A recent story
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
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.
Soren Gordhamer in his book, Wisdom 2.0: Ancient Secrets for the Creative and Constantly Connectedwrites that one of the reasons we are so attached to our email is that we are constantly on the lookout for some good news, a lucky break in our working day. We want something to lift us up and make us feel good and we look to email as a source of possibility flowing constantly into our lives.
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
YOUR MINDFUL SOLUTION TO EMAIL OVERLOAD
Find out more here
This is what I do every work day
What’s it like for you as you arrive at work to start your work day? Are you gritting your teeth to face a problem that’s waiting for you? Is there a work colleague that you dread meeting? Are you interested and stimulated by the thought of the work day ahead, or are you already feeling bored? Whatever is going on for you, the chances are that your mood as you go into work will impact your whole day. If we feel that we are gearing up to force ourselves into ‘work mode’ then before we even see what the day holds for us, we’re putting ourselves under stress.
Instead of being poised to respond to the demands of our work day, we have already put ourselves on the defensive. Check out these four ways to start your work day with a difference.
Today really is the first day of the rest of your life
Actually, we don’t know what our work day will bring even though we might think we do. Sure, it’s likely that we’ve walked in through the entrance to our work many times; we’ve seen our workplace every day for quite some time, the faces of our colleagues are familiar to us. All this is true, but it is also true that we’ve never gone into work today before. We’ve never greeted our colleagues on this day. Our job has not unfolded exactly as we will do it on this present day. The trouble is we think because things have gone along in a particular way in the past, we know how things will go along today and in the future.
We can change all that in a heartbeat. Think of an early spring morning and that feeling of freshness and renewal. There is no reason not to have that kind of sparkle in any given day. By staying open to all possibilities and being willing to be available to whatever happens, we can feel vibrant and alert even with things we’ve done many times before.
Switch off the automatic pilot
Research carried out by Gilbert and Killingsworth at Harvard University in 2010 shows that for almost 50% of our waking hours we are not thinking about the thing we are doing at that time—we’re thinking about something else. Almost 50%% of our waking hours—that is almost half our lives.During times like these we are not fully present to ourselves, to our environment, and to our colleagues! It’s as if we are going through a lot of what we do on automatic pilot. We’re going through the motions but not fully experiencing what we are doing.
If we are not fully present, then things lose their sparkle. We are not noticing the details of our lives, the subtle changes that each moment brings. If we go into work with our minds full of a problem we need to solve, or a disagreement we had with a colleague, or even just the boredom of a day we would rather spend at home then we are robbing ourselves of the chance to appreciate the possibilities that the day holds. Perhaps our boss has a lead on the problem that’s troubling us; maybe our colleague is looking to apologize for their irritation and maybe it’s someone’s birthday and there’s cake to share! We don’t know but we could give the day the benefit of the doubt.
Learning to switch off this automatic pilot mode helps wake us up and bring much more sparkle to everything that we do.
Try giving others the benefit of the doubt
It is not just the day we can give the benefit of the doubt to, but our work colleagues could also benefit from a bit of friendly understanding. We might have all kinds of thoughts and ideas about the people we work with—she’s friendly, he’s a pain, why is she so bossy? Generally speaking, we divide up the people we work with into three broad categories—the ones we like, the ones we don’t get on with and the ones we are not interested in. Funnily enough, after a while it is quite hard for people to move from one category to another.
The bottom line is that we all just want to be happy, to manage our work as best we can and to avoid difficulties and pain. Whoever we are, we pretty much have that in common. Bearing this in mind when someone irritates us or has a different approach from us it can help to remember this. Just as we have anxieties and insecurities, so do they. Just as we want to be successful in our work, so do they. Just as we want people to like and respect us, so do they.
It’s worth asking ourselves how we might appear to the people we work with. Could we be one of the people they dread meeting when they come to work? Is it possible that there are people who are not comfortable with how we behave? If so, we would like to be given the benefit of the doubt ourselves—then it helps if we can do that for others.
Give yourself a break – lots of them
So, when you go into work the next time try to notice the feelings you are carrying with you—be aware of your assumptions about how you think the day will go and the worries that go along with those assumptions. Then try to dissolve it all and simply allow yourself to be present and to notice what is actually going on—your breath entering and leaving your body, your feet touching the ground as you walk, the feeling of the air on your face. Take in the weather and allow yourself to see the sky. Observe all the other people around you setting out on their working day—make an effort to see them as individuals, rather than a crowd.
All this only needs to take a few moments but in those few moments by allowing yourself to become present you are cutting your cycle of stress and opening up new possibilities for how you live your working day.
Something that happened to me the other day
Something happened to me recently that really brought this home to me. It was not work-related. There was some maintenance work going on in our apartment block. I did not take so much notice until we woke up one Saturday to find all the water had been turned off with no warning. There had been a mix up with letting people know and the correct notification had not gone out. There I was—no shower, no morning tea, no normal routine. It was horrible! We were warned the water could be off for 5 hours but happily, within two hours it was back on.
Those first moments of seeing the water rush out of the taps, flushing the lavatory and standing under the shower were so precious. All of them ordinary activities that happen day after day without me paying special attention to any of them. The shock of them not being there brought home to me that nothing is ordinary in itself—it’s how we choose to view it. It is actually a miracle to have easily-accessible running water in my home and when I come off the automatic pilot, I can see that clearly.
The underlying truth is that we might think we more or less know what to expect from our work day but we don’t. Anything can happen. Each moment really is all that we can count on, and it is incredibly precious.
Try answering these three questions to bring sparkle to your work day
As you leave the house: remind yourself that really is the first day of the rest of your life.
With that in mind, how do you want to set off for work?
While you are on your commute: try switching off the automatic pilot and being present to each stage of your journey.
What are you noticing that you have never noticed before?
As you arrive at work: bring to mind all the other people entering your work place and how, just like you, they want to have a good day.
What does that change for you?
It would be great to hear your answers in the comments section.
How do you use your commute time?
Do you cycle to work, or drive in your car? Maybe you take a tram, or bus? Perhaps you use the metro or ride a train. Whichever way you make the journey, your commute is a solid chunk of time twice a day, every working day. You’re not at home but you’re not in work either. The time is your own but not really. You’re free to be as you wish but within strict parameters. On the way in to work, the tasks of the day are already pressing for your attention. On the way home, anticipating a pleasant evening competes with processing what has gone on during the day.
Maybe we choose to use the time travelling to fend off the thought of the working day ahead by catching up on some good reading. Perhaps we shut ourselves off from the crowd by turning up the volume on our headphones. I hear of an increasing number of people who watch Netflix during their journeys. Alternatively, we could use this time to steal a march on our working day by scanning through our emails on our phone, or tablet and running through the schedule for the day.
Taking a fresh look at your commute
Here’s another idea—to take charge of this time by yourself and use it for your wellbeing.
In research carried out in 2010 at Harvard University it was found that people spend almost 50% of their time thinking about something different to what they are doing and that it undermines their happiness. One of the most common times when people were ruminating in this way was on their commute.
So how do we take a fresh look at our commute?
A lot of the people that I work with, who are interested in making meditation part of their lives, find it difficult to make the time they need for meditation. Quite a few are experimenting with using their commute as a time to do a meditation session. Some use a meditation app and listen to a guided meditation. Others simply wait to find a seat, and then sit quietly and focus on their breath.
Here is a very simple way to do this.
Try being mindful and come home to yourself
- Take a few moments to check in with your breathing—pay attention to the sensation of your breath entering and leaving your body
- Notice how your body is feeling—do you have any places that feel tired, or weary, or are you feeling fresh and up for anything?
- Check in on your mood—are you feeling good about the day ahead, or is there something worrying you?
- Try to become aware of the thoughts passing through your mind—notice how quickly they change and turn into other thoughts
- Just register all this—try not to get drawn into feelings of liking, or not liking any of it.
What does this accomplish?
When we connect with ourselves in this way we are tuning into the present moment and getting in touch with how things are for us. We try to do this without judgement, without wanting to change anything—just with the aim of coming home to ourselves and settling our minds.
This will help us to move into our work situation in a more relaxed and stable mood ready for whatever comes our way. On the way home, it helps us to shake off the concerns of the day and get ready to spend an evening with our friends and family.
Consider other people as just like you
So much of the stresses and strains of the day come about during our interactions with other people. Often, we focus on the things that separate us from others, when in fact, there is a great deal that we all have in common.
If you still have time on your journey, try to turn your attention to your fellow passengers.
- Notice who your neighbours are—take a few moments to scan the compartment, tram or bus and to see as many of the other passengers as you can.
- Take note of the thoughts and emotions that pass through your mind as you do this:
—notice if you make a comment in your mind about someone
—notice 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 sit, or stand alongside them
- Take a moment to be aware that everyone travelling with you 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.
What does this accomplish?
Reflecting in this way reminds us that everyone wishes for a happy life and wants to avoid pain and suffering but that pain and suffering are an inevitable part of life. Coping with all this gives a common thread to all our experiences. It enables us to see that however different our interests are, we are all in the same boat. This can help us to develop a feeling of equanimity towards others as we engage in our working day.
It’s up to us
Of course, sometimes we just want to read, or listen to music and that’s completely fine but we do have the option to take a fresh look at our commute. We can prioritise self-care and use this limbo-time in our day to develop our mindfulness—both of ourselves and of others. Spending a bit of time each day in this way will help us to deal with our work from a less stressful perspective. It will also help us to actually relax and enjoy our time when is over for the day.
Do drop a comment in the comment section and let me know if you have tried meditating during your commute and how you got on with it.
If you found this post useful you might like to check out our free 5-day e-course
HOW TO MAKE YOUR COMMUTE BENEFIT YOUR WORKING DAY
Do you work with someone who you dread having to interact with? Someone who stifles you, who never gives you any positive feedback and is always disapproving? Do you find yourself with a difficult work colleague? It’s tough, isn’t it?
Most of us have to deal with a difficult work colleague from time to time but we may find that solutions are not always easy to find. When this happened to me a while back, I was surprised at how much it got to me. It made me look into what was going on more deeply and try to come up some new ideas for how to handle it.
My recent story
I run my own small business and do a lot of work online. Sometimes this involves working on quite complex projects with international teams of people I have never met in person. Most of the time this goes really well but just recently it went badly wrong. A new volunteer joined a team I was working with and was given responsibility for the project. To begin with, I really enjoyed her focused, organized approach and felt hopeful about our progress. However, as the weeks passed, she began to assume a more top-down approach in our relationship and things started to unravel.
It began to really affect me. Her refusal to meet me half way, her positioning of herself as the expert, her willingness to have me to the same work over and over again until it reached some standard that I was not privy to—it became demoralising. Most worrying was a sense of rebellion that became steadily more persistent. There was a voice in my head that kept saying, Why bother? She’s not going to like it anyway! Worst of all—I started to dislike her, and it was very hard to summon any sort of kind feelings towards her.
Eventually, I decided that enough was enough and the only way forward was to talk face-to-face and try to sort things out. We arranged a SKYPE session.
When the talking it out session fails
Here came my second major surprise. For me to have a conversation like this means allowing myself to be vulnerable, to try to connect with the other person and to attempt to put myself in their shoes. I did all those things—from explaining quietly what I found difficult in the way we were working together to inviting her to tell me what she found difficult about working with me. We talked for almost an hour but there was no movement at all. None. A couple of days later she emailed me to say she was withdrawing from the project and would not be contacting me again. My attempt to reach out and to heal had met with total failure.
What do you then?
I spend my life talking and writing about kindness and peace of mind. It is an extraordinary feeling to put on the back foot when you are trying to use all your skills and experience. For a while my reactions took over but when I calmed down I tried to take a more balanced view and to see what learning there could be in a seemingly immovable situation.
Here are some of the strategies I used to work with what had happened.
It would have been very easy to feel bad about the whole thing. A commentary started up in my mind telling me that I had created a real mess and all my years of meditation did not count for much. I began to feel guilty for not managing better. Fortunately, I have done a lot of work with my inner critic and it didn’t take too long to reign it in and get some perspective.
It seemed important to forgive myself for not being able to be perfect all the way through this story. I knew that I had tried hard, first of all to be patient, and then to have a meaningful communication with a view to healing the situation. I was only responsible for my part of the interaction—it was not possible to control the reaction of the other person in the story. She made her own choices.
It also occurred to me that situations like this must be happening over and over again in different workplaces all over the world. Meeting people we can’t always get along with is part of our human story, one of the challenges of life that we all face. To respond only by blaming oneself is to ignore the bigger picture and miss an opportunity to open up the experience to a deeper perspective. It was when I was facing the failure of my attempt to get things on a better footing with my colleague that I really started to think more deeply. Through reflecting came more insight.
In meditation we learn to work with everything that comes up in our minds—happy thoughts, practical thoughts, horrible thoughts—we don’t differentiate as we let them rise, and then let them fall away. Over time, we train our minds to notice what comes up in the mind during meditation but not to dwell on it. Again, and again, we focus on the method of meditation and not the thoughts that can pull us away. In time, this helps us to become more resilientto what life brings and less pushed and pulled by our reactions and worries.
This is because meditation helps us to develop the ability to cut through the cycle of rumination which we so often occupy our minds with. Instead of going over and over the stories we have in our minds, we can learn to be more available in the present moment, without judgement. In this way, it became easier to drop my anxious feelings about how things had gone with my work colleague and to have a sense of acceptance that that was just how it was. I was very conscious at the sense of relief I experienced when I began to let go of the upset and justifications that had been buzzing around in my mind.
Renew your commitment to kindness
There were moments after my colleague left the project where it really felt as if she had set me up and jeopardised all my work. I certainly felt angry and attacked. The project we had been working on had to do with compassion and I found myself struggling to understand how two people who care about compassion could find themselves in such a situation.
Again, my meditation practice helped me to drop the judgemental thoughts I was having, and to realise that actually I did not really know what was going on for her. The only person I could do anything about was myself. I also realised that my anger was hurting myself most of all and it was not helping the situation.
There is a wonderful Buddhist meditation called Loving Kindness Meditation.which explores the power of generating kindness for oneself and then sharing that kindness with people close to you, then people you don’t know so well and eventually with people who have hurt you in some way. It is said that anger cannot ever heal anger, anger can only be healed by loving kindness.
It reminds me of two quotes from Nelson Mandela,
Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.
It felt wonderful to let my anger fall away. Maybe I could not heal the situation as a whole, but I could heal my own reaction. It can still bubble up sometimes when I am working through the results of her withdrawal, but it does not stay.
So where does this leave me now?
The most important learning to come out of this situation for me was that we need to adjust our goals to what is happening, rather than suffering disappointment and resentment about things we cannot change. There is no point in branding an interaction as a failure and then feeling bad about it. It works much better to keep digging until the learning becomes clearer.
It was also a good experience of accepting what cannot be changed. My habit is always to keep on at something hoping it will crack but that can actually make things worse. Turing my attention away from analyzing my difficult colleague to looking into my own behavior and understanding worked a lot better.
Re-affirming my commitment to kindness, even when the going is tough, was empowering. It felt like re-enforcing the importance of kindness as something worth trying to develop, even when you are not getting the response you hoped for.
What about you? I would love to hear from you about your experiences of working with difficult work colleagues and the strategies you tried.
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HOW TO MAKE SELF-COMPASSION YOUR TOP PRIORITY
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.
- With equanimity our limbic systemis under control and our neocortexis in charge.
- 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.
What we can do
- Show yourself some kindnessand understanding when you are under pressure
- Take steps to manage your stress and enhance your wellbeing at work
- Try not to take things personally
- Make mindfulness meditation part of your daily routine to help refine your discernment, develop equanimity and keep things in proportion.
If you found this post helpful and would like to go further, try this online course
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