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Five strategies for avoiding conflict – and why you should ditch them all

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘conflict’? I think for a lot of us, conflict conjures IMG_2549up a particularly bad Eastenders’ Christmas – raised voices, harsh words, fists flying, someone trying to calm things down by saying “Leave it Barry, he ain’t worth it”. In fact, many of us are so afraid of this kind of conflict that we are masters at staying away from it altogether. Brits are renowned for not really saying what we mean. Just think how many layers of meaning we can get into the word ‘fine’ – “No really, I’m fine”; “Fine, we’ll do it your way”.

I’m not saying there is never outward aggression at work, but in my experience, eye-rolling, tutting, awkward silences and desperate attempts to get back to a veneer of niceness are much more common.

Does it matter?

You may see it as an excellent British trait. Avoiding unpleasantness is a worthy goal, surely? If all you’re trying to do is avoid a row about politics with your uncle over Sunday lunch, then yes, you may be right. But if you’re trying to run an organisation with other people, then no. Avoiding conflict is a problem. Important issues get quietly ignored. Differences aren’t aired; resentments fester. And if you never really discuss the difficult stuff then you can’t make the right decisions for your business.

I’m not suggesting you should be aiming for a culture of hostile aggression. There are constructive ways of handling difficult issues. But a culture of conflict avoidance can be just as damaging as open warfare – it just feels more comfortable. So with that in mind, here are five common conflict avoidance strategies that you might want to stop using:

1. Too much harmony

Maybe you’re really, really lucky. You work with a group of like-minded people, you get along, you have fun, you all want what’s best for the business. You don’t have any conflict. What could possibly be wrong with that? Sounds idyllic. Well the chances of a group of people taking important business decisions and agreeing with each other over everything, every time are vanishingly small. So either you’re a bunch of clones, hired because you have the same mindset (or, in a family business, you share the same genes) or you’re all deferring to the group. Or both. You may not even know you’re doing it. Often it’s not a case of holding back your opinion, so much as not forming an opinion until you hear what everyone else has to say. If everyone’s doing that, you could end up with a lovely harmonious group, with a massive blind spot, blithely making terrible decisions. Like the harmonious group who designed the Challenger space shuttle which blew up just after take-off.

2. Vagueness

“We want to grow the business” is a statement you’re unlikely to fall out over. The clearer you get about what that actually means and what your options are, the more scope there is to disagree. Some teams seem to deliberately keep things vague to avoid getting into difficult territory. Others achieve the same aim accidentally by talking around things but not getting clarity on what’s been agreed. You end up all walking out of a meeting with a different understanding of what happens next and it may be months before you realise this. Getting into a habit of agreeing what you are – and, just as importantly, what you aren’t – going to do next is a good discipline. Don’t leave it to the last five minutes of a meeting, unless you want a very rushed and bewildered exchange of “But I thought….” and “That’s not really what I meant..”.

3. Keeping control of the meeting

If you chair a meeting, you may think your role is to keep control of it – stick to the agenda, make sure it doesn’t go off topic, make sure you keep to time, ensure no one dominates, etc. Yes you need to do these things. But keeping control is not an end in itself. Surely the aim is to have the most productive meeting you can have? It’s possible to have a perfectly controlled meeting that covers every agenda item and is a complete waste of time.

Imagine the scene: John’s had his arms crossed for the last half hour; Jane’s said nothing since her pet agenda item was covered and Graham rolls his eyes every time Emma speaks. The ‘agreement’ to each action point (though perhaps voiced in business-speak) ranges from a resigned “Yeah whatever” to a resentful “Fine. Have it your own way”. This is not a team raring to get out there and implement all the stuff they’ve just agreed. Don’t be surprised if next month there’s little progress.

There seems to be something about formal agendas that stifles creative discussion. I understand that they’re sometimes necessary but try not to become over-reliant on them. Surely the question should be “What do we want to get out of this meeting?” not “What is the list of stuff to discuss?”.

4. Pretending we don’t have feelings

Work is a very emotional place. We feel excited by opportunities, proud of our achievements, anxious about under-performing, hurt if our suggestions are discounted, angry at perceived injustice and so on. And yet, we often pretend that emotions aren’t, or shouldn’t, be there. So a discussion gets a bit heated and someone says “Now, now, let’s calm down and keep this professional”.

It takes courage to address the emotion in the room but it often diffuses it more effectively than ignoring it would, as it acknowledges how people seem to be feeling. Try:

  • “You seem quite passionate about this. What makes you feel so strongly about it?” with someone who’s clearly getting het up
  • “You don’t seem happy with the way the discussion is going. Tell us what’s going on for you.” with someone who’s quietly seething.

This is not to absolve individuals of responsibility for managing their emotions appropriately at work. But pretending those feelings don’t exist does no one any favours.

5. Tiptoeing around the fragile one

If you work for a tyrant, you know how to avoid conflict. You don’t say anything contentious for fear of incurring their wrath. And then, if you’ve got any sense, you look for another job. Christmas party 3

But just as tyrannical is the person who silences dissent by being too sensitive, too fragile to handle conflict. They may not know they’re doing it; they may be too wrapped up in their own uncomfortable emotions. But if they get upset every time someone disagrees with them or holds them to account, then eventually people stop doing it. The whole team dynamic can revolve around not upsetting them, which stifles debate. This is one of those situations where acknowledging and addressing the underlying emotions is really important (and, if I’m honest, where professional help may be needed).

More constructive ways of handling conflict require trust and emotional maturity. If you’re struggling with these issues in your team, I’d be happy to have a chat: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk.

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Angry woman: kalavinka

Upset woman: Andrew Teman

Can I trust you? Well it depends…..

Trust you to do what exactly?

I’ve been thinking a lot about trust lately, partly because I’ve been working with teams. managerTrust is the bedrock of team work, but the more I talk and read about it, the more I realise that we’re not always talking about the same thing. It’s not as straightforward as ‘I trust you or I don’t’. It’s not even about trusting some people more than others. What people rarely seem to discuss is what it is that we might trust people to do or not do.

Fundamentally, trust seems to boil down to the question, ‘In my interactions with you, will I suffer any adverse outcome?’. But these adverse outcomes vary not just in severity but also in nature. ‘You let me down by not delivering on time’ is a very different form of breach of trust from ‘You lied to me’. It’s not that one is worse than the other – you could have a trivial lie and a serious issue with late delivery or vice versa, but they seem to me to be quite different experiences. So with that in mind, I’ve identified five aspects of human interaction where questions of trust arise.

1. Intention – Will you do me any harm?

At the most basic, this is about threats to our safety and security – is it safe to walk down a dark alley with you? Are you trying to steal my valuables? Thankfully, most of us don’t face these kind of threats at work. But we do face threats to our emotional well-being and social standing. Will you laugh at my ideas? Will you shout at me if I own up to a mistake? Will you tell me I’m stupid if I admit I don’t understand something? Do you roll your eyes if I disagree with you?

2. Integrity – Are you who you say you are? 

While we don’t like or trust those who may harm us, at least we know to avoid them if we can. Far more damaging are people who appear to be on our side, but aren’t. At the extreme, there can surely be no greater betrayal than discovering that your partner and fellow environmental activist, with whom you’ve shared not just a cause, but your life, is actually an undercover police officer sent to spy on you. In the workplace, it’s the snakes in suits, the smooth-talking political operators who gain people’s trust, then abuse it and lose it. I share my ideas with you and you pass them off as your own. You support a decision in a meeting and then undermine it afterwards. You talk publicly about the importance of work-life balance and then quietly label those who go home on time as ‘not career-focused’.

3. Reliability – Can I rely on you to do what you say?

If you say you’ll do something, will you do it? Do you show up on time? Do you hit your deadlines? Do some things slide off your to-do list never to be mentioned again? Do you keep people informed if you’re not going to be able to deliver? Do you forget stuff?

4. Competence – Will you do it properly?

This one comes up a lot when delegating, but can also be an issue between peers. Do you know what you’re doing? Do you understand the situation properly? Have you got the right skills? Are you sloppy about standards? Do you know how to use an apostrophe correctly?

5. Commitment – Are you as committed to this as I am?

Are we in this together? Will you bail out if the going gets tough and leave me to deal with the mess? Do you have split loyalties? If you belong to more than one team, which one has your primary allegiance if push comes to shove? In many senior management teams, people actually feel closer to the teams they lead, with whom they spend far more time, than to their peers, which can undermine the cohesiveness of the SMT.

In the eye of the beholder 

Of course, all these questions are from the perspective of the person giving – or not giving – their trust. But people vary enormously in their capacity to trust, regardless of what the other person does or doesn’t do. Some people approach the world open and unguarded, assuming most people are well-intentioned, until proven otherwise. Others are more sceptical, or even cynical, believing trust has to be earned. For an unlucky few, who’ve been through real trauma, especially in childhood, the world is such an unsafe place that they trust no one, are hyper-vigilant and approach all interactions in a very guarded way.

These different orientations towards trust play out in different ways in teams. Those who are fundamentally trusting are often pretty tolerant of people’s human foibles and failings. They might be annoyed if you don’t deliver on time or hurt by an angry outburst but the damage can usually be repaired. If you break their trust by being deceitful, however, they may be very hurt and feel doubly betrayed. They trusted you and that was a gift you abused. That damage may be very hard to repair without sincere remorse and efforts to make amends on the part of the trust breaker.

People who don’t trust easily, on the other hand, may feel angry if you’re deceitful but they didn’t expect any better so it doesn’t fundamentally change their perspective – ‘see, I told you you can’t trust anyone’. They’ll still deal with you, as warily as they ever did. Where their lack of trust plays out in teams is in misreading the intentions of basically decent colleagues, seeing ill-intent where there is none. From time to time we all inadvertently say and do things which hurt others. We also all have a tendency to put our own failings or poor behaviour down to circumstance but others’ behaviour down to character traits. So if a conversation gets heated and I lose my temper, I was under a lot of pressure and was provoked. If you do it, you’re a domineering bully. We all do this, but the tendency is probably more pronounced in mistrustful people. They may see hidden agendas and organisational politics which aren’t really there (I’m not suggesting they’re never there). Imaginative, mistrustful people make fantastic conspiracy theorists!

Self-fulfilling prophecy

Sadly, the research suggests that expecting social rejection can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you go into situations expecting that people won’t like you, your defensive behaviour means you’ll probably be right. It’s one of the reasons that lonely people tend to become more socially-isolated. Anxiety seems to play a part – anxious people have hair-trigger sensitivity to others’ facial expressions and jump to conclusions about how people are reacting to them.

What does this mean for teams?

If you’re the trusting type, you may need to be more considered and careful in some of your behaviour as your less trusting colleagues may be less forgiving of your human weaknesses than you are of theirs. You may also need to be alert to the fact that not everyone is as well-intentioned as you. Some people really are manipulative game players. Unfortunately, you may need to get them off your team in order to have a really high performing, cohesive unit.

If you’re a less trusting type, you may need to see if you can open up to others a little more and cut them a bit of slack. The better you get to know people, the more likely you are to relax around them and see that, even when they let you down, it was probably more cock-up than conspiracy.

If your team is grappling with issues of trust and you’d like a chat, do get in touch:  caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk.

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What he needs is a damn good listening to….

How good a listener are you? listeningI was reminded of the importance of good listening recently while attending a talk by a coach who brings real focus and attention to her coaching. Her clients really do get a damn good listening to. I like to think that mine do too, but it made me reflect on the times when perhaps I don’t listen as well as I could. I think most of us could benefit from improving our listening skills, so with that in mind, here are seven scenarios to watch out for, when you really might not listen as well as you think you do.

1. When you already know what they’re going to say

Your partner is about to off on a familiar rant about their useless boss or your colleague is banging on about the IT system again and you’ve already tuned out. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, though it might if they realise. But maybe there’s something else going on. Maybe having a rant is their way of saying “I’m really stressed out”. In any case, zoning out and surreptitiously checking your phone does not make for a meaningful conversation.

2. When they’re in the wrong

A coaching client of mine, Sally, was trying to work out how to handle a member of her senior team, Dave, who was not behaving well in meetings. If things weren’t going his way, Dave had a tendency to sulk, rolling his eyes and huffing but not speaking up. The team was under pressure, Dave’s behaviour was getting worse and Sally was losing patience. She was tempted to read him the riot act, but instead she asked how things were going for him and really listened to what he had to say. Yes, Dave was still in the wrong, but there was more space for a proper, grown-up conversation about his behaviour and the impact it was having on the rest of the team.

3. When you’re waiting for your turn

Imagine you’re at a networking event and some woman is going on about how business psychology could stop you or your clients making a catastrophic hiring error*. Christmas party BobAre you listening or are you looking for a gap to start talking about your IT services/ insurance products/ tax consultancy or whatever? And as the speaker, are you listening to the responses you get back to gauge whether people are interested or are you just in broadcast mode? If your part of the conversation could be replaced by a pre-recording which is switched on and off at the appropriate moments (and some people’s really could be), you’re not listening properly.

*Apologies if you feel you have been on the receiving end of such a broadcast.

4. When you know the answer

Suppose someone comes to you with a problem and really quickly you can see exactly what they should do. You’re a helpful person, you want to give them the answer. Even if you manage to resist cutting in and telling them there and then, you probably stop listening once you’ve worked it out. There are a number of problems with this. They may not want a solution, just a sounding board or a bit of moral support while they figure it out for themselves. executivesIf you do this as a manager, you’ve just deprived someone of a learning opportunity. And, of course, your solution may not be appropriate for them. It may not even be right. The earlier in the conversation you stop listening, the more likely it is that you’ll jump to conclusions or miss nuances in the situation which make your idea less relevant.

5. When you want to prove yourself

As a coach, I can generally avoid giving someone the answer, but there’s another trap that I know I’m prone to falling into – the ‘let me prove my worth’ trap. Sometimes it doesn’t feel enough to just listen and ask a few prompting questions. Surely my role is to show just how well I’ve understood what’s going on, cleverly interpret it with the help of some psychological theory and present it back to you wrapped up with a big bow, so now you understand it better too. That’s what you’re getting for the fee, right? It’s not that there isn’t a place for this but it can get in the way of just listening. And if you start forming your interpretation too early, there’s a risk of screening out anything that doesn’t fit.

6. When you don’t like the message

If you realise early on in a conversation that you are on different sides of an argument or someone is trying to tell you something, perhaps about your performance, that you really don’t want to hear, the tendency is to stop listening and prepare your rebuttal.Man talking intensely If you do listen, you may listen for the weak points in their argument, the flimsy evidence, the points where they contradict themselves, anything to bolster your case. If you’re a barrister in the middle of a trial, fair enough, that’s your job. If not, and you find yourself listening like Rumpole of the Bailey, it may be worth asking yourself why it’s so important to win this argument. What are you trying to prove? Are you interested in what the other person has to say? What do you want to achieve? Is this the best way of going about it?

7. When you don’t like the messenger

Sadly there are some people we rarely listen to at all. Think of the stereotypical reader of your least favourite newspaper and consider how likely you are to take note of their views on anything. I recently heard a fascinating interview with Bob Inglis, a Bible-belt conservative US politician, who changed his mind about climate change and lost his seat as a result. He acknowledged that all he knew about it previously was that it was Al Gore’s issue, a liberal cause, so naturally, reflexively, he was on the other side. His son convinced him to look at the science and he has since become a leading campaigner on the issue. But he’s still a traditional conservative, taking this message to other conservatives. They’re more likely to listen to him than to a bunch of tree-huggers, because he speaks their language. It almost certainly works the other way round, too. There will be things which liberal-minded people don’t hear because they are written in Daily Express-speak.

Listening to really understand someone else’s perspective is rarer than we realise and is something most of us would benefit from cultivating. I can’t claim to be the perfect listener, though I constantly challenge myself to do better, but if you fancy a chat about any of this, I’ll be all ears:  caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk.

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Listening:  tv27

Networking : Rob Campbell

Explaining – Innovate 360

Arguing – Baltic Development Forum

 

Never discuss religion or politics

“Never discuss religion or politics”. This sage advice has been around for at least a century. But in these days of Brexit and Trump, politics seems harder and harder to avoid and religion has got wrapped up in it in a way it hasn’t been – or at least not in the UK – for decades. So what happens when people’s strongly held views on these subjects spill over into work? This month, I’ve teamed up with employment law barrister, Joanne Sefton of Menzies Law, to look at both the psychological and the legal aspects of politics and religion at work.

1. What is acceptable debate?

What the psychology says….

Imagine that you and a colleague disagree about whether to take a high risk business opportunity. There is goodwill between you and you both know that you have the best interests of the organisation at heart. Even if you don’t always manage it, you’ll probably try to have an open and good-natured discussion, aiming to understand each other’s perspective.Scolding

Now imagine you disagree about Brexit or immigration or any issue on which you hold strong views which reflect your values. The chances of you having a discussion like the one above are slim. We discuss difficult issues; we debate difficult politics. Even when things stay civilised, people generally aim to prove they’re right and the other side is wrong. What the psychology tells is us that the worst possible way to get someone to change their perspective is to tell them how wrong they are.

You may not even be trying to change each other’s minds. It’s not as though you have a joint decision to make. Maybe you just see it as banter, like you might have over rival football teams. But when you insult each other’s teams, you’re actually reinforcing your shared love of the game. When you banter about politics, you emphasise your differences. Once you start calling each other “liberal elite snowflakes” and “racist little Englanders”, you erode your working relationship.

What the law says…..

In legal terms, it’s important to make a distinction between debate which somehow involves ‘protected characteristics’ and that which doesn’t. Whilst rancour over a range of things from support for rival football teams to poor personal hygiene can cause real problems in a workplace, they rarely lend themselves to legal claims. The ‘protected characteristics’ recognised in law are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, sex, sexual orientation and – crucially in this context – religion and belief.

But what sort of ‘religion or belief’ will be protected? More esoteric examples include Wiccan witchcraft, climate change, veganism, the ‘higher purpose’ of public service broadcasting and belief in the sanctity of animal life (in the context of strong opposition to fox-hunting). All of these have either been judged to come within the scope of the regulations or used as examples in official guidance documents.

Of course, the fact that a discussion touches on a protected characteristic does not mean it is automatically discriminatory or unlawful. The fine line between a genuine exchange of views and the sort of critical interrogation which might amount to harassment is hard to draw in the abstract. That said, most of us would probably recognise it when we see it, and Employment Tribunal panels are actually pretty good at policing it.

2. What if you split into two sides?

Whether it’s a political issue like Brexit or a more tangible difference, such racial or religious divisions, it can feel very uncomfortable if your workplace starts to split into factions.

What the psychology says….

It’s not the fact that there’s difference that matters. Diversity of opinion and experience is generally good for organisations. Felix Spender, a soldier turned professional peacekeeper, has a 7-stage model of conflict, conflict-matrix_20170225which suggests that a little bit of conflict can be useful for stimulating ideas, competition and creativity. One key way to stop things escalating from constructive conflict to a cold war and beyond is to stop over-identifying with your side.

The stronger the loyalty to your in-group, the more alien the other lot become. And yet, inevitably, you will have things in common – a shared love of chess, rugby or Strictly Come Dancing; even a shared frustration with the IT system is start. You have to work with these people regardless. You can either see them as one-dimensional – “I can’t have anything in common with him; he reads the Daily Mail/Guardian/Sun” (delete according to prejudice) – or you can look for something, anything, which establishes a human connection.

What the law says…..

Employers have a broad right to impose disciplinary rules in their workplace and to expect instructions to be followed. Therefore, employers may choose to limit discussion more than the general law does, particularly in the run up to a tense event, such as the 2014 Scottish independence referendum or the Brexit referendum last June. Provided those rules don’t infringe general legal principles (for example, it would be discriminatory to try to silence only one side of the debate) employers are entitled to take disciplinary action against those who breach them. Of course, the more wide-ranging the proposed ‘ban’ is, the harder it is to actually enforce.

3. What if there’s just one person on the other side?

If you’re the only UKIP-voter in an office full of right-on hipsters or vice versa, you probably either have a lot of arguments or keep very quiet.

What the psychology says….

You may have a strong desire to stand up for what you believe in, particularly if it’s based on your religious beliefs or if you’re a liberal. ostracisedLiberals often feel that saying nothing in the face of sexist, racist or homophobic remarks makes them complicit. As a bleeding heart liberal, I completely get this. But, big but, I guarantee that the main outcome from a response such as “I find that offensive. It’s sexist/ racist/homophobic” will be to reinforce the difference – and the distance – between you. That may be exactly what you want, but you still have to work with these people. And if you want to change attitudes, it’s more likely to happen if people can identify with you. Turn yourself into an ‘out group’ and they’ll become more entrenched in their own in group. Eventually you may be ostracised and the psychology tells us that ostracism is even more damaging to people than bullying.

What the law says…..

‘Odd one out’ cases are perhaps even more likely to give rise to claims of bullying and harassment than ‘faction’ cases. In this blog from 2015 I drew a comparison between a woman who brought a case in 1975 after she was dismissed for sharing her views on the ‘permissive society’ with her more strait-laced colleagues and a current case involving Christian nursery worker dismissed (unfairly) for sharing her views on the sinfulness of homosexuality. In the first case, it was the ‘loose morals’ of the young employee which set her apart from her colleagues, forty years later it was the old-fashioned conservatism which was out of kilter with the prevailing mood in the workplace, but in each case the ‘odd one out’ paid with her job for having made her controversial views known.

It is rare, however, for conflicts to become disruptive enough for an employer to feel they have no choice but to dismiss. More commonly, the ‘odd one out’ becomes a victim of bullying (or perceived bullying). Although ‘bullying’ itself is not a term with legal meaning, the danger for an employer is that an employee who is singled out may have a discrimination claim for which the employer will most likely be liable. In addition, if the employee leaves as a result of bullying treatment then they could have a potentially valuable constructive unfair dismissal claim, even if the central issue is something which does not amount to a protected belief.

4. What if you all agree?

Suppose that everyone in your hipster design agency voted Remain and hates Trump. There’s no problem then about discussing the latest Trump-outrage or UKIP gaffe round the water cooler, surely?

What the psychology says….

Whilst it’s very bonding for a group to keep reinforcing their shared values, it can lead to group-thinkremainers. As Felix’s model suggests, without any kind of difference, it’s easy for complacency to set in. If you exist in a bubble, it can be difficult to consider alternative perspectives or even to recognise that they exist. Pre-referendum, a lot of online commentary from leavers suggested that opinion polls must be skewed because every single person they had spoken to was voting out. On the other side, I notice that the kind of liberals who live by the mantra ‘Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes’ seem reluctant to try on the sensible footwear of a Daily Express-reader. If you all think the same way and listen to no other perspectives, how can you be sure that you understand the views and needs of your customers, suppliers or service users?

What the law says…..

Whilst there is nothing against the law about everyone getting on, the problems that Caroline mentions can, when taken to extremes, lead to legal issues. Organisations which are perceived to be ‘closed’ – whether in terms of race, religion or social outlook can sometimes be targeted by applicants seeking a platform to make a claim, either for monetary gain, or to pursue their own agenda.

The other problem with a monolithic group culture is that it can lead to increasingly extreme comments being tolerated (inevitably in the name of ‘banter’). When looked at in the cold light of an Employment Tribunal that round-robin email saying describing all Trump voters in vitriolic and ‘colourful’ terms could become a serious embarrassment.

If you’ve found the employment law aspect of this blog interesting, you can find more of Joanne’s blogs here and be able to register to receive them.

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Scolding: Doug Tammany

Ostracised: Astrid Westvang 

Remainers: mazz_5

 

“I’m so stupid” – dealing with self-criticism

How strong is your inner critic? Most of us have a critical voice in our heads at some point but for some people it’s relentless and often vicious. IMG_2549People who would never dream of calling someone else a completely useless idiot are often all too willing to apply the label to themselves.

I’m not suggesting that self-criticism has no function: a person who has no capacity for self-reflection can’t learn from their mistakes as they don’t think they’ve made any. Self-criticism has its place if it’s tempered with self-compassion. But if you’re a bit too good at the criticism bit but don’t manage to be kind to yourself, here are four strategies for handling your inner critic:

1. Stick to the specifics

A particularly nasty tendency of the inner critic is to generalise from one bad incident to your entire character. Let’s suppose a presentation goes badly. Instead of focusing on what went wrong, the inner critic gives it to you with both barrels until you conclude that you are stupid, sniveling idiot with no interpersonal skills who doesn’t deserve to ever be seen in polite company again.

The first thing to check is whether it really was as bad as you think. Inner critics can have very exacting standards. I still wince slightly at the memory of noticing too late that I’d written “the juries out” instead of “the jury’s out” in a widely-circulated document. In 1996. Maybe, actually, no one noticed that you skipped a slide. Or perhaps they were tolerant and understanding of your nervous hesitation. If so, give yourself a break, learn from it, move on.

But suppose it really was a disaster. Maybe you were rambling and incoherent and half the audience walked out. Then you got flustered, dried up and ran out of the room crying.puzzled-little-boy In that case, it probably was as bad you think. But that makes you a person who gave a bad presentation, not a completely useless idiot. It’s painful, but the evidence suggests that you will feel better if you focus on the specifics – what did you say, what was your tone of voice, what happened next and so on. Salvage any good bits (maybe the material was great, maybe you started well) and work out how you could have handled the situation differently when it started to go downhill.

I recognise, however, that this might not always be enough. Your self-criticism may not even be linked to a particular incident, you just have this feeling that you’re worthless, stupid, unpopular or whatever. This is where the next three strategies come in.

2. Distance yourself from it

Suppose you keep thinking to yourself “I’m so stupid”. All that is is a thought. It exists only as a thought. So progressively distance yourself from it by following a sequence such as:

  • I’m so stupid
  • I think I’m so stupid
  • I’m having the thought that I’m so stupid
  • I notice I’m having the thought that I’m so stupid

Eventually the thought loses some of its power. There is a ‘you’ observing this thought that is somehow separate from the ‘you’ that is doing the criticising or the ‘you’ that is being criticised.

3. Play with it 

If you accept that your self-criticism is a thought that has too much of a grip on you, then try playing around with it until you take it less seriously. Say it in different voices – Minnie Mouse vs Brian Blessed, for example. Morgan Falkner sang Slow it right down until you can barely make out the words. Repeat the word or phrase quickly, over and over again, until it stops meaning anything and just becomes a sound. Put it to music, preferably something upbeat. The phrase “I’m so stupid”, incidentally, fits absolutely perfectly to the tune of “I feel pretty” from West Side Story, a song so optimistic you’ll almost certainly feel better, no matter what words you sing. The aim here is to take some of the sting out of it by laughing in spite of yourself, not at yourself.

4. Question it

If you read my blog a few months ago about the surprising dangers of positive thinking, you’ll know not to waste your time trying to counteract your inner critic with positive affirmations, such as “I believe in my own intelligence” or “I am a very smart person”. They’re actually likely to make you feel worse.  Part of the reason is that they address the issue in a binary way – you’re either stupid or not stupid, unlovable or lovable, unpopular or popular and so on. This kind of sweeping generalisation isn’t helpful.

Research suggests that turning statements into questions is much more powerful and effective way of working with self-criticism. So instead of “I’m stupid”, turn it into “Am I stupid?”. Then broaden the questions out – “How am I stupid?”, “When am I not stupid?”, “What do I mean by stupid?”, “How could I feel less stupid?” and so on. Mull over the answers and see where your curiosity and creativity take you. It’s bound to be more productive than an inner tussle of “I’m stupid/no I’m not”.

If you’d like some support handling self-criticism or other issues that are holding you back at work, do get in touch:  caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk.

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Angry woman: kalavinka

Worried little boy: Lotus Carroll

Woman singing:  Penn State

Not so bad after all? Rethinking negative thinking

Last month I wrote about the surprising downsides of positive thinking. This month I want to flip that around and consider four reasons we might want to change our perspective on negative thinking.

1. You’re going to do it anyway

Cast your mind back to the last time you were worried about something. If someone had told you to stop worrying (and maybe someone did) would you have ceased immediately? I doubt it.  polar-bearWe don’t have that much conscious control over our thoughts. Just as a little experiment, try not thinking about a polar bear for a minute. A big, white, majestic polar bear. Don’t think about it. Not that easy, is it? We can’t just will our thoughts away.

2. Negative thoughts can be helpful

Positivity and optimism are lovely qualities and often a joy to be around. But they’re not always that helpful. I recently heard a radio interview with a man who’d spent his career as a safety supervisor on North Sea oil rigs. An extremely dour Scotsman, he probably wasn’t a wow at parties. But if I was going to an oil rig, I’d be reassured to know that its – and my – safety had been entrusted to someone who constantly thinks “what else could go wrong?”.  This is known as ‘defensive pessimism‘ and it can be a useful strategy. If I’m ever unlucky enough to need brain surgery, I’d hope for a pessimistic neurosurgeon, as they’re apparently the most successful. And the best psychotherapists combine a mix of self-doubt and self-compassion – in other words, they worry about whether they’ve been doing the best they can but don’t beat themselves up if they decide that they haven’t.

3. Too much harmony is dangerous

If you picture a well-functioning team, you probably imagine a group of people focused on a common goal, working harmoniously, all pulling in the same direction. This sounds great but it has its downsides. If you’re over about 40 you may recall the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster, when the spacecraft catastrophically broke apart just after take-off. TeamEngineers will tell you that the cause was the failure of an O-ring seal. Psychologists will tell you that the cause was the team dynamics. This was a good, cohesive team, all highly motivated to (literally) get the project off the ground. Concerns about the O-ring were well known but no one mentioned them. Nobody wanted to be the one who derailed the project and, if none of their colleagues had said anything, well then maybe it wasn’t that serious anyway.

To counter this, some teams working on high stakes projects hold a ‘pre-mortum’, where instead of working out what went wrong once it’s too late, they try to flush out potential problems while there is a chance to do something about them. The fact that it’s all hypothetical seems to give people permission to voice issues they might otherwise keep quiet about.

4. Negative thoughts and feelings are telling you something

It’s not generally comfortable to experience so-called negative emotions like anger, fear or shame but they serve a purpose. They tell you something about what is going on in your world. Anger tells you that something is definitely not the way you think it should be; fear that you may be at risk and shame that you may have violated the norms of society. Often these emotions are entirely appropriate. Without anger, we might still have a slave trade and women wouldn’t get to vote. I rather hope that Mike Ashley feels enough shame about running Sports Direct like a Victorian workhouse to make amends, though I’m not holding my breath.

Sometimes, of course, these emotions are out of proportion. If you are triggered to murderous rage because someone cuts you up at a roundabout or got served before you at the bar, then clearly that emotion is not a reliable guide as to how to respond to the world. But it is telling you something; it is data.  If you have enough self-awareness to stop yourself acting out your anger, then, rather than trying to suppress it – “I shouldn’t get this angry” – it can be worth looking at what it’s telling you about your inner world. What is triggering this level of reaction? What does it mean for you if people don’t behave exactly as you think they should? What are you making it mean about you? The same kind of exploration is useful with other disproportionate responses, such as feeling fear, anxiety or embarrassment in situations which do not really warrant them.

Of course, the granddaddy of negative thinking is self-criticism and that’s a big enough topic that I’m going to save it for next time. In the meantime, I hope that the negative thoughts that will inevitably pop into your mind over Christmas – “Will these visitors ever go home?”; “I don’t think he really liked that present I chose so carefully”; “I’m bored now”; “Oh no, someone’s mentioned Brexit in front of Uncle Bob” – are far outweighed by positive ones.

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Polar bear:  Maia C

Team: Creative Sustainability

Positive thinking – a quick route to failure?

Positive thinking – it’s a good thing, right? Whether we’re talking about a traditional British “Chin up old chap, look on the bright side” or a 21st century, social media motivational quote – “Find a place inside yourself where nothing is impossible” – it’s all, well, positive, isn’t it? Well, actually, no; it turns out isn’t. Here are three examples of positive thinking that could, in fact, be counter-productive:

1. Believe in yourself – you can be anything you want to be

No. You can’t. You can certainly aspire to be anything you want and you can give it a damn good go. But that doesn’t guarantee you’ll make it. © Copyright 2012 CorbisCorporationWith enough practice, I might learn to sing and dance but I’m under no illusion that I’d ever have what it takes to star in a West End musical. That’s not because I don’t believe in myself enough. It’s because I’ve got a realistic assessment of my ability.

Most of the kids who aspire to play sport for their country or be an astronaut or become Prime Minister won’t make it, no matter how much they believe in themselves or how hard they try. Hard work and dedication are important but they’re not enough if you don’t have the talent. Luck also plays a part – you may not get to be Prime Minister if your party is out of power for a decade, for example. And let’s not pretend that you and your aspirations exist in isolation from the rest of society with its in-built advantages and conscious and unconscious biases. Pity the poor kid who dreams of being an urban rapper but is burdened by going to Eton.

Aspiration is a great thing. I wish I’d had more of it in my lower middle class, know-your-place, get-a-safe-job childhood. But what kind of disappointment are we setting people – especially children – up for, if we encourage them to believe they can achieve anything, rather than they can aim to achieve anything.

2. You are a remarkable human being

Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but you probably aren’t. By definition, most of us are average at most things, we just don’t like to accept it. One study of American drivers, for example, found that 93% of them thought they were in the top 50% of drivers, which, even if your numeracy is below average, you’ve probably realised is a statistical impossibility. Even if you’re brilliant at some things, you’ll be average at lots of others. Usain Bolt may be the fastest man in the world, but I’d be fairly confident taking him on at Scrabble.

That’s not really the problem here, though.Man in mirror No, the problem is that people turn to statements like these when they need to boost their self-esteem. Self-help gurus often suggest positive affirmations to develop confidence. But if you’ve resorted to standing in front of a mirror saying “I am a remarkable person” it’s because you don’t actually believe it. Some inner voice is likely to pipe up and contradict your affirmation – “No I’m not. I work in call centre in Swindon and play badminton at the weekend”. The evidence suggests that positive affirmations make people with low self-esteem feel worse, not better.

3. Visualise your goals

So let’s be clear, I’m not talking about the kind of ‘visualise it and the universe will provide’, cosmic re-ordering espoused by Noel Edmonds because I find that hard to take seriously. If only the people of Aleppo focused just a bit harder, eh Noel?

No, I mean the slightly less New Age idea of visualising your goals to psyche yourself up to achieve them – visualising where your business will be in a year,woman-winning imagining yourself giving a fantastic presentation, getting a really clear picture of hitting the perfect shot at that tricky 9th hole. Some of this is useful. It helps to be clear what you’re aiming for; you’re more likely to spot opportunities which are aligned with your goals.

Visualisation is also useful for mental rehearsal. You really can improve your golf swing just by imagining it. One of the mantras of the self-help movement is that your brain can’t distinguish between reality and something you vividly imagine and this is, at least partly, true. However, no one ever tells you there’s a downside. If you have a goal in mind but have not attained it yet, there’s a tension which drives you to achieve. But if you vividly imagine all the positive feelings you’ll feel when you reach this goal, your brain thinks you’ve done it. You relax, some of that drive dissipates and you are actually less likely to achieve your goal.

So positive thinking really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe that’s a relief to you. If your glass is permanently half empty and you don’t find positive thinking easy, next month will be a real treat –  the underrated benefits of negative thinking. Well I say ‘a real treat’; obviously, most things aren’t that good, are they? I’m mean, don’t get your hopes up but it might be worth reading just in case. What’s the worst that can happen?

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Positive thinking:  Corbis Corporation

Man in the mirror: tschundler

Woman winning: Feedough | Dreamstime Stock Photos &Stock Free Images