Recently I was doing a piece of work in a rural area of the south of France—very pleasant in some ways but in terms of communication and internet, frequently frustrating. After two interminable days of not even being able to use a dial-up system to retrieve email I turned, in some desperation, to an acquaintance who runs a small IT unit in the area, and who had helped me out before. Over the phone, as I explained my situation and asked for advice on how to get on even a slow-line, I could sense his reluctance and eventually impatience with my request for help. He was extremely busy, he said and was squeezed in between several conflicting demands already. My cry for help, based on our previous satisfactory interactions, was simply making him feel bad and pushing him further into a situation of stress.
In vain were my arguments that it was an indication of the seriousness of my plight that I was bothering him at all, that all he needed to do was to set me in the direction of who to talk to, that it is hard to sort out how to get online without being on line. We had two or three rather tense phone calls before he used the excuse of taking an hour to check out something and did not call me back.
Eventually, through some miracle, I got on to a local provider with a line for non-French speakers and they confirmed that yes, it is still possible to go on dial-up in that part of France but I would have to travel to the nearest office to register—the nearest office being in a town two hours away. At my gasp of dismay, the agent on the phone offered to look further and within five minutes had provided me with all the coordinates to get me online. There should be a way of ringing back people who provide help at such times and telling them how they have changed your day.
This story has stayed in my mind for quite some time because it seems to speak to many of the themes that come up in looking at how we are at work. My IT acquaintance spent more time on the phone with me telling me how he could not help than the person who eventually solved the problem. His experience of being over-worked and under pressure made him resent my asking him anything in the first place. This sense of grievance deepened in the face of my refusal to give up, so that his ability to solve my relatively small problem became limited and constrained by emotional resentment. The person who solved the problem was relatively relaxed and able to see if the situation could be flexible and accommodating—which it could.
For my part, my anxiety at being out of touch with the people I was working with, as well as the world at large made me more brittle than I would normally be and perhaps less able to read the signs my acquaintance was sending me. Just as my IT acquaintance’s stress closed him down, my anxiety undermined my ability to see the situation clearly and to ask for help in the best way.
So often, the frustrations and limitations we experience at work can be traced back to our mood at the time, to how we place our mind as we try to negotiate our way around them, to our conviction that how we experience a situation is the way it is. We can waste a lot of time this way, as well as disappointing people and limiting our capacity to contribute creatively to what is going on around us.
Do you have any examples of this happening to you recently? How did you resolve it?