Say what you mean

 Relationships  Comments Off on Say what you mean
Nov 052013

Words are a powerful and under-rated currency. The words we choose – and the tone in which we convey them – can be every bit as important as the meaning behind them. Actually, that’s not quite accurate because often the whole problem with the unfortunate choice of words is the true meaning it betrays, the meaning beneath the one ostensibly being expressed, of which the speaker may be consciously unaware. The listener may also be consciously unaware of the underlying message, though unconsciously he or she receives it loud and clear. Although I know nothing about neuro-linguistic programming, I believe this is its central principle.

When I find myself getting irritated with someone, I’ve developed the habit of trying to analyse what exactly is riling me and more often than not it’s about language. For example, the device of phrasing a request, “Do you want to…?” (as in, “Do you want to fetch my slippers for me?”) never fails to provoke my ire. No, I don’t want to. But if you ask me nicely then I will do it for you willingly.

My mother’s way of discussing plans is to use all sorts of expressions of obligation – we should, we must, we’d better – when what she really means is I want to. It took me over forty years to decode this message; before, I always went along with what she suggested because the language in which she couched it tapped into my sense of duty. I’m sure she doesn’t realise this is what she does but, over the decades, it’s done a remarkable job of getting her her own way.

Something else that annoys me is when people give me some news that disappoints me and then say, “Is that all right?”. If you’re letting me down, apologise and don’t try to manoeuvre me into letting you instantly off the hook.

That’s the problem in all these cases: I feel manipulated. And I can’t be the only one who has this reaction. Be honest with yourself about what you’re wanting from another person when you’re interacting with them; then be as open and honest as you can with them and I believe you’ll get a better result than you will by using weasel words.

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The pros and cons of gossip

 Relationships, Sense of self  Comments Off on The pros and cons of gossip
Oct 222013

Human beings have been gossiping since they first learnt to communicate. It’s a basic social instinct and serves several useful functions, but it can be nasty and it can be dangerous and it needs to be approached with sense and discretion.

If we take the definition of gossip to be chit-chatting about trivial matters, it can be beneficial both as a way of disseminating information that is of help or interest to the hearer and as a means of two or more people bonding. It keeps us up to date with what’s going on, makes us feel part of the community and is an important social lubricant.

Even when the subject is more serious, gossiping about it can be useful. Other people’s opinions may shed light on the situation and articulating our own views can help us to evaluate them and keep them sharp. What distinguishes gossip from either smalltalk or discussion is the element of rumour and speculation it typically involves, but this is not inherently bad. Hypothetical conversations can give us an opportunity to consider our options and prepare ourselves for eventualities – for example, if word spreads in a company of coming redundancies or relocation. As long as it’s clear we’re talking about possibilities and hearsay rather than solid facts, there is nothing wrong with this sort of gossip.

The problem with gossip – and the reason it’s so often used as a pejorative term – is its tendency to slide into backbiting and bitchiness. Over the years I have become very wary of participating in gossip, particularly of a negative variety, when it pertains to individuals. Admittedly, it can be handy to be apprised of what the word on the street is in relation to someone you may be getting involved with, in a personal or business capacity, but you should never assume gossip is true without checking the evidence. So much is reported and distorted – or simply invented – out of spite, jealousy or other selfish and destructive motive that you have to employ your own judgement and decide for yourself whether the gossip is in any way fair. Don’t believe everything you hear!

The sad fact is, exchanging unpleasantries about someone who is not present satisfies a primal human need for belonging. United with the others against a common enemy, we feel superior and safe; we are accepted, a member of the hunting pack rather than the quarry. It can be horribly easy to be swept along on the tide of dislike, buoyed up by the feelings of superiority and safety, and the situation can quickly get out of control. This is the mentality of the lynch-mob and, when you stop to think about it, it’s frightening – and not only because tomorrow the hate may turn on you.

When you find yourself in the midst of gossip, stay grounded and maintain your integrity. Betraying a friend’s confidence, or agreeing that someone you like is unspeakable because of some alleged misdemeanor you find it hard to imagine they have really committed, may earn you some short-term popularity but in the long run you will lose by this behaviour. At the very least, you’ll have a guilty conscience. Swimming counter to a groundswell of negative opinion requires courage and strength and if you don’t feel equal to the task, find a way to extricate yourself from the conversation so that you don’t have to take part.

Whether you’re spreading it or merely listening to it, insidious gossip can poison friendships and partnerships as well as reputations, because it undermines trust. Trust is a fragile commodity. It exists as a kind of contract: you earn my trust and maintain it by remaining trustworthy; in return, I give you the benefit of any doubt and talk through with you any worries I have, rather than taking the word of a third party about you. When trust is nurtured from both sides like this, it forges a positive and happy relationship – and this is worth so much more than any fleeting thrill indulged in around the now-proverbial water-cooler.

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Urgent versus important

 Relationships, Sense of self  Comments Off on Urgent versus important
Oct 012013

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working exceptionally hard. I love my job and I like the feeling of being in control of my destiny (well, at least my diary) afforded by being self-employed. I am by no means complaining about being so busy but it has thrown up some issues for me, the main one being knowing when to stop. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the business case, as it were, for rest and recuperation (see All work and no play) and today I’d like to explore the personal side.

When it comes to the work/life balance, the problem is the tension between what’s really, fundamentally important and what’s urgent. I take my work seriously, put a lot into it and get a great deal out of it on many levels but, when it comes right down to it, my list of what’s really, fundamentally important consists of the people I love, followed by health and welfare and a few other abstract-but-vital concepts. In normal circumstances, I make a point of – and enjoy – nurturing what’s important to me: I make time to connect with my loved ones and I work at my relationships, I go to the gym, I cook and eat properly, I read, I go to the theatre. When I’m overloaded with work, that just takes over. It fills my mind, distracts me from conversations, disturbs my sleep, causes me to abandon the gym and all cultural activities and to live on instant or takeaway food. Work is urgent and urgent trumps important in the immediate-action stakes.

But of course if this is allowed to go on for any length of time, the important things begin to unravel. I don’t need to go into this; you know what I’m talking about. So how do we decide where to draw the line? In my case, I’m prepared to let work take over my whole life for a maximum of a week. If there’s loads on, the rest of world can manage without me for a week, my body can put up with junk food and no exercise for a week, if I hardly sleep for a week I can just about make it. Beyond that, though, adjustments have to be made, clients inconvenienced, emails answered more slowly. I ringfence time for friends and family and for the gym and I have a cut-off point in the evening, after which I shut down the computer and give my full attention to my partner and whatever we’re doing together.

I realise I’m lucky to be in a position where I can make this happen relatively easily but, whatever your situation, it’s salutary to take stock every so often and make sure you’re giving enough priority to the things that matter most to you. If you let the urgent run roughshod over the important for too long, you’ll wake up one morning to find that’s all you have left.

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A friend in need

 Relationships  Comments Off on A friend in need
Sep 032013

The old saying A friend in need is a friend indeed is so true: someone who is there for you in your hour of need, and not just in the good times, is a real friend. The person who puts you up when your house burns down, gives you a lift when your car won’t start or looks after your children at short notice, the person willing to solve a sudden urgent problem for you, is the sort of person you want in your life. Sadly, however, such people are not always available. And, looking at it from the other side, perhaps we are not always there for our friends when they need us.

When the issue is a practical one, as in the examples above, it’s generally pretty clear what is required and, assuming we are present and in a position to provide assistance, the only obstacle to smoothing our friend’s path is the inconvenience it causes us. We’ve made our plans and having to change them at the last minute to accommodate the shake-up in somebody else’s life may be too much of a pain in the posterior. This is a clear case when Do as you would be done by (as mentioned a few weeks ago) is an excellent dictum: if we want people to help us when we have a practical emergency, we’ve got to help them when they suffer one. Even if we never get to exchange favours with the specific individuals to whose rescue we come, it’s good karma.

When the issue is an emotional one, it all gets much more complicated. Even if we want to help, we may be put off for a number of reasons, most of which boil down to fear. If our friend is having marriage problems, we may be afraid of giving the wrong advice. If our friend has been bereaved, we may be afraid of being inadvertently tactless at such a raw and sensitive time. If our friend is depressed, we may be afraid of reaching out to them lest they grab our hand and never let go.

Giving advice isn’t always the best way to help; usually it’s better to listen and to ask questions, allowing the friend to work things out him/herself, in his/her own time. As a side benefit, this protects us from future recriminations, but the main point is that in enormous questions such as is my marriage worth saving?, everybody needs to make their own decisions. A true friend will offer support – and in some cases perhaps an opinion – but not try to control the outcome.

When someone has been recently bereaved, the danger of getting it wrong is real and often significant. In these circumstances, all we can do is tread carefully, watch reactions and apologise if we make a gaffe.

With a friend who is battling depression, the worry is not unfounded either. If we give an inch, we risk them taking a mile. This is probably the trickiest situation of the three to navigate successfully and, as someone whose life was blighted by depression for many years, I can only suggest it depends on the relationship and the state of your own mental and emotional health. If you’re struggling yourself and your friend drains you, it’s probably best to conserve your resources and sort yourself out before trying to help the other person, though if he/she is a close friend, it may be fairer and kinder to talk about it before you withdraw. If you have the strength and the patience, my own experience is that having someone show interest and concern, listen to me and offer affirmation, can bring me back from the edge of the abyss into much more peaceful pastures. Particularly if your friend suffers acute bouts of depression, rather than sustained periods of it, an injection of compassion can lift the bleak mood and possibly banish it for weeks or months.

When we ourselves are in need, we do well to bear in mind all these fears and do our best to allay them. If someone offers help, we must accept it in the spirit it’s intended and not carp or criticise. We must also be aware our friends have limited resources and we must never ask more than they feel able to give at any one time – being consistently needy makes for a one-way relationship and it’s unreasonable to expect our friends to keep this up.

When a friend needs help, we must be brave in offering it. There is nothing more desolate and frightening than having no-one to turn to when life deals a blow. We would hate to be in such a lonely place ourselves and we can’t allow a friend to inhabit it either. We may make the odd mistake in our clumsy attempt to help, but these will be forgiven because we did something, while everybody else was passing by on the other side.

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Are you listening?

 Relationships  Comments Off on Are you listening?
Aug 272013

With the ease and speed of communications these days, the emphasis seems always to be on telling people things, talking, conveying information. Listening always seems to take a back seat.

One reason for people not listening as well as they might is the endless distractions from other forms of communication. The mobile phone on the dinner table has become a bone of contention and I, for one, hate it. Of course, if something vital is going on, you need to be contactable and able to respond instantly, but if it isn’t you don’t. Put the damned thing out of sight and earshot and let’s have an uninterrupted conversation.

The ‘respond instantly’ thing is another element that erodes good listening. Because we all expect each other to react to our electronic communications within minutes of our issuing them, this leaves no time for reflection. Even face to face, if someone doesn’t start speaking as soon as we’ve stopped, we tend to assume they haven’t heard us or they have nothing to contribute, when in fact they may be thinking about what we’ve said and considering their reply.

So often, the real message is not in the words themselves but in the tone, the accompanying body language and in what is left unsaid. This is why we have to be especially careful when communicating by email, text and other media where views and feelings are expressed through words alone. But the problem, where there is one, usually goes much deeper than this.

In many cases, the reason people fail to listen adequately is that they are too self-absorbed to tune into what someone else is saying. If I tell you I’ve hurt my foot, what I’d like in return is some interest and sympathy, not a long list of your own ailments. If I tell you I’ve lost my job, I’ve got a new car or I’ve just come back from Cuba, what I want is for you to engage with what I’ve said, not take it as an invitation to talk about your own situation.

Listening is a skill worth cultivating. Not only does it nurture our relationships, it also allows us to learn all sorts of things we would otherwise have missed. Polonius’s advice to his son in Hamlet, “Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice”, is not so much about teaching Laertes to respect and value other people as encouraging him to reflect on what he hears, gather information, not jump to conclusions. As the Roman Epictetus said (along with many others after him), “We have two ears and one mouth so we may listen more and talk the less”.

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