn’t just about reframing your own experiences), you need to be very sensitive and tactful in how you put things across. For example, if someone is feeling sad, annoyed, disappointed or angry, saying something like: ‘Never mind, look on the bright side’ can go down very badly, as it can so easily come across as you not being sensitive to their feelings. Considerable caution is called for!

Reframing can be important for motivation. If we focus on the negatives of a situation and lose sight of the positive elements, then it is very easy for us to become demotivated and lose heart. Having a more balanced approach to such matters gives us a much firmer basis for feeling motivated and therefore for being in a stronger position to achieve whatever it is we are trying to do.

Reframing is not about denying or minimising problems and difficulties; it is about seeing them as part of a wider picture, and that gives us more hope and a more balanced understanding.


On the many occasions I have run managing conflict training courses I have emphasized the importance of listening. This is for two reasons. First, listening is a very good way of defusing conflict. Paying attention to what somebody’s concerns are can help to calm a situation down and avoid any unpleasantness. Second, not being listened to is what will often lead people into conflict situations in the first place. Consider consumer complaints, for example. People will often pay for a product or service, then find they are not happy with it and want the matter sorted, but they do not feel the need to make a complaint. But, when their efforts to get their problem with the product or service rectified fall on deaf ears, that is when the chances of a formal complaint being made go through the roof. So, conflict, sometimes nasty conflict, is the price we can pay for not listening, whereas listening and paying attention can help avoid or settle conflicts.

But it isn’t just in relation to conflict situations that listening is an important matter. People tend to think of communication mainly as conveying information to one or more people, but that can mean that we forget that listening is also part of communication – if you are not listening, then communication is not being effective. In my Effective Communication book, I make the point that we cannot not communicate – that is, we are always giving off signals, whether we intend to or not. But, what we have to recognize is that listening (receiving information) also involves conveying information. For example, if it is clear that you are not listening, then you will be conveying to the person(s) concerned that you have no interest in what they have to say, that it is not important enough for you to pay attention. You may also be conveying disrespect or even contempt in doing so.

This is partly why active listening is so important. This involves not only listening, but actually showing you are listening – nodding, making eye contact and so on. For example, if you are actively listening, you are conveying interest, you are communicating that you want to hear what they have to say. So, in this case, you are expressing respect and are therefore more likely to receive a positive response from that person.

One problem when it comes to listening is that people will often listen to respond, rather than listen to understand – that is, while someone is speaking to them, they are concentrating on what they want to say next (their response), rather than trying to understand where the other person is coming from. This then leads to a very superficial form of listening that can cause a lot of ill feeling.

And the importance of ‘listening’ can also apply to electronic communication. Have you ever emailed somebody and asked them two questions, but their reply answers only first question and ignores the second? This is a very common occurrence and one that wastes a lot of time for both parties when you then have to follow up with a second email to get an answer to the second question.

Being a good listener can pay great dividends, making you much more likable and earning you respect, whereas not listening can create a lot of problems, alienate people, make you come across as unlikable and not worthy of respect. Listening is therefore a double whammy, in the sense that it brings a lot of positives, while its absence creates a lot of negatives.

Listening is not just an activity; it is an attitude of mind – it a way of approaching interactions with other people with respect, concern and interest.