If you are skilful at engaging with people and winning their trust, convincing them that you are a helpful and reliable person there is a danger that they will come to rely on you more and more and bring more and more of their problems and concerns to you. This can easily lead to you being overloaded, stretching yourself too thinly and potentially getting yourself into difficulties. So, it is important to be clear about what we can help with and what we can’t – to ‘set out our stall’, as it were. If we lose sight of the boundaries of our role and become a general helper, it can be confusing all round. It can also prove stressful, as it means we have no control over our workload – the demand can be potentially infinite if people start bringing to us issues and concerns that are not part of our remit. The ability to be effective in negotiating expectations (making it clear where our role begins and ends and sticking to it) can be difficult at times, but it remains an important skill to have if we are not to allow ourselves to be pulled in all directions.
The level of formality at which we speak or write is known technically as the ‘register’. Sometimes it is appropriate to communicate fairly informally (informal register), while at others a more formal register is what is needed. However, some people confuse formal register with officialese. Perhaps this is a confidence issue: feeling not very confident about using a formal register may lead to stilted language use. Officialese is a style of language that is full of clichés and jargon terms and is unnecessarily convoluted. It is the opposite of plain language. It is perfectly possible to write formally within the bounds of plain language without resorting to officialese. In any form of communication, the major emphasis needs to be on clarity: am I getting across the point(s) I need to? Officialese stands in the way of clarity and is therefore no substitute for formal but clear language.
In conflict situations it is not uncommon for one or more parties to feel that they are being persecuted, that they are being treated unfairly. This is often due to the conflict concerned revolving around different perceptions of the situation. For example, where there are two people in conflict it is very common for each to perceive the other as being ‘difficult’ or ‘awkward’ – that is, each seeing the situation in personal, rather than interpersonal, terms. Where this occurs the result can be what is known as the ‘drama triangle’. This is where one person in the conflict (who plays the role of victim) draws in a third party to seek support (to be a rescuer) against the other party who is cast as the persecutor. If you are that third party and you allow yourself to be seduced into being a rescuer, you may then find yourself in difficulty when you discover that the alleged persecutor sees him- or herself as the victim and seeks to cast the other party as the persecutor. So, whenever you are called upon to ‘rescue’ someone from a difficult situation, first look at that situation carefully and particularly at any elements of conflict.
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.
There tends to be a strong emphasis these days on ‘positive thinking’ and optimism. While there is much to be said for the benefits of such an approach, we also need to be aware of some of the dangers associated with it. One is for problems to be swept under the carpet in our desire to focus on the positive elements of a situation and thereby de-emphasize the negative or problematic aspects. What can be much more fruitful is to ensure that we acknowledge the problems we come across, but then adopt a positive approach by focusing on solutions. This is a matter of finding a constructive balance. On the one hand, it is dangerous to ignore problems in some misguided sense of positivity, but on the other it can make problems worse if people allow concerns about such problems to predominate – that is, if they wallow in the negativity problems can produce. Being positive about problem solving can give us the best of both worlds: we are not naively ignoring problems, but nor are we allowing their negativity to undermine us. Indeed, such a positive approach to problem solving is an important basis for empowerment, for supporting other people in resolving their own difficulties.