When you are getting ready for work in the morning, is there a work colleague who comes into your mind who you dread seeing, and would rather avoid? If there is, then the chances are that you have a difficult person to deal with at work. Unfortunately, it’s not likely to be a problem that only you are facing. Difficult people at work can cause a ripple effect that has negative consequences throughout the workplace.
Everyone is difficult some of the time of course, so what does it take to be seen as a ‘difficult person’? There are people who complain all the time and are impossible to please. Then there are others who seem to want to turn everything into a competition, or worse, a battle. I have worked with people who treat their staff pool as a free audience for them to play out their own personal soap opera—they demand attention and tend to suck all the energy out of a team. Perhaps you’ve met the perfectionist? Someone who cannot accept anything that is less than perfect and projects their exacting and unrealistic standards on everyone around them. Quieter but just as deadly is the person who quietly goes behind everyone’s backs and gossips and manipulates to get their own way.
Toxic behaviour of any kind takes up time, energy and resources to deal with—all of which could be applied to the actual work to be done. Such behaviour can impact productivity and lower inspiration and morale among any team. It causes stress, absenteeism, and a higher rate of staff turnover.
However, it does not have to be all bad. Difficult work colleagues can help to focus our attention and encourage us to check our own habits at work. Let’s look at some practical, accessible steps that anyone can take to help them to deal with a difficult person at work without risking any of these negative outcomes.
Maybe as you read this you are thinking that you are always paying attention, and this is too obvious to mention? Perhaps you have not heard about the researchthat was done at Harvard University in 2010. It showed that for almost 50% of our waking hours, we are thinking about something different to what we are doing. This means that for almost half our life we are not fully present to ourselves and what we are doing.
Let’s take a moment to consider what that means. If our minds are elsewhere when we are interacting with another person then we are going to miss all kinds of signs as to what is actually going on. Our memoryof the interaction will be flawed and incomplete. We are going to be seeing people and events as we think they are, rather than how they actually are.
This is particularly important when dealing with a person we experience as difficult. We are going to need to able to discern clearly the other person’s behaviour, as well as our own responses to it. It won’t help to get caught out by defensive reactionswhich could add to the problem. Things will only get worse if we exaggerate the difficult behaviour of the other person. Developing equanimity, on the other hand will give us the grounding we need to understand and work with the challenges they present for us.
What we can do
One of the best ways to learn to be present is to make mindfulnesspractice part of your everyday life. Try to spend at least 10 minutes every morning sitting on a cushion, or hard-backed chair connecting with your breath. Simply rest your attention on the rhythm of your breathing. When your attention wanders away, notice it has wandered and bring it back. Keep doing this over and over again. Slowly, steadily you are training your mind to be present.
During the day we can use STOP moments—very short moments of mindfulness meditation.
This is how they work:
Pause with whatever you are doing
Connect with your body, feel its strength, let it ground you
Take a few deep, slow breaths—release any tension you are feeling
Let your thoughts come and go without chasing after them
Enjoy the few moments of calm and spaciousness.
Take that feeling with you as you pick up your activities.
I don’t think I have ever met someone who owned up to being a poor listener. Each of us believes that when people talk to us we hear what they are saying. Sadly, most of the time we only just scratch the surface. We are used to putting our case, telling our story and we want others to listen to us. If we put ourselves in the centre, then it is hard to embrace the whole circle. Much of our listeningcomes from a place of believing we have the correct response, or the right solution and we can’t wait to share it with the person we are talking with. That comes across for the person talking to us, who senses that we are putting our own reactions ahead of their needs.
Susan Gillis Chapman has written a book, The Five Keys to Mindful Communication in which she uses the three colours of traffic lightsto help understand the different levels of communication. When we have someone at work who we are having problems with, the chances are that our communication is going to be the red light, where defensive reactions are predominant. At these times, how we listen is of over-riding importance. Our difficult person is expecting to not be heard, is almost provoking misunderstanding. We cannot afford to shut down and close ourselves off from the signals they are sending. If we can demonstrate that we are trying our best really be present and to listen without the inner commentary of our own opinions, then we have a chance to move to yellow light communication, where things can become more fluid. Of course, our goal is the open communication of the green traffic light.
What we can do
Try to avoid conversations with your difficult person when you are tired, hungry or stressed.
When you know you are going into an interaction with them, try to take a STOP moment beforehand.
Listen with your heart as well as your head.
Ask yourself what is really going on for the other person.
Look for any emotional clues.
Watch out for repeated words or phrases—the chances are these are the issues that are on the other person’s mind the most.
Consider your attempts to listen with an open mind and heart as your contribution to healing the situation.
Give up judging others
Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the leading figures in the mindfulness movement, described mindfulness as being, an intentional, non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Why was it necessary to highlight this quality of non-judgment? If you think about it, we judge just about anything. In fact, we divide the world up into things we like and want, things we don’t like and don’t want and things we don’t really care about. We spend a great deal of effort going after the things we want, because we think they will make us happy and avoiding the things we don’t want, because we know they will make us unhappy. The thing is that none of it works. Lasting happiness is much harder to achieve than we thought and it’s hard to avoid challenging things happening to us.
Our like, don’t like and don’t care attitudes are just as easily applied to people we know, as it is to the things that happen to us. We hold our friends close and avoid people we do not like and in between is a huge mass of people we don’t ever really pay attention to. If we have a difficult person at work, they are likely to fall into the category of ‘don’t like and don’t want.’ Obviously, this is a weak position to try to find a solution from.
What we can do
We already mentioned the importance of equanimity as a basis for working with difficult people. It enables us to be present to the person and the situation but to not be drawn into it, to not be affected by it.
Without equanimity we are defenceless in the emotional territory of the difficult person.
We can see things as they are, rather than from the point of view of our own self-focus.
It is not necessary to draw courage from judgments which enforce our own opinions and prejudices.
Equanimity allows us to be open to what happens, rather than pre-judging any outcomes.
It is easy to think that we don’t have time for kindnessin the workplace but this is a misperception. Being kind does not take more time, it just requires us to be present to ourselves, our work colleagues and the situations we find ourselves in.
Jonathan Haidthas researched something he calls elevation, or a heightened sense of wellbeing. This is the effect of people either experiencing kindness themselves, or witnessing it happening between other people and feeling the benefit personally. When this kind of interaction happens in a work environment it has the effect of building trust, commitment and loyalty. How we try to deal with a difficult person at work can contribute to the overall wellbeing of a workplace.
We’ve seen that it is all too easy to want to avoid difficult people at work, and to not have to deal with them—but let’s take a moment to try and see this from their point of view? Few people set out to be disliked—if their behaviour is provoking dislike, somewhere that is probably causing them distress.
What we can do
Ask yourself what you know about your difficult work colleague
—are they under stress, is there something going on at home?
Look for any small thing that you like about the person
—maybe you have the same taste in music, or they like the same movies that you do?
Try to separate the person from their actions
—all of us do stuff which is not always nice, but it does not mean we are all bad people.
Whenever you can, try to give your difficult person the benefit of the doubt.
Observe how they are with other people
—are there other people they get on well with?
—I once had to work closely with someone who said I reminded him of his mother (with whom he had a problematic relationship). Although I found working with him very intense, I noticed that many other people sought him out for collaboration. The problem was something sparked very directly between the two of us.
Don’t forget yourself
Having a difficult relationship at work can be very disheartening. We can feel guilty, inadequate, somehow reduced by being embroiled in a difficult communication. It’s important to remember that we are one part of the puzzle and that the problem has many elements. At the same time, it helps to recognize that although we might not have started the problem it is inevitable that somewhere along the line, we could play a role in perpetuating it. We need to take time to look into our own behaviour and check our own emotional habits and vulnerabilities.
My main meditation teacher always used to say that if you want to remove a difficult person from the world, you can begin by looking into where you need to disarm your own destructive tendencies.
At the height of his career my father occupied a senior position in a local government architectural department. He had a large team that he was responsible for and had to conduct delicate negotiations with councillors and politicians. In spite of his heavy workload my memories are of him coming home for an early dinner every evening. We had uninterrupted weekends and the regular round of holidays during which—because this was pre-technology—he was never pulled away by emails, texts, or reports to finish on his laptop. His work life balance was never in question.
Few of us would recognize such a working environment nowadays. For most of us technology has helped to break down the barriers between work and home. We can work on stuff from home and look for friends and partners at work. We don’t expect to keep one job for life—moving along a predictable career path does not feature as a realistic goal in today’s more fragile economy. Perhaps most important of all, we long for a sense of meaning and purpose at work—a feeling that with our work we can make a real contribution. Daniel Pink in his book, Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us reveals that the idea that we work primarily for money is a fallacy. Of course, most of us need to earn a living but we are also motivated by the need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things and to do better for ourselves and for the world. Belinda Parmar in her book, The Empathy Era backs this up with this statement,
69% of Millennials said they would work for less money at a company whose culture and values they admired.
Most surveys in the West reveal that at least half the workforce are unhappy in their jobs. One cross-European study showed that 60% of workers would choose a different career if they could start again.
An article in the Irish Examiner last autumn stated that 82% of Irish workers are experiencing stress at work.
The thing is that the brain interprets the workplace primarily as a social system. This means that it responds to work events with corresponding threat and reward dynamics—a clash with your boss will feel as important to the brain as the need to find food and water. Social pain is processed in the brain in the same way as physical pain, so threats to our status, security and wellbeing at work trigger the same circuits in the brain as threats to our physical safety.
A carrot and stick work environment will enhance this threat response leading to high levels of stress, whereas being treated fairly, feeling that work is meaningful and that one’s contribution is valued will help reduce stress and lead to a more harmonious, productive work environment. A stressful working environment will close down creative possibilities in the mind and have corresponding effects on output.
What are the qualities of a workplace that values wellness?
A work environment that provides good standards of wellbeing is more likely to be made up of people who are more loyal, more productive and provide better customer satisfaction. It is an outdated view that holds that staff wellbeing is an optional extra.
A recent report published by the New Economics Forum, identified five elements that are fundamental to wellness in the workplace.
A healthy work life balance
People want to work hard but not excessively so. Those working more than 35-55 hours a week tend to experience higher levels of stress.
Staff feel their skills are used and acknowledged
People want to contribute according to their level of expertize and to feel they are developing in their jobs. Feeling under-used is a potential source of stress.
People experience some degree of control in their jobs
Few people welcome being micro-managed and want to establish relationships of trust with their managers in order to enjoy a degree of autonomy at work. When this is not present, then stress levels rise.
Healthy work relationships
Workers want to have relationships at work that are supportive, respectful and understand mistakes, while avoiding blame. The impact of positive working relationships can be more influential in job satisfaction that an increase in pay.
After a certain level of remuneration, the benefits to wellbeing decrease but if income falls below a basic level then levels of job satisfaction decrease accordingly.
When these factors are in place, the workplace is more productive, efficient and happy place to work. Employees are less stressed and more satisfied with their jobs. They experience more loyalty and engagement and staff turnover is lower.
How meditation and compassion help in establishing good work life balance
Research conducted at Harvard University in 2010 found that for 46.9% of our waking lives we are thinking about something different from what we are doing and that this mind wandering does not make us happy. This means that for more than half of our time at work we are operating on a kind of automatic pilot and we are not fully present to our own experience or to the people around us. Meditation has been practiced in the Buddhist tradition for more than two thousand years but within the last twenty years research from neuroscientists is providing a foundation for what practitioners of meditation already know—it helps us to develop our attention and to become more present.
When we are able to stay present rather than ruminating on what might or might not happen if we take this or that action, we free up a lot of our energy and attention that would otherwise be caught up in anxiety and stress. We have the capacity to listen to other people without running a commentary in our minds that overshadows what they are wanting to communicate to us. We can manage our own emotions and moods more effectively because we can see more clearly what we are doing. From there it is a natural development to manage relationships with others with more openness and tolerance and less criticism and judgement.
Psychology professor, Jonathan Haidt has coined the term ‘elevation’ to describe the ripple effects of acts of kindness. We do not need to be involved in the action ourselves but simply by witnessing a person perform a kindness for another we experience an uplifting feeling, which makes us feel good. Applied to the workplace actively developing kindness and compassion helps to spread an attitude of service and commitment among staff. As they learn to care for themselves with compassion they extend that heightened understanding to others.
As with meditation, a compassionate working environment is likely to encourage staff to stay in their post, to need less sick leave and experience a reduction in stress.
What can we do as individual employees?
The great news is that meditation and compassion are trainable skills. We can learn to work with our thoughts and emotions in order to achieve a higher degree of wellness at work. The big take-home message from neuroscience our that our brains change according to our experience. As we start to train ourselves in meditation and compassion our brains gradually change to support our new habits.
As we saw earlier, having a sense of being in control at work is a very important factor in wellness and yet for so many of us this seems out of our reach. So much of what we do at work is in response to directives we don’t always agree with, for people with whom we feel we have little in common. The answer here is to learn to take control of ourselves in a fresh and meaningful way. We can pay attention to how we draw on our own strengths, skills and experience. Through training in meditation and compassion we can take control of how we react to any situation—whether it is one we like, or one we have trouble with. We can learn to view our work colleagues in a new light and try giving them the benefit of the doubt rather than feeling frustrated and stressed.
At the heart of it all is learning to view ourselves with kindness and compassion. Instead of demanding an unreachable level of perfection from ourselves we can learn to work with our imperfections and vulnerabilities with mindfulness and kindness. This gives us a stable foundation from which to reach out to other people in the same way.
If you found this blog useful, you could try this online course
Very few of us are likely to set out for work with the intention of upsetting people. Mostly we want to do our job well, and get on with our day. How is then that so often we come home in the evening feeling annoyed by an interaction we have had and upset with a colleague? It got me thinking about whether anyone went home in the evening with bad feelings towards me!
Here’s some thoughts I had about ways in which it is possible that I might have got it wrong—without meaning to—and upset people at work.
Being too pre-occupied to listen well
Do you get impatient while people are talking to you? Are you tempted to jump in and make their point for them—because you see it already and more clearly than they seem to? Do you have to hold yourself back from interrupting?
The thing that I have come to notice is that people feel your impatience and it makes them uneasy. They don’t take it as a statement on your state of mind but on their performance and it makes them feel that they don’t have your full attention—which makes them less able to get their message across and increases your impatience.
These days I try to see listening as part of my meditation practice—part of being present, awake and curious. You miss so much by thinking you already know what someone wants to say, or by responding too quickly and cutting them off.
When we can allow someone the space to say what they want to say we are creating trust and communicating respect—so we are fostering harmonious relationships. We are creating opportunities to exchange useful information and to explore problems, which will help to boost creativity in our team.
It’s all too easy, when you are busy, to push ahead in order to get the job done and to overlook how people feel they are being treated. Of course, this is intensified if you are in any kind of managerial role, with people reporting to you.
In his book. 365 Thanks Yous, John Kralik tells the story of how he turned his life around by writing a thank you note to a different person every day for a year. Finding himself at a critical point in his life, he wanted to try and focus on what was good in his life, rather than what was going wrong. One of the stories that always sticks in my mind is the day he wrote a thank you note to his server in his local Starbucks. At first the guy thought he was being handed a letter of complaint and then he was amazed at being so beautifully thanked for something he did over and over again all-day long.
A lot of my work is carried out at a distance—through SKYPE, email, and online courses. Yet I find the power of appreciation is not diminished by distance. It shows you have noticed the effort someone has made, and you are the better for it. You need to do it because it feels right, if you are hoping for something in return it can get messy.
Talking about people behind their back
It can be seductive and oddly flattering to be pulled into a session of bad-mouthing your boss, or a fellow worker. For a while you can feel that you are accepted, and one of the in-crowd. You are being trusted to hear and share in the discontent someone is feeling. We all do it from time to time but when it happens as a routine part of each working day it can become unhealthy and potentially hurtful.
This was brought home to me very strongly during the years that I worked as part of the Executive Board of an international non-profit. I was the only woman on the team of four and many of our staff and volunteers in the national teams were women. Unfortunately, for some people I was an object of some envy and resentment. I was too slow to understand this and took too long to take measures to address it. After some time in the job—which I loved—I was told about stories that were circulating about me. Most of them were just inaccurate and came from people’s projections. Others had some truth but were recounted without a shred of empathy or understanding of the challenges that I faced.
I was shocked and devastated for a time but when I calmed down, I saw this was a great learning opportunity for me. There is nothing like being on the receiving end of gossip and speculation to help rid you of any inclination to engage it in yourself. I would never want someone to feel as I did during that period.
When you gossip about someone behind their back you erode trust. It always seeps out somehow and people come to know you’ve been talking about them. It’s difficult to ask them to trust you after that. Much better to approach someone directly to talk something through that is bothering you.
Not giving someone the benefit of the doubt
Imagine a situation where one of your children wakes up in the night with an upset stomach. You spend hours caring for them, changing sheets, bringing glasses of water and finally drop off to sleep at around 04.30. Your alarm goes off at 07.00. You have a splitting headache but you get out of bed because you are due to present a new project to your team at work at 10.00 that morning. Your child is over the worst but won’t be well enough for school. It takes almost an hour to arrange childcare and now you are late leaving the house. The train is packed and you don’t find a seat. By the time you get to work you are feeling very sorry for yourself but you do your best to give an inspiring presentation. It goes OK but lacks your usual flair and the team is doubtful and critical about the new project.
Your boss asks for a word after the meeting. He/she could take a number of approaches to your disappointing performance. He/she could start off by pointing out how flat you were and how your answers led to more, rather than less confusion. Or he/she could sit you down and ask what was going on and what help you needed to sort this out.
Which approach would you prefer?
When people behave in ways we are disappointed in, or uncomfortable with instead of immediately reacting, we could ask ourselves questions like these:
what might be going on for this person that I am not aware of?
what do I know about their situation which might help me to understand what is going on?
what can I do to support them?
These questions open a dialogue, which could lead to a solution of the difficulty, rather than an angry exchange.
Forgetting to include people
If we feel excluded from an event, we might say that our feelings were hurt. Neuroscience is showing that this might be more accurate than we thought. Research shows that the same area of the brain—the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex—is active when we process emotional/social pain, as when we feel physical pain, say from catching our finger in a door.
Our ancestors evolved to live in groups because they understood that the resulting protection was essential for survival. A sense of wanting to belong is hardwired in us and when we don’t feel we are included, then our threat response is triggered and we can become anxious, and uncooperative. The activation of the stress response uses resources that would normally go to the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain we use for—among other things—problem-solving, and memory. When we are under stress, we are more likely to make inaccurate assumptions.
It’s this kind of reaction that can lead to someone trying to create their own sense of belonging. This is where potentially toxic behaviours such as gossiping, cynicism, and forming cliques can come in.
It makes good sense at every level to foster an environment of openness and inclusivity in your workplace. It helps to make sure information is easily accessible, and people feel encouraged to comment and feedback on work processes. Ensuring all views are heard in meetings, welcoming and supporting new and younger staff is important. Then there are the small everyday events that can have such a big impact on people. Things as ordinary as remembering to make coffee for all members of your team, including everyone in your morning greeting and spreading your invitation to lunch widely. All this helps to create a sense of inclusivity and belonging.
Being too anxious to trust a colleague
Few employees enjoy being micromanaged. It leads to people feeling not trusted, undervalued and over-controlled. It is also exhausting for the person trying to micromanage. If you are continuously looking over your shoulder to check on what each member of your team is doing, you never have enough time and energy to do your own work. It’s a self-defeating process. The more you micromanage someone, the further it saps their creativity, ending up with them increasingly dependent on you.
No-one wants to be an irritating manager. Micromanaging is often rooted in an anxiety about one’s own abilities, and an insecurity around your position. Perfectionism usually part of the mix—not having the confidence to let people have the space to experiment and even to fail. Instead you feel bound to monitor each step of the way, so you can check for anything unexpected along the way. You are afraid to fail yourself, and so you project it on to everyone working with you.
One way of lessening your own anxiety and allowing an employee to feel valued is to ease up you focus on doing. Micromanaging is worst around getting things done and achieving the right goals. Of course, we need to do that but not at the expense of being.If we are paying attention to how we are when we take on a task, rather than simply on getting the task done—then we might be open to starting a dialogue with the people we work with. We might consider asking them to give feedback on how we manage, or to share what they feel are their main skills. It can be possible to ask if, or where they feel blocked. Perhaps it would be possible to share some of your own concerns and to talk together about how to work together with more attention to the process of the work.
Opening up the one-way dynamic of micromanaging could hold surprisingly helpful answers for both mangers and staff.
Do you have any stories you would like to add? It is always good to hear from you.
If you find this post helpful, you might like to try this online course:
Are you familiar with the growing popularity of online courses? If you know where to look it is now possible to find a tantalizing variety of learning offered in the form of online courses. Art classes, cookery sessions, language instruction, and all manner of lifestyle topics are now on offer online. It’s an amazing resource!
This year in Awareness in Action we have been delighted to offer our own series of online courses on the topics of self-compassion, working with stress and sustaining your meditation practice. We have several more exciting ideas in the pipeline.
My own exposure to online courses started a few years back when I was asked to facilitate a series of course programmes run by a meditation group in the States. I was immediately sold on the idea when I connected with the people taking the courses and the degree of passion and commitment they brought to their learning. It was this energy that we aim to bring to our own courses in Awareness in Action.
If you have never taken an online course you might have all kinds of assumptions about how they work and how much time they need. In this blog post I want to spell out six inspiring reasons why taking an online course could really work for you—while at the same time being upfront about when they won’t!
Reason 1: the high degree of personal attention each participant receives
We all know how it can be difficult to be heard in a large workshop, where the most confident and articulate people all too easily get the lion’s share of attention. This is not the case with an online course. Each person gets to send in their comments and postings and the facilitator answers each one individually and in depth. When the course facilitator is an expert in their field, this means that every posting becomes a 1-2-1 exchange in which the participant can benefit first-hand from the person who has the answers to their issues. With our courses, you can book SKYPE sessions as an extra if you want to go deeper.
Reason 2: online courses are so accessible
Taking part in an evening class can be a great experience but inevitably there comes an evening when it’s raining, you’ve had a rotten day at work and you just want to go home and have a hot, relaxing bath. Once you’ve missed one session it’s harder to turn up the next week and your participation starts to come unstuck.
This problem simply does not exist with online courses. If you have a good internet connection and a reliable device you can access your course anytime and anywhere. Even if you have to take a work trip, you can still work on your assignment.
Reason 3: online courses help to improve your resumé
Given the fluid nature of the current job market it’s more important than ever to show that you are interested in developing skills that will help you do your job well. The scope of online courses is widening every day and there are many topics to choose from. Even if a course does not include a certificate of completion you can request one at the end of the course and the facilitator will put one together for you that you can include on your cv. This applies equally to younger employees starting out on their career as well as experienced people who want to demonstrate that they wish to keep learning and up-to-date.
Reason 4: being part of a dedicated online community
At the beginning of this piece I mentioned how inspiring I had found it to work with groups of students on online courses. I know of people who have ‘met’ on an online course and arranged to go on to to others so they can stay together as a group. Even now, I am still in touch with people who I have never actually met but who have taken several courses with me.
When you join an online course you have the option to become part of a dedicated group of like-minded people who are interested in some of the things you are interested in. The possibilities for an exchange of views and experiences are endless.
In addition, an online community can act as a support to your individual learning. It’s reassuring to share struggles and insights with people going through the same programme as you are.
Reason 5: online courses are designed to fit into your life
We are all busy people, so we need our learning to come in short, practical modules in order to be able to fit it into our already over-packed schedules.
In Awareness in Action courses, each course is divided into topics and each topic becomes a lesson. However, we go further and break down each lesson into a series of activities, which give the details of each topic. We advise between one and a half and two hours for a lesson. If you find you don’t have that much time to sit with the course in one go, then you have the option to cover a number of activities depending on the time you have available. In that way, you can keep the thread of the course and progress at your own pace.
Reason 6: online courses are great value for money
Given all this, plus the fact that for many online courses you have access to the materials for as long as you wish, their cost is manageable for a wide range of potential participants. Most courses offer a basic fee, with bonuses for early bird sign up. If you want individual coaching you have the option to sign up for more elaborate packages that include these options.
….. and four things to avoid
Anyone wanting to create a vibrant, enthusiastic online course following is only interested in their participants being inspired, and satisfied by their online experience. Over the least year I have seen a few ways in which people can inadvertently undermine their online experience and end up feeling disappointed. Here are four of them.
Avoid signing up when you are about to be extra busy
It’s tempting when you see a course that feels just right for you and you just want to get started—you just want to jump right in and sign up. My advice is to take a moment to check your schedule and make sure this is the right time for you to start a course. If you are about to go on a major work trip, or have a baby, or support your kids through their GCSEs then it might be good to wait until the next time the course is offered. Most courses are offered two, or even three times a year. We might think that we can fit in a few minutes of course time in between—and in the general run of a busy life you can—but when it is something major, you will just be too absorbed in what you have to do. The course will fade to a vague feeling of guilt and fizzle out and that’s a pity.
Avoid signing up if you are in crisis
Another time to double check is if you are going through a challenging time. Perhaps you are under a lot of pressure at work and think that a course on mindfulness in the workplace is just what you need. Or you have been involved in a big run-in with your boss and you want to take a course on self-compassion to help you regain your equilibrium. If you are ready, then that is fine and the course could help you get through what you are dealing with in a constructive way. Just check that you are not still too involved in the challenge and having to give a lot of energy to managing it. The risk here is that course will come to seem like a possible lifeline that you are just too stressed and worried to access. Then you will have a wistful sense that you have lost out again and this will add to your sense of crisis.
Avoid riding on someone else’s inspiration
Last January one of my courses was advertised at a New Year’s Meditation retreat and I was delighted to see several people sign up. Just as the date for registration passed I received an urgent email from someone who had just got home from the retreat and wanted to sign up with her friends, ‘to keep the inspiration going’ she said. Wanting to help I made the necessary changes to the registration process and she signed up for one of the more expensive coaching options. She managed the first few lessons and one of her allocated Skype sessions but then it was time to go back to work. In spite of my best efforts to keep her connected and to allow her extra time to work with the materials her participation became more sporadic and soon fell away altogether.
I realized that she had been caught up in the enthusiasm of the retreat group for the online course and had not really made her own choice to commit to the material. It’s a shame, because she will be much less enthusiastic to sign up for another course after this experience.
Avoid signing up for more than one course at a time
Occasionally I come across what I call a ‘professional course-taker’—someone who signs up for everything you have on offer and then does not complete anything fully. This type of person might also have signed up for your courses and courses from other providers at the same time. It’s wonderful to have so much enthusiasm but generally it is hard to convert into quality learning on any of the chosen courses. As has already been said—most course programmes run tow or three times a year, so there is plenty of time to cover all the ground that you wish to cover.
Perhaps some of you reading this blog have already got experience of taking online courses. If so, it would be great to hear how you benefitted and if you have any more ‘things to avoid’ to add to my list. Do be in touch and share your experience.
If you are interested to try an online course, we have a meditation course for beginners running continuously—How To Start Meditation in a Way That Will Last.
A few weeks ago, my partner and I were out with some friends for dinner. We had not seen them for a while and we had a lot to talk about. On top of that, one of the friends was going through a bit of a tough time and needed support—which we happy to give, except that the people at the table behind us were celebrating and extremely noisy. It was one of those weird situations where you found yourself raising your voice to talk about delicate things. I found myself beginning to experience what I can only describe as ‘restaurant rage’.
I was focused on our small group at our table and found myself glancing over my shoulder in increasing irritation at the thoughtlessness of the noisy crowd behind me. It seemed to be that they were inconsiderate and thoughtless, with no care for the enjoyment of the other diners.
Eventually, after a while, a sense of doubt set in. How was my behaviour any different? I wanted things quiet and peaceful so my friends and I could have the environment we wanted. The celebrators wanted to have a good time. I wanted things one way and they wanted them another. Why did I assume that my way was best? Why did I feel entitled to it?
It got me thinking about how our default position is so often to want others to change to fit in with how we want things to be. It is so much harder to change our own behaviour to be able to manage the challenging situation more effectively.
What follows are my ideas about how to manage a situation like this next time it comes up. I live in a city; noisy restaurants are common—so turning restaurant rage into kindness seems like a good investment.
Take care of your irritation
If you are going to change the way you are reacting you need to give yourself some time to realise you are irritated and then to calm down. I usually find a few long, slow breaths will do it. No-one needs to notice—you can just rest your attention on your breath for a few moments until you feel yourself coming back.
The next thing is to get a handle on what is actually happening, rather than what you imagine is happening. In my dinner example, the party at the nearby table were not nasty people on a mission to spoil my evening—there just wanted to enjoy themselves.
With this perspective, it’s easier to remember that it’s not all about you. You have the right to want things to go the way you wish but then so does everyone else. Sometimes things go your way, sometimes they go another person’s way. There’s not a lot we can do to change that and getting irritated about it just makes you miserable.
Pay attention to the sound without the storyline
It’s possible to use sound as a support for meditation. Of course, if you are in a restaurant you might not want to go off into a corner for a meditation session but you can still use the principle. Just notice the sounds around you, without judging and without building a storyline about them. You could call it a Teflon relation to sound—just notice it with your full attention but without commentary. Going back again to my restaurant example—I immediately made a story about my friend and I needing quiet and the people nearby ruining it with their noise. Thinking back, it’s quite likely they were not even particularly aware of us.
We relate to the world through our senses but we do have a choice as to how we are with the information they provide. We don’t always have to react.
When you get annoyed with the behaviour of other people your stress levels rise and you feel uncomfortable. In the restaurant, I could feel myself getting tight with trying to block out the noisy table.
A totally different approach is to notice joy when it is happening around you and to allow it to nourish you.
This might involve dropping your own agenda and simply opening to the enjoyment of others. It could mean that instead of protecting yourself, you allow yourself to open to the happiness of other people. It does not have to be your happiness but it can lift your heart just the same.
Always wish them well
The last of these remedies for restaurant rage is wishing people wellbeing and happiness. You may have heard of Loving Kindness Meditation. It’s a meditation focused on wishing happiness and wellbeing for yourself, for people close to you, for people you do not know so well and even for people you find challenging.
Even if you are not familiar with the whole meditation, you can still focus on a person, or group of people and in your mind, say something like, May you be happy, may you be well. I find it a great exercise to do when I am in crowded places and there are many people. It brings me a feeling of ease.
Do you have any tips for turning rage into kindness in city life? If you do please add them in the comments section.
For some time scientific research has been making the case for being kind at work. Now, increasingly work-based studies are also encouraging making kindness a conscious part of any workplace culture.
The science shows that being kind can improve heart function, lower blood pressure, slow aging and strengthen our immune systems. The author and scientist, David R. Hamilton explains that through the production of the hormone, oxytocin and the neurotransmitter, serotonin our levels of wellbeing are raised. Anxiety, stress and depression can all be reduced through preforming genuine acts of kindness. In his ground-breaking book, The Healing Power of Doing Good, Allan Luks documented the good feeling that you get from helping others and which is now referred to as the Helpers’ High.
Being kind at work builds on all these health benefits but goes further. Because kindness nurtures our instinct to connect, it helps to build better relationships and produce more effective teamwork. Whereas negativity tends to limit our scope and bring us down, kindness inspires and elevates us. It is also a key to successful innovation because people feel heard and valued and less afraid to suggest new and interesting ideas.
So why is kindness not part of every training programme and top of every staff development initiative? The answer is that although all the evidence points to its effectiveness, we still feel that being actively kind at work will leave us over-exposed and vulnerable.
A personal story
Last week I had to go along for my quarterly check-up with the rheumatology consultant. Over the years, I have had a series of doctors helping me. This was my second appointment with this new doctor and the extraordinary thing was that I came away feeling better than when I went in. There had not been any break-through, or outstanding good news but I felt heard, respected, seen and understood. The doctor had been alert, well-informed, and fully aware—and she had been kind. Her kindness was empathic but not sticky; practical but warm and most of all, she saw me as another human being.
It got me thinking about why we are so cautious about being kind at work. I came up with five reasons.
We are not always present and aware
In my story with the doctor I mentioned that she was alert and fully aware. In my experience, when people are operating from a sense of awareness, they see themselves and other people, as well as the situation they find themselves with more clarity. This gives a sense of confidence which makes showing kindness easier.
The thing is that we are not always present and aware. Research carried out at Harvard University in 2010 shows that for almost 47% of our waking hours we are thinking about something different to what we are doing. Our tendency for our minds to wander away undermines our ability to be fully present and tends to muddy our view of what we are doing, and how we are doing it.
Meditation is one of the most effective ways of working with our minds and increasing our awareness.
Stress narrows our focus
Although our brains are hard-wired for kindness, these impulses can get blocked when we are over-focused on ourselves. The pressure of the daily round at work can increase our stress levels and make this tendency worse.
When we are stressed and overwhelmed at work, then we tend to operate on survival mode. This means that we focus on managing what we need to do to get through each day. Our focus narrows and we are not inspired to reach out to others, or to try and see things from a different perspective.
It is very hard to inspire a culture of kindness in a workplace where people are overwhelmed and burnt-out.
There is often insufficient leadership culture to support kindness
It would be hard to over-state the importance of a leadership in building a culture of kindness in a workplace. Jonathan Haidt has researched something he calls elevation, or a heightened sense of wellbeing. Elevation happens when we see someone being kind to someone else—we do not even need to be involved ourselves. When a leader is fair, supportive and interested in his/her team then his/her employees experienced an increase in wellbeing. Remember that the actions of a leader are magnified by all the people they are responsible for. Their every action takes on additional importance. An ethical and people-focused boss who takes time to get to know people and their concerns will instil a greater sense of loyalty and commitment in the people they manage. In addition, people will be more likely to be kind and supportive of others. The knock-on effect is powerful.
We think we don’t have time for kindness
We can think that being kind at work is going to take extra time and effort and that there is not enough space for it at work.
A study carried out at Princeton Theological Seminary tells an interesting story. A group of divinity students were told they were going to deliver a practice sermon. Half the students were given the topic of the Good Samaritan and the other were given random topics. One by one they were told to go and deliver their sermon—some were told to hurry, others were told they were late, a third group was allowed to go at their own pace. As they went from one building to another they passed a person (an actor) lying on the floor in distress and calling for help. More than 60% of the students failed to stop and help—whether they were going to speak on the parable of the Good Samaritan or not. The deciding factor in whether someone offered to help or not was how much of a hurry they thought they were in. Only 10% of those advised to rush stopped to help, whereas 63% of those who thought they had time stopped to help.
We are afraid that kindness will make us vulnerable
All too often we assume a more public persona when we go to work. We keep our ‘private self’ for when we are at home, and with people who care about us. Somehow we worry that kindness will undermine this shield we throw up around our deeper feelings and interests. If we appear vulnerable we are afraid that will leave us exposed. Author and researcher Brené Brown gave one of the most successful TED talks of all time on the Power of Vulnerability.
Judging from the millions of people who have viewed her talk, she touched on something very deep and vital for our wellbeing.
She believes that the ability to be vulnerable is the key to authenticity and to what she calls, wholehearted living. Certainly is a workplace setting, vulnerability is a key to fostering innovation because it helps to create an environment where people feel safe to challenge set ways of thinking and bring in new ideas. It can also improve motivation, teamwork and positive identification with leadership.
Some strategies we can try out straight away
Meditation helps us to calm down and settle, however busy we are. It brings us back in touch with ourselves and enables us to be more aware of ourselves and other people. From that place, kindness comes naturally.
Here’s a simple meditation that I often use in workshops:
Sit comfortably—relaxed and yet alert
Check in with your body and ease any tight spots
Check in with your mood—how are you feeling?
—Don’t judge, just notice
Become aware of your breathing
—stay with where the sensation is most vivid for you