Words do matter

Some time ago I was invited to visit a local prison – just for the day you understand – to talk to staff about a programme they were running for violent inmates. They took me to a large, light and airy room in which they worked with those offenders who had shown an interest in modifying how they behaved.


As I went into the room, I was immediately struck (no, not by one of the offenders) by a large whiteboard with ‘feeling’ words written all over it, words such as, anger, peace, frustration, joy, sympathy, boredom, hate, compassion, hurt, love and so on. I enquired what the words were about and was told that the offenders could not express how they felt because they did not have the vocabulary and were limited to a few phrases such as ‘You piss me off’. Without those words they were stuck in a tight loop of, usually violent, feelings.

Now that phrase ‘You piss me off’ is a critical one because it lies at the centre of how violent offenders justify their behaviour. It forms the basis of what, to the offender, is a perfectly rational sequence: you piss me off, therefore I am the victim and you deserve to be thumped – either verbally or physically. The result of this rather twisted thinking is that the actual assailant feels justified in his actions because, in his mind, he was the ‘victim’ and therefore the other person ‘the aggressor’. Makes sense – doesn’t it?

The above scenario begs the question, ‘do things really annoy you or do you just become annoyed?’ And, moreover, is there a decision involved in how you feel – a choice? The difference between the two statements may seem to be a matter of mere semantics, of little relevance in real life but, as I was shown, the difference in outcome can be, and in the case of the offenders was, very serious.

To show how prevalent this thinking is, I recently, read an article entitled ‘10 things that annoy me about…’ well, pretty much everything it seemed. Clearly the writer saw herself as a victim unable to control how she felt even to the extent that the positioning or presence of an inanimate object ‘made’ her angry.

Next time you catch yourself saying ‘S/he made me angry’ (or even more interestingly, ‘It’ made me angry) – ponder whether it is really the case or whether you are allowing others to control how you feel, that you have no choice and see yourself as a victim.

Perhaps the words we use matter after all – especially if we repeat them to the point at which, at some deeper level, we believe them to be true.

Notwithstanding all the philosophical or biological arguments, the bottom line for me is that I cannot abide the notion of someone else controlling how I feel.

Charles Baudelaire and hospitals

Came across a lovely comment by Charles Baudelaire, a variation on ‘The grass is greener…’

“This life is a hospital where every patient is possessed with the desire to change beds” – seems to capture the constant worry that we could be doing better, or worse, that others are better placed than us. Probably useful to place it alongside the observation that ‘nobody understands another person’s problems’.

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Are women better communicators?

At leadership workshops (usually quietly and to one side of the main discussion), I have been asked “Do you think women are better communicators than men?”

Meeting - blog 3

As you may well imagine, even at the best of times, straying into this area by expressing an opinion one way or the other would be fraught with danger. However, the questions led me to think back to the many people with whom I have worked in leadership programmes and the many stories that have been related to me about workplace and personal situations.

After pondering the question I came to the conclusion that I could not say whether women, as a group, were better (or worse) than men. Furthermore, I realised that many men were far better communicators than many women and that many women were far better communicators than many men. Put another way, I came to the general conclusion that the differences within each gender are greater than the differences between them.

Focusing on the differences within each gender being greater than those between the genders takes the potential heat out of discussions by shifting the focus onto individual action – with the possible bonus that the effort required to change your viewpoint is probably less than that required to change your gender.

Short story: ‘The difference within… ’ approach can be usefully applied to any situation in which you want to move the focus from the stereotype to the individual.


Is resilience enough?

In engineering terms, resilience refers to the ability of a material to recover its shape. For people it’s about ‘bouncing back’ and recovering from life’s hits which, in its own right, is quite a helpful strength but, is it enough to simply return to the status-quo?

When you Hardiness1encounter a situation that challenges your mental ability to cope it is desirable to not only absorb and recover from the ‘hit’ but to learn from what happened and become psychologically stronger from having had the experience.

Notice how the word ‘experience’ can easily slip by unnoticed because of an implicit assumption that what you experience is ‘how it is’ leading to it being unthinkingly accepted as something over which you have no control. However, ‘your experience’  is a combination of what happens to you and how you react to what happens to you which, in turn, depends on how you view the world.

Hardiness turns a stressful experience into something that enhances your life. This is not done via an “It’s all good”, positive-thinking approach (which might sound good but rarely works), but in a considered, deliberate manner that prepares you for the next test of your inner resources – your next experience.

In short, hardiness is a long-term approach to developing your inner resources in much the same way a runner prepares for a marathon – without preparation, putting on a smiley face at the start line just doesn’t cut it.Hardiness2

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Reject dependency

Some time ago, I got a shock when I visited a friend who used to be my boss many many years before but was now living in a resthome.

In those early days of working, I was well down the food chain and my friend (then my boss) was generally regarded as a substitute, if not replacement for, God: except that he had more power and authority than God.

It was a spur of the moment decision for my wife and I to go and see him and, in the event, he wasn’t there. However, during the visit, we ended up in the resthome lounge (yes, the archetypal resthome lounge) with the inmates seated in comfy chairs around the room perimeter staring into space or sleeping. Reflecting on my ex boss’s  changed situation set me thinking about the radical shifts each of these peoples’ lives had taken compared to their earlier years in which most would have likely exercised varying degrees of independence: independence that was now considerably reduced.

Over the years, I have spent a fair bit of time visiting rest homes but, for some reason, this visit knocked me between the eyes. It was a classic place, very nice with staff who were both helpful and attentive, and the food was good. But, what I found scary was the realisation that, if I somehow found myself in such a place, it could be so easy to be drawn into their (the home’s) routines and needs and become one of the people sitting around staring into space.

For my part, I was staring into a possible future and thinking ‘Hell, is this what it could hold’. The experience brought to the fore my principle of never placing responsibility for my well-being in the hands of others, no matter how well-meaning they are, unless I absolutely have to: resist to the last possible moment. It was a powerful experience.

When I got home I went for a long walk around the hills and next morning, hit the gym with a vengeance.

I have always hoped that as time progresses, I will ultimately be fortunate enough that, in great physical and mental shape, I will exit the planet by falling off a cliff (or the medical equivalent in terms of speed) thereby avoiding the rest-home scenario.

This may all sound a bit morbid but I do question how we treat the aged and, much earlier on in our lives, ourselves. Someone once said ‘If you treat a person as an eagle they will probably behave like one’ and the reverse applies.

Notwithstanding that life is capricious, if we accept being treated as becoming increasingly dependent on others while being nicely and benignly pressured into fitting the routines and needs of others, we set ourselves up for whatever comes next.

Increased ‘comfort ‘ in a rest-home is not necessarily the answer because by then it is too late to fundamentally alter our quality of life. I suspect that most times, the damage is incremental, starts much earlier, and depends on how well we evolve our attitude towards maintaining our mental and physical health, our choice of role-models and how fiercely we protect and evolve our autonomy.

My experience also raised the matter of whether, as we age, we should just give in or strive for eternal youth. My view is that neither position is useful: striving for eternal youth is bound to end in tears and ‘giving in’, as with the resthome observations, limits our potential to fully enjoy what life has to offer. However, the majority of people (taking a chance here) do little to enhance their old age, particularly with regard to maintaining their health, and accept what they see as the inevitable – ‘it’s how it is’!

But the question is, ‘For how many of the residents was their predicament inevitable?

Short story – Do something! Act now!

Uncomfortable about giving feedback?

If you feel uncomfortable when giving feedback (especially negative), it is the result of your ‘internal connections’, your self-talk. Treat this as an opportunity to examine the filters/beliefs that you hold around giving feedback, for example, ‘I might make them angry’ – forgetting that it is their choice whether or not they get angry and your responsibility to act appropriately.

It may be useful to re-consider your underlying purpose in giving the feedback and for whose benefit it is being given? Is it to assist or to ‘have a dig’? Is the feedback wanted?

Problems are treasures

Many people do not want to know about problems. They see them as evidence of failure, something to be hidden, not to be discussed in polite company. Yet, on a personal level, or as a manager, problems are treasures – you need them.

Other than by solving problems, how else can you demonstrate that you (or your organisation) are improving? No problems to solve – no chance of improvement. Dead in the water!

The worst thing to hear is no problems, ‘Everything is fine’ – scary stuff.

Naturally, one hopes not to keep on ‘solving’ the same old problem.