I am particularly delighted to welcome Carole to the blog. She is writing about such an important topic—compassion on the internet. In these polarised times it is so important to take her Netiquette guidelines to heart. Thanks for the post, Carole!
Compassion is a strength that has supported me throughout my life. I have also witnessed the development of compassion help many people in my role as a private practice psychologist.
I think we’d all agree that communicating via the internet has been one of the fastest growing evolutions of the last 20 years. These days there are endless opportunities to communicate online and it can seem like a fast-paced world, difficult to keep up with. No doubt there has to be an effect on our mental health. Our relationship with these communications and how we relate to each other has been something of a personal and professional fascination to me over the years.
Today I will be sharing an online experience that took me to some dark human depths and caused me to wonder ‘where is the compassion?’ in these places. It was hard learning. This has driven me to create some online etiquette (Netiquette) guidelines that I am sharing with you today. I’ll walk you through my story.
Stepping into the Lion’s den
Working solely in private practice has its rewards and difficulties. One of the potential pitfalls can be becoming isolated from other professionals. So, when the opportunity to connect with others became available through social media, I considered it. To be honest I mostly ‘lurked’, watching others post and felt very reticent to get involved. I didn’t think too deeply about why that might be at the time. I found myself drawn in to respond to areas I had experience and knowledge in, feeling a responsibility to share.
One fine day I noticed someone asking a question on one of these social media networks that I had some information on and experience in. I summoned up the courage to post a link on the subject in question in a desire to be helpful – I remember thinking it was a neutral thing to do as I wasn’t directly offering an opinion. Now, it is important to say here there are difficulties with having such a small space to respond in as things may look out of context, AND you do not know what has gone on before in that forum…..these are things I learnt the hard way.
The unforeseen threat
Although I had responded to one person’s information request what happened was an entirely different person responding with an angry tirade of words. They were directed to me personally, questioning my knowledge and professionalism…I had a sense of ‘who do you think you are?’. It felt very threatening and I can share with you I felt absolutely crushed. I did not know who this person was and what sort of influence they might have. Crucially, I did not know who was looking in and struggled to find a way to deal with the situation, in the moment. Nobody posted anything straight away after this – although each of us got (secret) likes. In effect I had experienced a group shaming process, and in my vulnerable state had to decide how or if to respond.
I absolutely agonized over what to do. Ultimately, I decided there was no way I could respond directly or indirectly without entering into the angry, difficult behaviour. Abstaining was hugely difficult in itself as a fragile part of me felt like I was allowing myself to be bullied. In effect I was both trapped by the situation and blocked from responding – a dangerous and compassionless feeling place. This has caused me to wonder whether the speed of our ability to communicate is bypassing the decision-making part of our brain? We could be responding straight from our threat systems. Ironically, I suspect my seemingly (from my end) innocuous posting provoked the other persons threat system.
The power of self-compassion
Now, at this point I’d like to say thank goodness I had been practicing self-compassion for many years. Fortuitously I was already on one of Maureen’s (online) self-compassion courseswhich was hugely helpful in helping gather myself, and help view things from a safer feeling mindset. From this view I applied some compassionate self-correction as opposed to shame-based self-attacking (Professor Paul Gilbert OBE) for my part in entering naively into the online domain ill-prepared.
I wondered how I might respond if this were to every happen again. This was quite a conundrum. I spent some time considering what had happened to compassion in this situation and how important to our well-being kindly, well thought out communications were likely to be. Goodness knows we can think of many examples of difficult, unhelpful and harmful online interactions that go on every day.
Salvaging something from the experience
I decided to move forward by finding a way to contribute positively to these tricky communication spaces. Previously, I had encountered Netiquette (online etiquette) guidelines but they did not cover what I wanted to convey. I really hoped it would be useful to offer an understanding of what might be going on for us as human beings in online places, and why this might be important for our well-being.
Using my experience, I wrote from the heart and a set of compassionately written guidelines emerged. My thinking was that if anyone found themselves in the same impotent situation instead of entering into the communication, they could send a link to these Netiquette Guidelines. And whilst I am not naive enough to think this might also feel inflammatory the other end it would offer an opportunity to respond compassionately and not feel blocked.
These guidelines focus on the realities of being human beings in the online space, which has some significant differences to communicating in other places. There are some very interesting phenomenon that influence these communications such as the Online Disinhibition and Black Hole effects that you can follow if you are intrigued. I bring into view the public shaming opportunities public platforms can bring, as well as the opportunity to use our powers for good. I also encourage PUSHING THE PAUSE BUTTON as we are encouraged to sacrifice sense for speed.
Importantly …I encourage us to remember there is often a human at the other end but crucially remember we are all human! Being courteous and mindful is likely to reap big rewards for our well-being.
FORGIVE OTHERS AND BE COMPASSIONATE WITH YOURSELF
– Remember you are a human too and with the best will in the world we all make mistakes. Mistakes online can feel much bigger, but if we are forgiving and compassionate with others and ourselves, perhaps that will become contagious.
REMEMBER WE ARE ALL HUMAN.
We are not all the same
You may be thinking ‘I wouldn’t be affected like that’, and this is a very interesting point. We are just in the beginnings of understanding what impact communicating via the internet might be having on us in terms of; changes in our brain, conditioning, attention etc. This evolution has potentially been the fastest in history and pushing the pause button to reflect perhaps the wisest thing we can do at this juncture. I have come to wonder how differently we react to online communications in different contexts and one interesting notion is how relevant our attachment styles might be. If you haven’t encountered attachment theory before it is really relevant in how we communicate with other people (and ourselves) and is often explored in compassion-based therapies.
Attachment and its importance in relating to others
From our early experiences we often talk about four styles; Secure, Ambivalent/Anxious, Avoidant and Disorganised (basic explanation). It’s not our fault we find ourselves subject to these styles and it can be helpful to understand how they might impact on our lives.
What is fascinating to me is how these might be acting on us in online communications that have different rules and less non-verbal communications to steer us. I have certainly noticed in my practice how some clients are drawn to continually check for approval in these 24/7 online spaces. It is also difficult to ignore the fact that we can compare ourselves to others at an alarming rate. Other factors are suggested as important such as; having a safe haven, a secure base, proximity maintenance and separation distress.
It is profoundly interesting to wonder how these ideas might be being influenced in the often boundaryless feeling online space of the world wide web.
Reflecting on the learning
My own very strong reaction to this experience has been hugely interesting and I would certainly subscribe to the idea my attachment style has a place to play. An area of concern for me is the idea that compassion might be getting eroded in some online communications. Also, the capacity for group shaming and high levels of self-critical thinking, greater than in other spaces. Perhaps we could view these communications as high challenge in terms of being without the same safety giving non-verbal cues. This in turn might mean we require high self-support to manage them. In my experience self-compassion which encourages courage, distress tolerance, and a sense of safety might well provide balance to this modern-day stress. I sincerely hope my story and subsequent reflections have resonated with you. Please feel free to share the guidelines and I send compassionate best wishes for us all going forward.
I would like to leave you today with the words of Tim Berners-Lee (creator of the internet) in his open letter 2019, 30 years after he gifted us the Internet. His message, I believe, is of hope in we can steer the internet as we move forward – as opposed to being steered by it. I’m hoping in a more compassionate direction.
“Against the backdrop of news stories about how the web is misused, it’s understandable that many people feel afraid and unsure if the web is really a force for good. But given how much the web has changed in the past 30 years, it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30. If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us, we will have failed the web.” (Direct quote)
Gilbert, P. (2010). The Compassionate Mind. Constable: London
Holmes, J. (2014). 2nd Edition. John Bowlby and Attachment Theory (Makers of Modern Psychotherapy). Routledge: Abingdon-on-Thames.
Carole is a counselling psychologist in private practice near Bristol, UK. She provides therapy, supervision, consultation and training both face-to-face and via online means. Carole often combines her research interest area of online relational aspects and compassion orientated approaches to explore some of our every day struggles. Her passion is in sharing understandable insights she hopes will be helpful to us as human beings.
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.
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.
We have all been there. Those moments when city life feels too full—too many people, too much noise, too much everything. We long for some peace and quiet and a chance to regroup.
For most of us the immediate answer is not a holiday. We have families to care for, and bills to pay. That means we need to be able to work with our feelings of being overwhelmed by the city from within ourselves—to find inner space even when there does not seem to be any on offer.
When we feel overwhelmed it’s easy to withdraw, to close in on ourselves and try to put up a wall. This tends to solidify our feelings and cut us off from managing our feelings. To cope with feeling overwhelmed in the city in the long term, we need to be more daring.
Here’s some things we can try.
1. Take a moment
Think about how you begin your day. You jump out of bed to get started on the list of things that need to be done—get ready for work, hurry the kids up for school. You rush into the shower but instead of being present in the running water and enjoying the moment, you are thinking of that conversation you had with your boss the day before or worrying about getting your son to the dentist after school.
Research carried out at Harvard University in 2010 showed that for almost half of our waking hours we are thinking about something different from what we are doing. In other words, we are not fully present for many of our actions. This means that we are neither bringing our full resources, or, appreciating the moment we are experiencing. As life is uncertain, the only moment we can be sure of is the present moment—so it is ironic that we so frequently miss it.
Try to break up your day by taking short moments to nourish yourself. City life offers many good times to do this are when you are on tram, or bus, waiting in the queue at the supermarket, or changing from one activity to another.
Pause in what you are doing
Bring your attention to your body
How do you feel?
What is your mood?
Take a few slow, deep breaths
Feel the richness of the moment you are living right now
Continue with what you were doing
2. Stay open and curious
City life offers many opportunities to be open and curious. When you are going about your day you pass all kinds of people, lots of different activities and situations. Perhaps there are buskers in the metro, maybe you see a mother struggling to get her small children on to a tram or a bunch of visiting students laughing and excited about their visit to your city.
Cities are usually vibrant places with lots of energy. When we are tired or stressed it can be hard to go with the flow. We want to shut ourselves off from the noise and bustle. Instead, if we are being present, we can simply see what is happening around us. It’s not necessary to get into all kinds of opinions and judgements—we can just notice. We can stay open to new experiences, to new ideas and let them unfold around us without resisting. That way the activity can nourish and engage us, instead of exhausting us.
Try taking the time to look about you.
Look up, rather than looking down at the sidewalk.
Do you remember when you were a child being told, ‘Patience is a virtue’? It sounded really boring, didn’t it? Certainly, not a way to get what you want and to cut through the crowd. It took me a long time to appreciate the value of patience and to recognise the extent to which it eases stress.
There are so many moments in an average day in a city life where impatience can flare up—standing in line in a shop, waiting your turn in a café only to have someone barge in ahead of you. When everyone is in a hurry there are so many moments where people can act thoughtlessly—walking in big groups on the sidewalk, pushing you out of their way to get past. An angry reaction can rear up even when we are in a good mood—if we are tired, or worried it happens even easier.
The thing is, going with our impatience is exhausting and the emotions that impatience stirs up, such as anger and resentment, are not good for us. They increase our stress levels and can lead to higher blood pressure and heart problems. Positive emotions like kindness and tolerance, on the other hand, do promote wellbeing.
Being able to respond to challenging situations with patience is not a passive activity. It requires self-awareness and a capacity for seeing things from other people’s point of view. It involves flexibility and a degree of openness.
Next time your patience is challenged:
Try taking a moment to come home to yourself
Open up your awareness to view the whole situation you are in
Be aware of the needs of other people around you
Don’t focus exclusively on your own agenda
Engage your sense of humour
4. Do something for someone else
A couple of weeks ago I was on my way home and feeling pretty tired. It was a relief when the tram showed up. As it happened, I had a lot on my mind. A work project I was working on was taking much longer to compete than I had anticipated, and it was causing me concern. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a young mother with two small children—a toddler and a baby. I didn’t pay so much attention because of the problem I was working with in my mind.
It turned out that we got off at the same stop and the mother had all the struggle of collecting her buggy and getting the baby into it. As they moved off, I noticed that one of the children had dropped a soft toy on the pavement. Everybody was too busy to see. Luckily, I could pick it up and return it before it got trampled. The toddler say the toy and grabbed for it joyfully—it must have been a favourite—and the mother gave me a grateful smile.
In those short moments, my mood changed completely. I went from being self-focused and worried to feeling a great sense of wellbeing. Taking a moment to help someone else lightened my mood and helped me to feel less oppressed by my own concerns.
It’s all too easy as you go through an average day in your city life to put your head down and carry on. We are busy and we want to get on with what we have to do.
Even if we don’t see an opportunity to do something for someone else, we can at least smile. There is more to smiling than we think. It helps us to feel more open and accessible and it is pleasant for other people too.
6. Be grateful
Research is showing that people who make gratitude an active part of their lives are happier. It’s relatively easy to feel grateful for big things like promotion or moving to a new house but it’s harder to feel grateful on a daily basis.
If we look around and pay attention there is plenty that we can find to be grateful for in city life. Noticing the richness that we have in our lives is nourishing and will help us to feel stronger and more able to cope.
Here’s some ideas:
Before you go to sleep think of something that happened in your day that you feel grateful for
Keep a gratitude journal
Have a gratitude jar in the kitchen where everyone can contribute
Hold a gratitude session once a week with your family, where each person shares something that they were grateful for during the week.
7. Remember common humanity
It helps to remember that all the people in your street, in your neighbourhood, in your city want to be happy and they don’t want pain. It’s a fact of life. Maybe some people have strange ways of trying to be happy, but they still do. The longing for happiness is part of being human. Yet we all know that life can be hard and difficult times come for all of us. When city life seems too much to handle, remember to see all the people as a collection of individuals—who will have a lot in common with you on a fundamental human level.
Here’s a simple exercise you could try.
Pay attention to the people you pass in the street
Notice if you make a comment in your mind about someone
Be aware of the people you feel drawn towards and the ones you do not like the look of
Try to imagine how they might see you as you pass them by
Take a moment to be aware that everyone you see wants their day to go well and to avoid any unpleasantness —just as you do
Then realize that inevitably for some people things will go wrong during the day —let that feeling touch you and help you to feel a common humanity with your fellow travellers.
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.
Recently I was doing a piece of work in a rural area in the south of France. You might think that’s very pleasant and, in some ways, it can be but not when you need to get things done. When you are in the middle of nowhere the internet can be really unreliable.
After two frustrating 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. We had worked together before and he had helped me out.
As I explained my situation over the phone and asked for advice on how to get on even a slow-line, I could sense his reluctance. Slowly but surely this reluctance began to merge into impatience at my request for help. He was extremely busy; he said and was squeezed in between several conflicting demands already. The more I asked for his help, the worse he felt and the more irritable he became.
I was desperate, so I did not give up. I pointed out that it was an indication of the seriousness of my situation that I was bothering him in the first place. All he needed to do was to set me in the direction of who to talk to. I reminded him that is hard to sort out how to get online without beingon 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.
In spite of this setback, the story ended happily. 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!
What the story shows
No-one sets out to be anxious. It usually happens as a response to a situation we find ourselves in that is harder to manage than we expected. It can come up when we can’t get what we need at any given time, but it can also come up when we can’t give someone else what they want from us. My IT acquaintance spent more time on the phone with me telling me how he could not help me than the person who eventually solved the problem. Although it did not seem like it, he felt bad about not helping and it made him more cross.
It can be hard to see the effect that our anxiety is having on our own behaviour. It can be even harder to see the effect it is having on other people.
I thought about this story and what it tells us about anxiety for quite a while afterwards. I realised that when we are caught up in anxious state, we can be quite difficult. Maybe we don’t mean to be but that is how it comes across.
3 ways anxiety led to unhelpful behaviour
My anxiety made me too desperate
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. My own need felt more important than what was going on with anyone else. It made me push, where I should have been more skilful.
Anxiety can close you down
My colleague’s 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 look at the situation from a bigger perspective.
When you are experiencing anxiety it’s hard to see clearly
I realised later that I was not able to read the signs my acquaintance was sending me. Just as his stress closed him down, my anxiety undermined my ability to see the situation clearly. I did not appreciate how stressed he was and thought if I just kept asking, he would give in. My anxiety clouded my judgment. For me, how I was experiencing the situation was how it was. There was little or no room for other people’s feelings.
So often, the frustrations and limitations we experience at work can be traced back to our mood at the time. When we are under pressure, we need to know that we will be operating much less skilfully than normal.
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.
Looking back, I felt badly for the IT guy. My own anxiety swamped any feeling of kindness for what was going on for him. OK, he had not tried very hard to be helpful, but I had not given him much space either.
Do you have any examples of this sort of thing happening to you recently at work? How did you resolve it?
If work issues are important to you right now, you might be interested in this online course:
9 Ways to Cope Better With Your Work Frustration – you can find out more here
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.
By the end of 2019 it is estimated that there will be 2.9 billion email users. That is more than one third of the worldwide population. Around 246 billion emails are sent each day. Business users receive about 126 emails per day. Right there is one source for email overload.
How do we get to email overload?
Email has a kind of seduction
Having a constant stream of email certainly gives us the feeling of being busy and in demand. There’s a kind of bravado we hear when people speak about their average daily email totals. The speed and immediacy of the messages flowing into our in-box can have a slightly addictive quality as we plough through them looking for the ones that we hope will make a difference.
The Harvard Business Review recently carried an article on what it called email addiction in which it stated the findings of a survey done for the Huffington Post. Here are two of the statistics:
Out of 1200 respondents, some 60% said they spend less than two waking hours a day completely disconnected from email.
20% spend less than half an hour disconnected.
Our email has embedded itself deeply into our lives.
It creates an illusion of multitasking
It’s not just our email either. We are linked in to any number of communication tools and apps. As we sit at our computers, we are subject to alerts and notifications providing us with information that we feel is essential to keeping in touch and getting things done. We can pride ourselves on being able to switch our attention between several different demands at once but perhaps we also need to question the quality of our attention divided into so many different directions. Think about trying to answer an email on your smart phone while waiting for your train to work, or juggling your shopping in the supermarket. It may feel like using every moment fully but is it worth the risk of making an error of judgement because your attention is not focused?
Our brain is not comfortable with shifting back and forth between several different tasks. It has the effect of splitting our attention and tends to make us less productive rather than more. The quality of attention we give to each task is so reduced that it becomes counter-productive. The risk of replying to an email in this way is quite high. With our attention so divided we are likely to miss things and respond inappropriately.
It’s the same thing if we are trying to write a report while we keep an eye on our incoming email. In his book, Your Brain at Work, David Rock states that:
on average office distractions take up about 2.1 hours per day
employees tend to spend about 11 minutes on a task before being distracted
people switch activities every 3 minutes
after an interruption it takes people 25 minutes to return to their original task
Some emotional reasons for challenges with email
A lack of intimacy as a communication tool
Neuroscience has discovered that our brain’s very design makes it sociable, inexorably drawn into an intimate brain-to-brain linkup whenever we engage with another person. That neural bridge lets us impact the brain—and so the body—of everyone we interact with, just as they do us. When we communicate face-to-face we are able to form an instant connection and enhance this by how we use our voice, facial expressions and other non-verbal cues.
Add to that the increasing body of study into mirror neurons, which enable us to instinctively feel another person’s thoughts, emotions and intentions and we have a clear picture of the volume and intensity of communication that flows between people when they meet.
None of this is available to us on email. We may conduct long and important business relations with people that we rarely—or perhaps never—see.
It’s easy to misinterpret the tone of an email
When we are under pressure to answer a large number of emails we naturally try to be as succinct and efficient as possible. We cut down on the niceties and go straight for the main point. Unfortunately, for the recipient who cannot see us and maybe does not even know us well, the effect can be quite negative. Email that we intend to be concise and practical can seem to be unfeeling, or even rude.
Add to this the brain’s negativity bias, which makes it much easier for us to interpret something as hostile, even when it’s not. Designed to help us remember dangerous circumstances so we could avoid them in the future in order to survive, this feature easily converts a neutral but business-like message into an unfriendly communication. Having not given our correspondent the benefit of the doubt, we are likely to pass the irritation on in subsequent emails we send throughout the day.
Three simple steps to avoid email overload
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume and persistence of our email traffic but there are a number of simple things we can do that will help. It’s a question of identifying them and putting them in place as our regular habit.
Here’s a few ideas for how to be practical with your email:
Have regular times of day for dealing with email. This will avoid the nightmare of your email spilling over your entire day and making it hard to accomplish anything else.
Try not to answer emails on your journey to work but use the time to prepare for the day. When you are in your workplace you can give better attention to the email you are writing.
Deal with the emails already in your inbox before you start on the incoming messages of the day. This helps you to keep track and prevents an important email slipping through the cracks.
Sort out your inbox regularly. It is encouraging to see the volume decrease in your inbox and helps you to keep track.
Turn off your notifications when you are working on other things. This decreases anxiety when you see emails surging into your inbox.
Check that sending an email is the best means of communication for the message you want to send. Would a phone call work better This helps to ensure good communication.
Check your subject line—is it identifying the topic clearly? The person receiving the email is as busy as you. Helping them assess how to deal with your message will make it more likely it is answered quickly.
Think carefully about who you copy in—do all these people need to see your message, or will it complicate things? It helps to keep the communication channels uncluttered.
We have already looked at how often someone gets distracted from the task in hand while at work and how long it can take them to get back on track. Distraction is not just something that happens to us at work. In 2010, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert and his associate, Matthew Killingsworth conducted a studyin which they developed a smart phone app to measure peoples’ happiness. During the day people were sent a series of questions asking them what they were doing and how they were feeling. The results showed that for 46.9% of their waking hours people were thinking about something other than what they were doing, and they were not feeling happy. Think about that for a moment—it is almost half of your life!
Meditation is the best way to work with distraction. Here is a very simple mindfulness meditation exercise you could try.
A simple mindfulness meditation exercise
Connect with your breathing
—stay with where the sensation is most vivid for you
—moment by moment by moment
—breath by breath by breath
—notice any changes in your breathing
Notice when your attention is not on your breathing
—check where has it gone
—dissolve the distraction
—bring your attention back to your breath
—begin again as if for the first time
Doing an exercise like this regularly will help you be less distracted with your email. Mindfulness means being present. Meditation means developing awareness. Both of these are useful skills with email.
Here’s a few ways to be mindful with your email:
Keep in touch with yourself by maintaining awareness of your body on your chair, your chair at your desk and so on.
Try to avoid sending email while you are on automatic pilot.
Don’t zone out at the computer.
Take regular short breaks to breathe deeply and relax your shoulders.
Re-read your messages before sending them—if they are tricky emails, re-read them twice.
When you receive a difficult email take time to separate the message from your reactions—make sure that you can get your reaction in proportion.
Keep a photo on your desk that helps bring you back when you are distracted.
3. Be kind
We have already discussed how email does not come with an instinctive way to connect. On top of that, the brain’s negativity bias leads us to interpret business-like emails as hostile. We all know that it is all too easy to have a misunderstanding—or worse—over email. Once we are upset ourselves—or have caused upset to someone else, the ripple effect spreads and spreads as we all pass on our irritation and stress to the other people we interact with. Kindness is not something we always think of in dealing with our email and yet engaging with kindness while we deal with our inbox will help the quality of our communication—and even help to reduce our own stress levels.
Here’s a few ways to be kind with your email:
Try to stay connected with the person you are writing to—visualize them in your mind’s eye.
Realize that the person you are writing to is just like you—they want things to go well at work and yet they have all kinds of hassles to deal with.
Put yourself in their shoes—how would you feel about receiving the email that you are sending?
Don’t just dash off a quick reply in order to get it done—it can end up taking up more time.
Never send an email when you are upset, disappointed or angry—‑chances are you are not seeing things clearly.
If you are unsure of an email, put it in your draft box and re-read it the next morning.
Alternatively—read a tricky email out loud to yourself to check the tone.
I would love to hear from you how you avoid email overload – do leave a comment in the box below.
If you enjoyed this post you could check out this free 5-day email course
It’s a great life skill to able to look on the bright side as we negotiate the ups and downs of everyday living. The ability to look at a glass and see it as half-full instead of half-empty is surprisingly rare but it’s impact on wellbeing is considerable. It increases our resilience and makes us more attractive to be around. However, we all know people for whom the glass is always half empty. It’s the sort of person for whom there is always a ‘but’, whatever good circumstances are coming their way. Lovely weather is forecast for an outing, but they always take an umbrella. They manage to negotiate a pay rise, but it is not as much as they hoped for. They cook a beautiful meal for a dinner party, but now they are exhausted. Their negativity bias is alive and flourishing!
If we are honest, we can see that although we are not like this all the time, we all have moments where we are just focused on how unsatisfactory things are.
Why is this?
We are constantly on the lookout for threats
Our brain has evolved to keep us safe, alive and reproducing our species. We are programmed to pay more attention to negative stuff and to remember it longer. When you think of our lives as hunter-gatherers this makes sense. Finding a new food source was a good thing but discovering a berry that was poisonous and killed you was much more important—so we remembered it and avoided it the next time we came across it. This is sometimes referred to as the brain’s negativity bias. The brain is always tracking for threats to our survival and once we locate one, then we store it away to remember for the future.
What this means for us now
Of course, in our modern lives there can still be real threats to our physical survival but mostly the negative stuff the brain is identifying and storing away is just part of the wear and tear of everyday life. If we fall out with a family member or get a harsh comment from our boss, it weighs on our minds and we tend to replay it over and over again. An unpleasant encounter in the supermarket over-rides all the courtesy and friendliness we usually encounter. If our favourite restaurant has an off day, all the delicious meals we have eaten there previously seem to be less believable.
The trouble with all this is that can lead to us giving into anger, frustration or jealousy. By focusing on negativity, we highlight our problems and bring them into the forefront of our experience. Giving such weight to the difficult things makes it easier for us to give into our more troublesome emotions, such as anger, fear and jealousy. It can make us tougher on other people because we are operating from this position of threat.
Two aspects of our negativity bias we can stop straight away
Cut the anxiety loops in our minds
We can try to get out of the habit of going over and over stuff that has bothered us and replaying different ways we should have dealt with it. Ruminatingin this way only works the negative memory in deeper and ensures that it stays with us longer. One of the most effective ways of cutting through rumination is with mindfulness meditation. By helping us to be awake in the present moment, we can bring our mind back from going over stuff that has already happened, or other stuff we are worried will happen in the future.
Stop beating ourselves up
We can try to stop telling ourselves off for the way things turned out. How many times do we say to ourselves, ‘I should have….’, ‘If only I had….’.’Why didn’t I?….’ Most of us have a voice in our headthat give a running commentary on how we are managing and sadly, its commentary is often negative. The thing is that we did not do any of those things and it is too late to change it. We can take note for the next time but beating up on ourselves will only increase the negative impact. The most effective way to transform our inner critic into something useful is by showing ourselves the same kindness that we would show a friend in a similar situation.
Here are more good habits that can overcome our negativity bias
Notice the good things that happen to us every day
These can be small things—a sunny morning, a smile from a stranger, a helping hand from a friend. Don’t just notice the first thing—keep your eyes open for all the small but precious moments throughout the day.
Allow yourself to feel good
There is no need to feel guilty or to worry that it is selfish. A moment of happiness, or satisfaction will help you to be more open and accessible to other people. You can share the benefit.
Savour the experience
Once we have noticed something good happening, then we can take a moment to savour the experience and let it sink into our consciousness. We are often too quick to shrug off the good stuff. By allowing ourselves to enjoy moments like the smelling the freshly baked bread in the local bakery, or pausing to watch children playing in the playground we are acknowledging the good experiences and letting them in. This will help to feel more satisfied and less in need of external stimuli.
We can even take a moment to express appreciation for some of the many, small, wonderful things that happen to us every day.
Here is an exercise that you could try
The purpose of the exercise is to help us to connect with experiences that can help us to undermine our tendency to focus on the bad stuff. By really seeing the good stuff and appreciating the effect it has on our moods and state of mind, we can learn to apply it when unpleasant things happen to us. This exercise shows a way of doing this after the event but as we get used to working this way, we can apply it as things happen.
Let me know how you got on with the exercise. I would love to hear how it worked for you.
If you have enjoyed this post and found it useful, you might want to take a look at this free 5-day e-course, HOW TO MAKE SELF-COMPASSION YOUR TOP PRIORITY