I have run very many training courses where I have asked the group: ‘How many of you prepare for meetings so that you are better equipped to get the best results from the time you are putting in?’. It is very rare for the majority of responses to be in the affirmative and quite often it is as little as 10% or so of the group. And yet, if you think about it, many people spend a great deal of time in meetings, much of which can be wasted, unproductive (if not counterproductive) time if it is not focused enough. It can therefore be helpful to do some pre-meeting preparation by asking yourself: (i) What do I want out of this meeting?; and (ii) What do I want or need to put into it? It may then be that, in some circumstances, you will decide that there is little point in attending. However, where you do attend you should be in a stronger position to gain some benefit from your attendance if you are clear about what you want to contribute and what you want to take from the meeting.
The idea that ‘grief is the price we pay for love’ is a longstanding one. When we love (a person, a thing, a job or whatever) we may make an emotional commitment or investment (‘cathexis’, to use the technical term). When we lose who or what we have invested in we feel the emptiness of the emotional void that has been created by that loss. This can affect us at different levels (physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually) and can have a hugely powerful impact on our lives. Some people make the mistake of assuming that grief applies only to death, but, of course, it can arise as a result of any significant loss. If we make the mistake of not taking account of grief in people’s lives, we can be basing our actions and interactions on a very partial and distorted picture of the situation.
To lose face means to become embarrassed or to feel that your standing has been diminished. Unfortunately, if we are not sensitive enough in our interactions with other people, we can easily unintentionally make them lose face – for example, by implying a criticism of them. In some cases this can lead you an aggressive reaction. This is because, if people are faced with a choice between losing face and reacting strongly, many will choose the latter. Indeed, feeling diminished or humiliated is a common cause of aggressive or even violent reactions. We therefore need to make sure that we are skilful enough to avoid contributing to situations where people lose face. Saving face means, on the one hand, not embarrassing ourselves, but also making sure we don’t unwittingly embarrass anyone else. This is partly basic good manners, but it is also about being able to tune in to the situation we find ourselves in and being alert to any potential sources of losing face. For example, in circumstances where someone is, or has been, upset or angry, they are more likely to regard an ill-chosen comment as a slight. This does not mean that we should be ‘walking on eggshells’, but it does mean that we may create problems if we just press on without considering the dangers of causing someone to lose face.
Some people seem to think that an apology is an admission of guilt or even of negligence and are therefore very careful not to utter the word ‘sorry’. This is very unfortunate, as saying sorry can defuse a tense situation, while not saying sorry when an apology could have helped a great deal can inflame a situation quite significantly. But often it isn’t a deliberate strategy to withhold an apology; it’s simply a matter of allowing work pressures to distract us to the extent that we lose sight of basic manners. Our own pressures stop us from seeing the situation from the other person’s point of view and thereby prevent us from taking their feelings into account. A classic example of this is when a complaint is made about something of low to medium importance, evokes an unapologetic response which is interpreted as being ‘fobbed off’, which then leads to a much stronger complaint being made – a deeper hole has been dug, and totally unnecessarily.
There are some obvious signs of aggression and potential violence, such as reddening of the face, threatening gestures and so on. However, it is important to realize that there are many other, more subtle clues that can alert us to the potential for aggression and violence. In situations where we anticipate someone may become aggressive (where we have to deny their request, for example), we need to be using our nonverbal communication skills and watching carefully for signs that tension is growing. There is often an escalation. For example, it may start with something quite minor and normally imperceptible (drumming of fingers, moving about uneasily in their seat and so on). There are things we can do to minimize the chances of aggression and violence (effective listening, for example), but ultimately, if you feel you are in real danger of being assaulted it is wise to leave the situation at the earliest opportunity – for your own protection and also for their protection, as having a criminal assault charge against them is likely only to make their situation worse.
In the previous tip I talked about how distractions can get in the way of effective communication, but in this one I want to look at how distracting someone can be a helpful thing to do in certain circumstances. It is a technique well known to many parents: to distract their child when they are misbehaving, getting upset or otherwise being demanding. But few people recognize that it can also work well with adults (provided that it is not done in a patronizing way). It can be useful when someone is anxious and/or fixated on a particular concern, depressed or agitated. It has to be done tactfully and sensitively, but it can make a very positive difference in the right circumstances. For example, if someone is focusing purely on the negatives of a situation, it can be helpful to try and balance this out by helping them to focus on the positive aspects of their circumstances.
Effectiveness in working with people relies to a large extent on being able to communicate successfully, to make a genuine and meaningful connection with the person(s) concerned. Distractions can get in the way of this (for example, a television being on during a home visit or noise coming from an adjacent room). We need to be tuned in to how problematic such distractions can be, and this is for two reasons. First, it makes it harder for both parties to ‘connect’ where there are distractions; and, second, if it is clear that you are aware of such distractions and you are doing nothing about it, both your credibility and your effectiveness go down significantly. So, having the presence of mind to identify distractions and the negotiation skills necessary to reduce or minimize them is an important foundation for good practice in the people professions. Sadly, I have seen so many people try to press on despite distractions and pay the price when it would have been far more effective to recognize the significance of the distraction and try to do something about it.
In the people professions we will often come across people who are distressed, agitated or otherwise in a bad place. Often this will result in their being unkind or worse towards others, including ourselves – even though we may be doing our best to help and support them. They may swear at us, insult us or even physically attack us. Now, while such behaviour is not acceptable and should therefore not be condoned, we should also recognize that we would be wise not to take such matters personally. It is much more likely that they are taking their frustrations out on the role we occupy or the organization we represent or, ironically, may be venting their dismay and/or wrath in our direction because they feel safe enough with us to do so (a very backhanded compliment!). Encountering such negative feelings is difficult and challenging enough, so we have to make sure we do not make it worse by taking it personally when in most situations that is not likely to be the case.
Transactional analysis, or TA for short, is now often seen as old-fashioned, but good ideas have a tendency to endure beyond fashion. TA teaches us that we should aim for interactions with others that are characterized as adult-adult (that is, based on mutual respect and consideration) rather than parent-child (based on dominance), parent-parent (a power battle) or child-child (neither person taking ownership of the situation). This is a very simple framework of understanding, but it can be very useful in a variety of circumstances. For example, supervision at work can be very effective and empowering when it is adult-adult, but can create resentment and distance when it is carried out on a parent-child basis. So, are you relating to people in an adult-adult way, as this is what is likely to bring out the best in both parties? Is someone behaving towards you in a parent-child way? If so, how can you influence the situation to make it a more effective adult-adult set of interactions?
The idea of cultural sensitivity is now a well-established one, but my experience has taught me that many people do not fully understand the implications of that. For example, many times I have come across people who assume that it applies only when dealing with somebody whose skin colour is different from one’s own. In reality, it is much more complex than this, as there will generally be cultural differences that relate to class, region, profession or vocation, linguistic group and so on. Culture is a much broader and more inclusive concept than it is generally given credit for. Our own cultural backgrounds and experiences will have been a profound influence on who we are (our identity), our sense of where we fit in the world and where we are going (our spirituality). So often breakdowns of communication and other problems have their roots in one person seeing the situation from their own cultural standpoint, while one or more others see it from different cultural standpoints.