I am delighted to share this beautiful exploration of how we can use stories to investigate our new year goals, what we want to build on and the changes we want to make. Thank you Kate!
Although each moment represents and offers new beginnings, I do find the beginning of a new year especially exciting. It feels like the mother of new beginnings, a crisp fresh start, a blank page, even though in all practicality it is only one day sliding into another. I feel the same excitement about the beginning of a new year as I feel when receiving a new book; familiarity with the main outlines of the book and aware of my intention of purchasing it, but unknown of its content and implications for my way of understanding, seeing and relating to life.
Work and stories
Ken Wilber, an American writer and philosopher, calls himself a storyteller. In an audio program called Kosmic Consciousness with Tami Simon, he presents that a part of being human is reflecting on those things that arise around you. On the one hand we live our lives and on the other we make theories and maps about it, philosophise and reflect to make sense of our experiences. When you hook all these things together, you tell coherent stories.
So, we all have stories concerning work in various degrees. It could be that you are currently unemployed or haven’t yet stepped into work life, or that you find yourself in a job you dislike or one that you find fulfilling and meaningful. For quite a few of us work represents a blend of sometimes contradicting stories. It can both be meaningful and exhausting, giving and stressful.
I go about living my work life filled with meetings with clients, deadlines, project writing and working to reach the company’s objective and key goals, as well as create stories around my work experiences. Now and then I remember to pause and step back to take a bird’s-eye view of what I am up to, but rarely do I view work life with such a wide-angled lens as I do in the beginning of a New Year.
The written stories – the work year of 2019
Can you relate to the feeling that arises when you decide to disengage from your otherwise busy life and sit down to read a book? You actively make a conscious decision of doing something else, of pausing. The beginning of a new year is a little bit like that for me, but instead of sitting down with a book, I sit down and take a reflective look at my work biography of the past year. It is a great way for me to acknowledge all the time set aside for work in 2019, for remembering and for finding areas for future growth and development. I look back at moments of joy and accomplishments, moments of difficulties, struggles, sadness and hiccups, as well as all the people I have connected with in different ways.
Looking back at challenges experienced, challenges overcome and what factors supported me in overcoming them, gives me the opportunity to reflect upon areas I have felt growth and in what areas of my professional life I still feel stagnation. Noticed areas of difficulties, open wounds or standstills are particularly interesting for me to take a look at. Not always comfortable, but I often find that within the areas I most tend to procrastinate or overlook lies the hidden gold for development.
If you took a look back at your work biography of 2019, where would you find learning and growth? In what situations didn’t things go according to plan or you made mistakes. In what ways might that have affected you? Anything you are particularly thankful for having experienced at or through work the past year?
The unwritten stories – the work year of 2020
“Today is where your book begins…the rest is still unwritten”. These words come from one of my go to energetic, inspirational, feel good songs by Natasha Bedingfield. By taking a curious look at the work year that has been, I find an opportunity arises to identify what changes I would like to incorporate into the stories that are still unwritten for the new year. Often I have an idea or headlines for the upcoming book of 2020, but how work life in itself will actually develop…well that is a completely different story. I do find though that having some sort of an outline gives a sense of direction and movement. I create the outline by reflecting around what could be helpful for me to be more aware of in how I relate to myself, clients, or how I engage with my colleagues and boss. Also reflecting on what habitual ways established “often not the most helpful ones” would be beneficial for me to work with in 2020.
Letting the questions and reflections shed some intentional light on different areas of my work life without making hardwired goals that I end up measuring myself up against. For me bringing intentionality to my present and future work life creates movement and development in areas that I have experienced stagnation and seen unhealthy patterns. It feels like being both the author of a book as well as the main character, instead of just being the main character.
Are there any areas where you maybe experience stagnation or procrastination when it comes to work? Any wounds from 2019 that needs seeing to in 2020, and if so how can you best tend to them? Let’s say you were to be the author of your own 2020 work life book, how would you outline it? What new beginnings would you like to consciously bring to work for growth, further development and self-care for the year ahead of you?
The uncertain work stories…
The clients I am honoured to work with from day to day are those who for different reasons find themselves outside of work. It could be due to health issues, lack of education, redundancy and so on. No matter the reason for being currently unemployed I always ask my clients to take a good look at what activities have felt meaningful and given them energy in the past, and what particularly they have enjoyed through previous interests’, hobbies, studies and/or work. Holding the clients’ reflections about the past up against the backdrop of present values, interests and preferences, gives important clues for possible areas for work in the future. Finding oneself in between jobs or living an uncertain work story can be quite a challenge. It can also be an opportunity for a new beginning. What in your past can be of value for the future? What small step can be taken today to bring you closer to getting a job if that is what you aim for?
It can be both exhilarating and daunting to sit with a blank page before you. A new year filled with uncertainties, plans, hopes and aspirations. When the beginning of the new year 2021 is here, the work story of 2020 will have been written. To what degree you consciously take part in the story writing is up to you. The pen is there, the semi blank pages ready to go…have fun!
Kate Bredesen works as a job consultant and mindfulness instructor at iFokus Arbeidsinkludering AS in Norway. She is a former nurse and reflexologist, with MBSR teacher training from IMA. Kate has been teaching mindfulness since 2011. Through her daily work she teaches mindfulness to staff and clients and is passionate about supporting people in strengthening their connection to work, whether they are currently unemployed, on sick leave or find themselves partaking in demanding work life.
I admit to being not very good at following the rules. It’s always important to me to understand what the rule is for and if it is really necessary. So, when faced with an instruction, I usually come back with why? Or I have suggestions to offer as to how things can be done differently. It does not always make me very popular! Also, I can see how it can be challenging for someone trying to enforce the rules.
Ways of following the rules
Of course, we need to have all kinds of rules in order for society to function well. It just seems to me to be important how you decide to follow them. There are the kind of people who enjoy their authority. They seem to take pleasure in wielding the small amount of power that enforcing the rules gives them. They are generally not interested in explaining the rules, just in making you follow them. It can be tough to be at their mercy.
Then there are people who use empathy to help them administer the rules. These people try to see through your eyes and to understand where you might feel challenged. Conversation with people in this category can help you to understand the rules you are being asked to follow.
My recent experience of following the rules
A couple of months back I had a direct experience of both of these types of people in authority. My partner and I went through an extraordinary week of loss and bereavement. We lost two people very close to us through cancer. First, my partner’s brother passed away in Amsterdam. Then a week later a very dear old friend passed away in the South of France. We wanted to attend both funerals and spent an anxious week making arrangements to make it possible.
My brother-in-law was cremated on a Friday. Straight after the funeral my partner and I left for Schiphol airport to catch a plane to Girona. It was the quickest and most efficient way to get to Roqueronde, where the second funeral was going to be held on the Saturday afternoon.
Both of us were quite exhausted and emotionally frail with all the grief and worry we had been through, but we were very relieved to be able to attend both ceremonies.
Security at Schiphol Airport
I am always a bit uncomfortable going through airport security. There is always a slight feeling of waiting for something to go wrong and on this occasion it did—spectacularly.
We usually favour checking in our luggage when we fly. It’s good to minimise the hassle of security. This time we were taking carry-on luggage because we were in such a hurry. We completely forgot the 100ml maximum for toiletries. We had bought brand new tubes of the cream my partner needs for his skin and the gel I need for my rheumatism. Of course, they were all bigger than the allowed size.
Although we had our outsize tubes in the designated plastic bag, our case was still hauled off the conveyor belt. With her rubber-gloved hands the young woman dealing with us rummaged through everything. She was completely deaf to our explanations—which soon became entreaties—that we needed the creams, that they had never been opened and would cause no harm.
There was even an underlying feeling that she enjoyed the drama of taking about €60.00 worth of creams and throwing them all away.
Bus drivers at the long-term car park
In contrast the bus drivers at the independent long-term car park definitely came in the category of people following the rules with empathy. The arrangement is that you park your car in a protected area and then catch one of the buses that the firm have running between the car park and the terminals. When you return, there is a bus scheduled to collect you.
The driver on the way out was very friendly and helpful. He was happy to talk but kept quiet if you had little to say. He noticed my difficulties getting in and out of the bus because of my rheumatism and made sure he was on hand to offer an arm. I really got the impression that the boring routine of the job came alive for him through the people he met and helped. For him following the rules was simply a skilful means.
Our flight back was already and late evening flight and then it was delayed. We rang to warn the drivers but were still anxious that it was too late for them to wait. Imagine our relief to find the bus waiting patiently at is allocated place in a cold and rainy Schiphol. As I tried to run, he waved me down and shouted for me not to hurry. He tucked us up in the bus and drove us back to our car. We really felt we were home.
We don’t know what is going on for people
There is a quote that I like very much and often use in my workshops:
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
The quote is attributed to Ian Maclaren, as well as Philo, Plato and Socrates. I don’t know which of them actually said it, but it carries a deep wisdom. As we encounter people during our everyday activities, we really have very little idea of what is going on for them. The woman at security did not know we had just been to one funeral and were on our way to another.
The thing is, if we allow ourselves to take just a moment of reflection to consider how life is, we can see the truth of this quote. We all want our lives to go well and to be happy but so often things go wrong and the very things we want to avoid happen to us anyway. The very fact of being alive means that we can be in the middle of all kinds of worry, anxiety, and fear, as well as hope, inspiration and happiness. The point is that we do not know and therefore it could be a good idea to make sure our behaviour does not add to someone’ pain.
There can be many occasions when we are distracted, or overwhelmed and our wish to be kind gets pushed aside. Remembering that everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle could help to focus our attention.
When you own opinions about the type of person you are encountering overwhelm your ability to relate to them. Among others this can refer to sexual orientation, social class, race, nationality and work occupation.
We referred to this earlier when we discussed the kind of person for whom following the rules comes first.
If the problem you are dealing with is happening a long way away from you either in geographical distance, or emotional distance then it can be easy to disengage from it.
This happens when we dissolve any sense of responsibility for actions that are taking place.
In my experience the woman at the security desk bumped into all four of these barriers.
To put it simply, the main antidote to these barriers is humanising the other. Instead of taking distance we engage. We try to look at each human being as being just like us, with feelings and hopes and fears. Sweeping statements and broad generalisations are set aside. Instead we look at the particular circumstances and individual needs. There is curiosity to really know about people and things. We take time to pay attention.
My insight about following the rules
These barriers to empathy can be crude and obvious but they can also creep up on you in surprisingly subtle ways. When I look back on the thoughts and feelings that I had concerning the woman at security, it dawned on me that I too was bumping into the same barriers. In my distress, she became the ‘other’ for me. I was ready to fault her on the way she was doing her job without giving any thought to how she might feel as a person. Just seeing her at her post in her uniform made me feel uneasy. It built up from there. So, although I am of the opinion that staying kind while following the rules is very important, I would now add another point. When you are being subjected to the rules, you also need to keep your heart open towards the person making you follow them.
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.
Fortunately, I do not know anyone who sets out on their day intending to be not kind to anyone at all. It’s probably the same for you too. So why is it that in any ordinary day all sorts of unkind things happen?
Let’s look at our own behaviour at work. We could ask ourselves if in the rough and tumble of an average working day we find ourselves unintentionally being not kind. The thing is that individually each action may seem so small as to be insignificant. It can be the cumulative effect which is damaging.
Often it is because of habit, or insecurity, or pressure that we fall short in being kind. So, here is my list of six lazy ways it is easy to fall into being not kind. I call them ‘lazy’ because they are not necessarily intentional—in fact, usually they aren’t. They are largely due to not noticing what is going on with other people, or how your behaviour is affecting them.
1. Being pre-occupied can mean being not kind
When we are stressed, or really busy then it is all too easy to become turned in on ourselves. Our priorities take centre stage and our ability to see what is going on around us is reduced.
At work this can easily become a sense of self-importance. This can lead to the feeling that what you are doing is so vital that it takes precedence over everything else. It gives us permission to prioritise our own story and not pay so much attention to other peoples’.
It can creep up on you in quite a subtle way. From your point of view, you are simply trying to do a good job. There is no intention to let your kindness slip but that is what happens when you become too self-focused. You don’t give your full attention to the needs of people around you and you miss things.
2. Gossip can lead to unkindness
I would be willing to bet that you are not the workplace gossip at your job. They are usually pretty easy to spot and not so difficult to politely avoid. It’s much more difficult to manage your own reactions and emotions without unintentionally being not kind.
If you are in any kind of team-leader, management role everything you say has an enhanced significance for the rest of the team. When someone in your team is struggling then how you talk about them in the group is very important. You need to find a way to give them difficult feedback without damaging their confidence and their ability to learn. They will be listening to every word you say, and what others tell them you said with a sensitivity heightened by fear and anxiety.
Whatever your role is, there are always people at work who are less easy to get on with than others. It is these people that you need to take special care to talk to and talk about with great skill. Just one off the cuff comment made in irritation can cause tremendous harm.
How does your workplace handle feedback and constructive criticism? It’s another example of something that, when it is done well, can help a colleague move through challenges. However, if it is done without kindness then it can be an enormous blow.
Most of us have probably experienced receiving both kinds of feedback ourselves. One of my most useful work experiences was when a colleague—not a boss, or manager—asked to talk to me and set out to inform me of all my faults as she saw them. It was a devastating experience but when I recovered, I realised I had an excellent list of what not to do if you want to give someone helpful feedback. I still draw on that list to this day.
The main thing that I realised was you need to give the kind of feedback that would be helpful to you, yourself. That is the only feedback that people can really hear and respond to.
4. Blame will make you not kind
According to research, blaming mistakes on other people is socially contagious. Observing someone blaming their mistakes on other people can lead to you doing the same thing to protect your image. Such a cycle does not help anyone.
In a workplace where blame is part of the norm, staff are less likely to succeed, and much less likely to be creative. Anyone who is in the habit of blaming others misses out as well. You don’t get the chance to learn from your mistakes if you don’t take responsibility for them.
It seems that optimistic people blame less, and pessimistic people more—with the prize going to narcissists.
For most of us the time to watch out for lazily blaming someone else for a mistake is when we are tired, worried, or over-worked. It’s not that we want someone else to get into trouble—it’s just that we don’t want to have to deal with it ourselves.
It would seem that kindness and bullying are pretty far apart—how could someone interested in promoting kindness also engage in any kind of bullying activity?
Let’s take it down a notch—instead of bullying think of steamrollering, pressurising, over-persuading someone. When I think back to my years of managing an international non-profit, I am pretty sure that I used tactics like this. I was convinced that what I was doing was so important that people needed to get on board. Indeed, what I was doing was important, but I forgot to treat each person I dealt with as an individual, with their own strengths and weaknesses. I wanted everyone to go at my pace and it exhausted some people.
Does your enthusiasm and passion for your work ever translate as pressure for other people?
6. Not listening is not kind
Once again, we rarely simply ignore someone when they speak to us—especially at work—but we often listen in a distracted way. We’re busy, the speaker is taking too long to make their point, and so our attention wanders. The thing is that we feel it when someone is not giving us their full attention and it’s unsettling. Our ability to communicate is reduced.
When we don’t listen with full attention then we don’t hear all the levels that are being communicated and we don’t pick up on the accompanying body language, or emotional signs. That’s where the unkindness can come in. We miss stuff—someone’s concern, or even distress—and the person feels overlooked. Maybe it is simply information that we don’t completely process, which leads to mistakes further down the road.
It’s not only distraction which blocks our listening, it can be our opinions and prejudices as well. If we think differently to the speaker, we tend to listen through a critical web which filters out the points we just want to refute. It’s even worse if we don’t like the person who is talking to us because then we listen through a whole range of remembered slights and disagreements.
Wanting to fix what the person is telling you can also get in the way of listening deeply to what they are saying. We are so busy thinking of the response we want to make to put them right that we don’t listen fully to what we are being told.
Something to remember
None of us is perfect and there will be days at work where our kindness might be less than others but watching out for these six lazy ways we can be not kind can become a good reminder. For me, the underlying basic principle is to try and put myself in the shoes of the other person, or people. An easy way to do this is to ask how you yourself would feel if you were being treated in any of these six ways. Think how it feels to be the subject of gossip, or to receive withering criticism. No-one wants to be pressured to behave in a certain way and no-one enjoys being blamed—especially when the blame is unfair. We are all busy and trying our best and we all like to be listened to with kindness. Remembering this is a basic key to avoiding being not kind.
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 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.
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
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