Many a problem has been caused by someone putting something in writing in a way that led to misunderstanding. What you intended to convey and what is interpreted by the reader can sometimes be very different indeed. For example, what you intended to be friendly advice could be perceived as issuing instructions. These mismatches arise because communication does not take place in a vacuum. When you write something you will be doing so within a context of your own circumstances and your own frameworks of meaning. The person reading what you have written will be doing so within their own context and their own frameworks of meaning, and so there is plenty of scope for misunderstanding. What can be helpful is this: if you are writing a letter or report, imagine you are the intended recipient and have just opened and read it. That is, put yourself in the recipient’s shoes. Are you sure, when you look at it from this perspective, that what you have written will convey what you wanted it to?
It can feel really good to be comfortable, to be out of danger, with no significant hassles at that particular time. So, it can be very appealing to enter what is often called the ‘comfort zone’. But, ironically, there are dangers involved in getting too comfortable, in being too keen to stay in that warm and cosy place. It can stop us learning; discourage us from being imaginative and creative and thereby block innovation; and at times it can also make us complacent. So, rather than get too used to our comfort zone, perhaps we should think of it as somewhere we return to as a safe haven after we have allowed ourselves to go beyond it and be a bit more adventurous in our dealings with the world. Too much of a good thing can be bad for you and comfort is something that can come under that heading too. If we never venture beyond our comfort zone, it becomes a cage rather than a home.
Values are, of course, a key factor when it comes to working with people. Values shape our (and other people’s) thoughts, feelings and actions. However, we have to be careful not to oversimplify the situation in relation to values; we should not allow them to become fixed and rigid and dogmatically apply them across the board when perhaps a more nuanced approach is called for. For example, there can be clashed between different sets of values that can be difficult to reconcile. Critically reflective practice means that we need to have a flexible approach to our knowledge base – and much the same can be said to apply to our value base. At one unhelpful extreme we have a lack of integrity by which I mean a significant gap between espoused values and actual actions taken. But at the other extreme we can have a dogmatic approach to values that does not do justice to the complexities involved. Critically reflective practice helps us to find the healthy balance between the two.
In many aspects of the people professions we are called upon to assess situations, weigh them up as part of making a decision as to how to deal with them. This is skilful work that can be helped by having a good working knowledge base around people (about motivation, for example). But what is not helpful is the tendency to rely on untested assumptions. At one extreme, this can amount to relying on stereotypes, crude caricatures that present a heavily distorted picture. But we can also encounter more subtle distortions, mainly based on the assumption that other people see the world the way we do. For example, something we see as simple and straightforward may be quite scary and disconcerting to someone else. It is therefore important that we make the effort to develop a more holistic picture, taking account of other people’s perspectives and checking things out where necessary rather than taking things for granted and potentially producing an inaccurate and unhelpful picture of the situation.
It is important not to feel under pressure to dance to someone else’s tune. For example, something seen as urgent by someone else does not necessarily mean you have to change your own priorities to accommodate it. This does not mean that we should not help people who need something doing urgently, but it does mean that the fact that something is urgent for somebody else should not be allowed to distort your own priorities. Sadly I have come across many situations where Person A has something urgent (but not especially important) that they want Person B to do and, when Person B does it, the result is that something much more important from Person B’s own to do list does not get done – often with more serious consequences than if Person A’s task had not been done. By all means take requests for urgent help seriously, but don’t make the mistake of assuming that you have to oblige if that means you are creating potentially worse problems than you are solving.
Over the years I have come across many decisions that have proven after the event to have been unwise of misguided. There is no single reason for this, but a common theme has been people making decisions without having the information they need. Often what happens is that there is pressure to make a decision quickly and this can lead people into moving forward with their plans too soon because key elements of information were not available at the time the decision was made. So, in making any decision we have to be clear about which is wiser: deciding now without that information and risking getting it wrong, or take the time to find out – thereby making a much sounder decision – but risking causing problems associated with the delay involved. Unless there are reasons why we need to make the decision very soon, it is generally wiser to get the information we need before deciding on our course of action.
There are some things that each one of us is responsible for – that is, they are individual responsibilities. I have to do what I have to do and you have to do what you have to do. Some things are shared responsibilities – that is, we have to do them together. Teamwork is a good example of this. Developing effective teamwork is the responsibility of every team member, not just the leader. Then there are also responsibilities that belong to other people – they are not mine, they are not yours, they are not ours. It is important to be aware of these boundaries as it can be quite problematic and potentially stressful if: (i) we do not fulfil our individual responsibilities; (ii) we do not contribute to our shared responsibilities; or (iii) we overload ourselves by taking on responsibilities that are not ours, that belong elsewhere. The detrimental consequences of losing sight of these boundaries can be quite significant.
My Time and Workload Management e-learning course emphasizes that too much work is too much work – that is, everyone has a limit to how much they can get done in a given timeframe. However, some people get themselves into difficulties by taking on everything that comes their way. They feel obliged to say yes to everything even if this means they may become overloaded to the point that they risk becoming stressed and possibly practising dangerously because of that. A key skill, then, is being able to successfully negotiate our workload. If we take on more than we can reasonably cope with then we are likely to achieve far less than if we had kept our workload within manageable limits, and we also risk things going tragically wrong. Some people find it very difficult to be assertive about their workload limits, but allowing ourselves to get into that dangerous overload zone is very unwise.
‘More haste less speed’ is a well-known saying and it has more than a grain of truth to it. So many people tend to respond to pressure by rushing, and this is a dangerously counterproductive strategy. When we rush our error rate goes up significantly and our sense of control goes down significantly – and, of course, losing our sense of control is a major step in the direction of stress. What is also significant is that, when we start rushing, we start giving people the message that they are not important, that we have more pressing things to do than to listen to them and take in an interest in them. Working slightly faster than usual is one thing, rushing is quite another. If we find ourselves in a position where we feel the need to rush, that is the time to start reordering our priorities – taking our thinking up a gear, rather than letting it go down a gear by rushing.
Our muscles need time to recover form exertion before we exert ourselves further if we are not to strain them. The same applies to our mental and emotional ‘muscles’. If we keep stretching ourselves in our work efforts (and in our lives more broadly) without giving ourselves time to recover, we run the risk of doing ourselves harm, potentially significant harm. Exertion plus recovery plus more exertion can produce growth and development (of muscles in the direct physical sense or of learning in our more metaphorical sense). Exertion followed by more exertion without recovery time in between can produce muscle strain and/or psychological stress. Time for recovery is therefore not an optional extra of we are to take our physical and mental health seriously.