Slow down and go faster

Slow down and go faster

It is a great pleasure to share this guest post from Ian Gawler. We have attended many retreats together over the years and it is wonderful to have a blog from him on my site.

How busy are you? Most people I speak with feel that their lives are becoming busier and busier. So, imagine this – maybe with a little help, it is possible to slow down, relax, and actually achieve more!

How might this be possible? Speaking personally, I came home from a great meeting last week. A lot had been achieved, good ideas developed, new possibilities explored; all in a great atmosphere. Keen to tell my wife Ruth about it, first we went to do what we do each evening, and that is to meditate together.

Paying attention to our body

As I settled into my posture, I noticed this buzz in my body. A fine trembling, tingling sort of a buzz. It occurred to me that this excited energy, left over from the meeting was a good thing, but how it might lead some people on into drinking too much or some other excess. 

Also, it seemed to be in stark contrast with what it would be like to come home from a tough day – feeling depleted, despondent, even exhausted. Such a state, left unnoticed or unmanaged, could lead to other unhelpful activities, not the least of which may be engaging with the family or our partner in a poor state of mind. 

The promise of meditation

Meditation offers this wonderful promise of being able to let go of our busyness and regain our balance. Whether we are excited or depleted, up or down, balance is better. With our body and mind in balance, we think more clearly, we react more appropriately, we are in a better state to relate well with others. We are likely to be fresh, vital and at ease.

In such a state, there will be no compulsion to talk, but an ease with doing so. We will have no compulsion to be spoken to, but an ease with listening. We will be free to relax in a healthy way or energised to take up something new when the time is right.

Four keys to meditation

In my experience, there are 4 keys to meditating in a way that reliably brings these benefits. Preparation, Relaxation, Mindfulness and Stillness. These are the essence of what I call Mindfulness-Based Stillness Meditation. 

Put very simply, having prepared well, we relax. Relaxing deeply, we become more mindful. As our mindfulness develops, an inner stillness is revealed; naturally and without effort. We rest in open, undistracted awareness. This is Mindfulness-Based Stillness Meditation.

Meditating together

Oh yes, and at the great meeting last week, we began by sitting together and meditating. Two of those who gathered had never done such a thing before. They were guided very simply to aim to let go of whatever they had been doing earlier and to bring their attention to what was going on right now. 

To assist this, there was the suggestion to be mindful of the sounds around about us, then the breath and that natural feeling of relaxing with the out breath. Then we simply rested quietly for a few minutes. Finally, we reminded ourselves of our motivation, to help as many people as possible through what we were addressing at the meeting.

How this can help

Having done this, the atmosphere in the room was transformed. Peaceful, calm, clear. After this short exercise, one of the group could not help speaking out. He said that on arrival, he had been really preoccupied with the busyness of what had been happening before this meeting and he felt his mind was all over the place. In fact, he had actually been concerned that he was in a poor state of mind to give the presentation he was required to do, but that, after that short quiet time; he now felt clear and ready.

Just having a conversation like that seemed to me that we began our meeting on a very real and open level. It rapidly developed into a meeting everyone went away from feeling where we had achieved a lot, deepened friendships and left felt energized. Not a bad return for around 3 minutes of quiet time…

So maybe it is possible. Slow down and accomplish more.

Dr Ian Gawler has played a role in pioneering and popularizing meditation and other mind-body techniques in the Western world. Since 1981 Ian has led many meditation groups, and with his wife Ruth, a GP, presented many workshops and meditation retreats.

A long-term cancer survivor, Dr Gawler co-founded the world’s first lifestyle-based cancer and multiple sclerosis self-help groups and convened Australia’s first Mind-Body Medicine conference, Mind, Immunity and Health. 

Ian is a regular blogger and has authored six bestselling books including his latest Blue Sky Mind. He has also co-created a meditation app for people affected by chronic degenerative disease. 

Dr Gawler was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for his services to the community in 1987. 

4 Things You Can Do When You Dislike Someone

4 Things You Can Do When You Dislike Someone

We are probably all familiar with the uncomfortable feeling that maybe we dislike someone. Perhaps we get introduced to a new colleague at work and immediately we have the sense that we are not going to get on. Or a friend introduces us to their new partner and straight away we are sure we are not going to hit it off. 

It’s not a welcome feeling. It is much more pleasant to like someone and to want to spend time with them. When we dislike someone, we can spend a lot of time managing our dislike, rather than focusing on the content of the relationship.

So, what can we do?

Take Abraham Lincoln’s advice on dislike

Abraham Lincoln is known to have been unusually fair-minded. When choosing his cabinet on becoming president, he astounded political opponents by appointing several of his former rivals to key positions. He based his decision on whether he felt they qualified for the post, rather than personal slights or bitterness.

He is said to have made the following comment, 

I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.

How might this help us? We can be open to the possibility that when we met our new boss, or our friend’s partner we reacted to something about them that irritated us. Perhaps it was even enhanced by the mood we were in. If we manage to hold this initial impression as just that—an impression—we can give ourselves the chance to look deeper. 

Making the effort to get to know someone better is a way of respecting their individuality. Instead of going with our prejudices we are willing to investigate a bit deeper and see if we were wrong.

Listen to Henry Longfellow

The popular nineteenth century poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow also has a quote that is relevant here.

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.

Even if we follow Lincoln’s advice and take time to get to know someone we dislike, perhaps we decide we still dislike them! We might not consider people we dislike as our enemies, but we certainly don’t want to spend time with them. Even thinking about them can stir us up and make us upset.

I have thought about this quote from Longfellow a great deal and often use it in workshops. It is a challenging idea isn’t it? To understand, without consultation or confirmation, that the person we are struggling with will have all kinds of suffering in their lives. To do this we need to remind ourselves that everyone wants to find some kind of happiness in their lives. Maybe some people go about it in ways we don’t understand but still, they want to be happy. At the same time, we want to avoid pain and suffering and yet, inevitably, life has many challenges. 

So, the person we dislike will most likely also be dealing with all kinds of pain and disappointment—just like we do. Reminding ourselves of this does not necessarily mean we will begin to like the person, but we might start to feel a kinship. If we can shift our focus from the characteristics that they have that annoy us and look instead at their vulnerability, our dislike can maybe take a back seat.

Look for the things you like

One of the things that happens to me when I do decide that I dislike someone, is that I almost resist finding out things about them that are positive. It’s as if once I have decided that I don’t like someone, then I don’t want to be shown that my dislike is unfounded and unnecessary. When I realise that this is happening then I can give myself a shake and try to take another look. It’s not something I am proud of and that spurs me on to try a bit harder.

One way to do this is to observe how other people interact with them. If people you get on with, also get on with the person you feel you dislike is it possible you are missing something? Have you met their family—partner, children? How do they all seem together. Seeing people with their families can help to soften a negative impression.

You can also look more closely into the person’s character. It is hard to dislike everything about someone—although for me there are a few politicians that challenge this idea. Perhaps they have a sense of humour or are kind to animals. Are they good at their job or a great cook? 

Is there anything that you share? Do you have a similar taste in music, art, books? Have you both enjoyed  a recent movie, or TV programme?

It takes effort to look past your own opinions but if it helps in finding a place of ease in this uncomfortable dynamic then it is well worth it.

Give the person you dislike the benefit of the doubt

Once we have decided that we dislike someone it can be hard to cut them some slack. It becomes easier to expect to be annoyed with them, or to judge their actions. This is where we can really try to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Again, being able to do this requires that we pay attention. Instead of jumping to a judgement, or an opinion we will need to pause, and to look deeper. Before we decide that the person who we dislike is behaving again in a way we dislike, we need to take time to check if there is some room for doubt. Could it be possible that we have misunderstood, or somehow got the wrong end of the stick?

In practicing giving someone the benefit of the doubt, the Golden Rule can be helpful. The rule recommends that we, treat others as we wish to be treated. There are some important clues here. We need to remember that it is likely that there are people who dislike us! For some people, we will be that person they dread meeting, who presses their buttons. It does not feel so good to realise that you are someone’s object of dislike. We might feel it’s not fair, or that we don’t deserve it. Perhaps we wonder how someone as well-meaning as we try to be could be disliked. 

So, in addition to these four things we can do when we dislike someone, we can ask ourselves what we would request of someone who dislikes us. The answer to that question contains a whole lot of clues that we can use when dealing with our own dislikes.

Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.

Work, Stories and New Beginnings

Work, Stories and New Beginnings

I am delighted to share this beautiful exploration of how we can use stories to investigate our new year goals, what we want to build on and the changes we want to make. Thank you Kate!

Although each moment represents and offers new beginnings, I do find the beginning of a new year especially exciting. It feels like the mother of new beginnings, a crisp fresh start, a blank page, even though in all practicality it is only one day sliding into another. I feel the same excitement about the beginning of a new year as I feel when receiving a new book; familiarity with the main outlines of the book and aware of my intention of purchasing it, but unknown of its content and implications for my way of understanding, seeing and relating to life.

Work and stories


Ken Wilber, an American writer and philosopher, calls himself a storyteller. In an audio program called Kosmic Consciousness with Tami Simon, he presents that a part of being human is reflecting on those things that arise around you. On the one hand we live our lives and on the other we make theories and maps about it, philosophise and reflect to make sense of our experiences. When you hook all these things together, you tell coherent stories.

So, we all have stories concerning work in various degrees. It could be that you are currently unemployed or haven’t yet stepped into work life, or that you find yourself in a job you dislike or one that you find fulfilling and meaningful. For quite a few of us work represents a blend of sometimes contradicting stories. It can both be meaningful and exhausting, giving and stressful. 

I go about living my work life filled with meetings with clients, deadlines, project writing and working to reach the company’s objective and key goals, as well as create stories around my work experiences. Now and then I remember to pause and step back to take a bird’s-eye view of what I am up to, but rarely do I view work life with such a wide-angled lens as I do in the beginning of a New Year.

The written stories – the work year of 2019

Can you relate to the feeling that arises when you decide to disengage from your otherwise busy life and sit down to read a book? You actively make a conscious decision of doing something else, of pausing. The beginning of a new year is a little bit like that for me, but instead of sitting down with a book, I sit down and take a reflective look at my work biography of the past year. It is a great way for me to acknowledge all the time set aside for work in 2019, for remembering and for finding areas for future growth and development. I look back at moments of joy and accomplishments, moments of difficulties, struggles, sadness and hiccups, as well as all the people I have connected with in different ways.

Looking back at challenges experienced, challenges overcome and what factors supported me in overcoming them, gives me the opportunity to reflect upon areas I have felt growth and in what areas of my professional life I still feel stagnation. Noticed areas of difficulties, open wounds or standstills are particularly interesting for me to take a look at. Not always comfortable, but I often find that within the areas I most tend to procrastinate or overlook lies the hidden gold for development.

If you took a look back at your work biography of 2019, where would you find learning and growth? In what situations didn’t things go according to plan or you made mistakes. In what ways might that have affected you? Anything you are particularly thankful for having experienced at or through work the past year?

The unwritten stories – the work year of 2020

“Today is where your book begins…the rest is still unwritten”. These words come from one of my go to energetic, inspirational, feel good songs by Natasha Bedingfield. By taking a curious look at the work year that has been, I find an opportunity arises to identify what changes I would like to incorporate into the stories that are still unwritten for the new year. Often I have an idea or headlines for the upcoming book of 2020, but how work life in itself will actually develop…well that is a completely different story. I do find though that having some sort of an outline gives a sense of direction and movement. I create the outline by reflecting around what could be helpful for me to be more aware of in how I relate to myself, clients, or how I engage with my colleagues and boss. Also reflecting on what habitual ways established “often not the most helpful ones” would be beneficial for me to work with in 2020.

Letting the questions and reflections shed some intentional light on different areas of my work life without making hardwired goals that I end up measuring myself up against. For me bringing intentionality to my present and future work life creates movement and development in areas that I have experienced stagnation and seen unhealthy patterns. It feels like being both the author of a book as well as the main character, instead of just being the main character.

Are there any areas where you maybe experience stagnation or procrastination when it comes to work? Any wounds from 2019 that needs seeing to in 2020, and if so how can you best tend to them? Let’s say you were to be the author of your own 2020 work life book, how would you outline it? What new beginnings would you like to consciously bring to work for growth, further development and self-care for the year ahead of you? 

The uncertain work stories…


The clients I am honoured to work with from day to day are those who for different reasons find themselves outside of work. It could be due to health issues, lack of education, redundancy and so on. No matter the reason for being currently unemployed I always ask my clients to take a good look at what activities have felt meaningful and given them energy in the past, and what particularly they have enjoyed through previous interests’, hobbies, studies and/or work. Holding the clients’ reflections about the past up against the backdrop of present values, interests and preferences, gives important clues for possible areas for work in the future. Finding oneself in between jobs or living an uncertain work story can be quite a challenge. It can also be an opportunity for a new beginning. What in your past can be of value for the future? What small step can be taken today to bring you closer to getting a job if that is what you aim for?

 

Start writing… 

It can be both exhilarating and daunting to sit with a blank page before you. A new year filled with uncertainties, plans, hopes and aspirations. When the beginning of the new year 2021 is here, the work story of 2020 will have been written. To what degree you consciously take part in the story writing is up to you. The pen is there, the semi blank pages ready to go…have fun!

Kate Bredesen works as a job consultant and mindfulness instructor at iFokus Arbeidsinkludering AS in Norway. She is a former nurse and reflexologist, with MBSR teacher training from IMA. Kate has been teaching mindfulness since 2011. Through her daily work she teaches mindfulness to staff and clients and is passionate about supporting people in strengthening their connection to work, whether they are currently unemployed, on sick leave or find themselves partaking in demanding work life.

How to overcome stress and stay connected these holidays

How to overcome stress and stay connected these holidays

We all know that Christmas is a big opportunity for stress. The combination of having to appear to be having fun, while coping with all the frustrations and extra work can be a real downer.

One of the things we need to know about stress is that it closes things down. It’s hard to feel joyful and enthusiastic when you are stressed. We tend to close in on ourselves and set up a kind of survival regime to get us through. Maybe it does help us to struggle along but it does not help us to care for ourselves, to open our hearts to others, to learn anything about the habits that lead to the stress in the first place.

Let’s take a look at some ways we could set about making connections this Christmas instead of going into survival mode.

Connecting with yourself as the basis to overcome stress

Do you ever feel like the people in this snow globe at Christmas—all in your festive gear but not able to communicate how you are really feeling? The holidays can be a strangely lonely time, even when you are surrounded by people.

As the lead up to Christmas gathers pace, why not take some time to check in with yourself and see what you are hoping for from the holidays.

Whether you are religious, or not you can ask yourself what is important to you about this holiday. Is it having family around and lots of good things to eat and presents to share? Or is it about having a few days off from work and routine in the middle of winter. Whatever it is, it will help you to set an intention for yourself—a kind of inspiration for the holiday.

Then at the other end of the scale, try to see what it is that triggers stress for you.

Take a moment to sit quietly and then ask yourself these questions:
  • At what times do I experience a high level of frustration over relatively small events?
  • How does it feel in my body? 
  • What do I do about it? 

Going through this exercise will help you to identify the times when stress can creep up on you, so you can prepare for it and hopefully, avoid it. Allowing yourself to use your body like a stress barometer shows you the effect that stress has on you. Spending time thinking about how you deal with stress helps to get you off the survival treadmill and really consider how you can ease your stress.

Connecting with the present moment

So often when we are busy our minds are just rushing away with us thinking ahead of all there is still to do. That’s particularly sad at Christmas when there are so many enjoyable rituals in getting ready—like making the cake. 

So one way we can ease a feeling of stress is to connect with the present moment. For example, try not to hurry with making the cake. While you are mixing it, don’t think about making the mince pies, a present for grandma and whether you have enough wine in the house. Instead, try focusing on simply sorting your ingredients for the cake, weighing and adding them in the correct order and mixing it all to a delicious consistency. Take time to smell the fruits and the brandy. Allow yourself to enjoy the texture of batter. Remember to make your wish and just be with the making of the cake. When it is in the oven, you can go on to the next task and approach it in the same way.

Connecting with a sense of enjoyment and celebration helps to dissolve stress

The more we can get our stress into perspective, the more chance we have to enjoy some of the magic that there can be around Christmas. We said earlier that stress closes things down and one of the first things to go is any sense of enjoyment and celebration.

Allow yourself time to look around you and see the things you enjoy. I am a big fan of Christmas trees both indoors and out in the open. There is something about all the lights and glitter on a dark winter evening that just says home and love to me.

What is it that you enjoy most at Christmas?

Connecting with family and friends

Probably if we are honest, one of the biggest sources of stress is how the family is going to manage together over the holidays. It can get complicated with all the in-laws and the extended family. We all know that awful tense feeling that can come when uncle George manages to come out with the opinions that we know will drive our teenage daughter to distraction. Or when grandma insists that we don’t know how to put on a Christmas like they did in her day. You dread the moment when your sister-in-law, who always manages to make you feel like bargain-basement wife, arrives for dinner looking as if she just stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine, along with her two immaculate children. You, on the other hand, hot and bothered from the kitchen feel less than glamorous.

Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind while the family dinner is underway:
  • Everyone around the table wants to be happy—just like you do.
  • None of them want to be anxious, or worried, or miserable and yet, inevitably they all have times when they are—just like you.
  • Chances are that each one of them have their own insecurities about the family gathering—just like you do.
  • Perhaps some of them are even intimidated by aspects of your behavior–what a good cook you are, how you juggle family and career—who knows?

It can help so much if before your irritation arises you can put yourself in the shoes of the person irritating you—perhaps they are more like you than you think.

Connecting with the rest of the world

As well as closing things down, stress makes us lose perspective. Whatever is going on with us seems so much more important than anything else that is happening in the world—which in the scheme of things, really does not make sense.

During the holiday period you can counter-act any tendency to feel that getting the lights working on the tree is more important than, say, global warming by consciously allowing yourself time to think about what is going on for everyone else in the world. Many millions of other people are celebrating Christmas around the world, with traditions that may be very different from your own. There are also millions who are not celebrating Christmas and it is just another ordinary day for them. Then there are the millions who whether or not they wish to celebrate Christmas are not able to because of poverty, or war, or persecution. Keep them in mind also.

So, a very merry stress-free winter holiday to everyone!

Why it’s best not to get stuck in your own story

Why it’s best not to get stuck in your own story

Why it is best not to get stuck in your own story

Recently I have been reflecting on how easy it is for each of us to get stuck in our story. What do I mean by that? It’s the state we get into when most of our attention is focused on doing what we are doing right now, and we don’t notice what else is going on around us. We’re not talking about the mindful kind of focus where we are fully present with what is going on. Here, it’s more to do with being absorbed in our own interests, preferences and choices. They become our priority and we miss out on the bigger picture.

A little bit of history 

Last summer my partner and I discovered the Hunebedden, prehistoric burial sites in the North of Holland. 

Each site is made up of huge boulders that were transported here by vast ice-sheets millions of years ago. The sites are free to visit and open to whoever is interested. Although very little is known about the people who created the sites, people are asked to respect the sacred nature of the burial places. Notices by the pathways request that parents keep their children from climbing on the boulders. It’s not unusual to find people sitting quietly to view the ancient boulders or taking numerous photographs to try and capture their magic.

An example of being stuck in your own story

At one particularly large site there were more people than usual. People approached the boulder arrangement and walked up and down, occasionally reaching out to touch the stones. The atmosphere was quiet and reflective. Sometimes a word was exchanged or a smile.

A grandmother with her son and her two grandchildren stopped to view the site. Ignoring the other people there, she encouraged the children up on to the stones and suggested they stand on the top. Once up there she then went about photographing them from all angles. She moved the children about as if they were at home in their own garden. There was no interaction with anyone else there. Her son helped the children to climb and then to keep their balance. 

It was only because that there was a sudden shower of rain, that she stopped and took the children away. They had no idea where they had been—it could have been a playground. The grandmother had little idea of where she had just been and even less of the interruption she caused. She was completely absorbed in the story of her as a grandmother out with her son and her grandchildren.

The repercussions of being stuck in your own story 

• You miss things

Of course, it is wonderful to enjoy doing what you are doing. It’s just when we become over-absorbed with our own concerns, we miss seeing the bigger picture. 

We live in an interconnected world where our actions are naturally intertwined with the actions of those around us. When we switch off our sensitivity to this, we break the flow. Without awareness we miss opportunities for connection and deeper understanding.

You are not fully present to what is happening around you

The grandmother meant no harm at all at the Hunebedden site. She simply did not see that her actions were out of sync with the atmosphere of the site. All her attention was on the narrow field of her family. She did not see anything beyond it.

When we are not fully present, we are simply running on autopilot. We are not engaging our full resources. It’s a way of limiting ourselves.

You lose sensitivity to what is going on with other people

When you are stuck in your own story it’s hard to even see what is happening for other people. It’s a bit like starring in your own movie with everyone else playing the supporting roles. Other people simply become the backdrop for yourself and your actions.

Research that shows the effects of being stuck in your own story

A now famous experiment into the psychology of pro-social behaviour was carried out in the early 1970s in Princeton University, New Jersey

Subjects for the study were students studying to be priests. The task was to give a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan. The talk was in a separate building. 

Before they left to give their talk, students were told one of three things:

  • either that they had plenty of time
  • or that they were on time
  • and some that they were late

In an alleyway they had to pass through was an actor pretending to be sick and asking for help.

Here are the findings:

63% of participants in the “early” condition stopped to help the stranger.

45% of participants in the “on-time” condition stopped to help the stranger.

10% of participants in the “late” condition stopped to help the stranger.

The main factor in whether people helped or not was how much time they thoughts they had.

So, what can we make of this? Remember, these were students studying to be priests. In interviews they had expressed the wish to be of benefit, to help people and to be of service. They were exactly the kind of people you would expect to want to stop and help someone in need.

The thing is, they got completely caught up in giving their talks and doing well. They were busy, pre-occupied and in a hurry. In other words—they were stuck in their own story and that took precedence over the need of the person lying on the ground.

When your story matches the group story

A while back, my partner and I flew return Amsterdam to Girona. We had a funeral to attend in the south of France and this was the cheapest, quickest way we could find to get there. Both flights were jam-packed. They were also delayed and as they were late-in-the-day flights it all got pretty exhausting.

Most of the people on the flight were regular flyers flying to and from the Costa Brava. Understandably they were in holiday mode. For them the crowded airport and the crowded plane were all part of their holiday experience. Wine flowed freely, people laughed and shouted across rows and gangways. They spread themselves out and took their time. People’s individual stories merged into a larger story of holiday makers returning home.

My partner and I were exhausted, sad from the funeral and certainly not in a partying mood. For a time, I felt a bit irritated all the loud, holiday people. Then I realised – my story was one of grief, exhaustion and coping but it was my story. Most other people on the plane were in their holiday story. It was just a different story.

How to notice when you are getting stuck in your own story

It got me thinking about how it is important to be aware of the stories you might be getting stuck in. 

Here are some things I thought of.

1. Are you present to what you are doing?

As long as you are aware and present to what you are doing you can avoid being stuck in your story. I managed quite well waiting for the plane – it was delayed by over an hour. It was when I began to get tired and to feel a bit sorry for myself that my story became more engulfing.

2. Do you have an awareness of what is happening with other people?

Once you stop noticing what is going on for other people around you, you are at risk of becoming self-absorbed. Remind yourself to look around you and get a sense of how other people are doing. It will help you stay connected and present.

3. Take a moment to check in with yourself

It’s always good to take moments throughout the day to check in with yourself. It’s a way of coming home. Lightly focusing on your breath for a few moments will help to cut through moods, habits and loss of attention. Then you are much more able to get a sense of how self-absorbed you are at that moment and whether you are getting stuck in your own story.

How to Find Ease with Stressful Work Situations

How to Find Ease with Stressful Work Situations

Photo by Suhyeon Choi on Unsplash

We hear a lot about increasing levels of stress in the workplace. It seems that now almost 20% of workers in Europe say they experience stress in their job. I recently witnessed an incident with a flight attendant and a difficult passenger. It struck me how keeping your cool can come at a high price. Looking for ways to ease a stressful situation could work well with less cost.

The incident that caused stress

It was on a return flight to Amsterdam from the UK that I overheard a fellow-passenger giving a flight attendant a really bad time. It was hard to catch the full story from where I was sitting but it involved the passenger asking for hot water in a plastic, see-through cup. Apparently cups of this sort are not safe to hold hot water and the only alternative was the purchase—for three euros—of a polystyrene cup. Not surprisingly the passenger found this rather excessive. What was more surprising was his response—he proceeded to cross-examine the flight attendant in increasingly aggressive tones, applying the kind of ruthless logic that would not have been out of place in a courtroom. 

The reaction to the stress

The flight attendant did his utmost best. He remained polite, consistent and managed not to react to the escalating tone of complaint and anger that he was subjected to. He had a kind of party line that he could fall back on, ‘Sorry sir, this is company policy, I am not allowed to give you this cup…’ and so on. After some time, he managed to get away and push his trolley on to the next customer. As he came past me our eyes met and I murmured, ‘breathe’.He looked at my rather desperately but did not respond.

The passenger’s final attempt to get his own way was daring—he simply marched up to the refreshment trolley and started all over again. He returned to his seat carrying a bottle of cold water.

The cost of that reaction

I happened to be one of the last off the ‘plane and exchanged a few words with the male flight attendant. Remembering my attitude of sympathy—but not my advice to focus on his breath—he asked me what I thought of the sort of thing they had to put up with. During our short conversation my earlier hunch was confirmed—when dealing with a stressful situation he relied on his determination to stay professional, rather than adopting any strategy tomanage his stress. Instead of looking for ways to ease the stressful situation, he gritted his teeth in the face of trouble. He took up the burden as a way of demonstrating to himself how efficient he was at enduring one of the downsides of his job. It would probably have been how he was trained. 

3 ways to ease a stressful situation

Here are a few things that the flight attendant could have tried:

1. Humour helps to bring ease to the stressful situation

When he saw that the passenger was not impressed by the company policy, the flight attendant could have used humour. There is something farcical about two grown men arguing about a cup of hot water. With a bit of skill, he could have tried to get the passenger to see things from his point of view and to laugh with him.

2. Putting himself in the passenger’s shoes would have brought ease to the stressful situation

I found myself having some sympathy with the passenger, although I did not care for his aggression. It is galling to be told that a seemingly simple request cannot be granted. No-one likes to be managed and the passenger could probably feel that that was what was happening to him.

Because the flight attendant was focusing on containing the situation, he did not appear to take the time to see it from the passenger’s point of view. Nor did he really take the time to address the needs of the passenger. 

Both men adopted opposing sides of the situation, without trying to find common ground. One of the most direct ways to disarm a situation is to realise that all the participants are just trying to manage their day. They would like their day to go well but could be dealing with all kinds of hassles along the way. We all have this in common.

3. Working with his emotions to bring ease to the stressful situation

The flight attendant had his emotions firmly under control but that was part of the problem. He was obviously challenged by the passenger and yet maintained the same party line throughout. Being able to notice when your emotions are triggered and then working with what you noticeis a more sustainable way of being with emotions. 

When we are in the grip of emotions it can be hard to remember that they will pass, that they are not solid and real. Mindfulnesshelps us to be able to identify an emotion, to acknowledge it and to gently let it go. It helps us to respect it but not to take it too seriously. When we start to identify with the emotion and use it to bolster our position then we are creating a possible trigger for stress.

The kind of stress I witnessed on this occasion was not major, but it was nasty. The man I spoke to looked very tired by the end of the flight and I doubt if it was his last of the day. The tension he was holding looked like it was heading towards a stiff drink and a good moan—not so bad in small doses but not a good long-term strategy for stress-management.

office building

If you have found the ideas in this post interesting you might like to look at my new online course, How to Make Kindness Matter at Work. You can find out more here.

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