How to make small talk less of a big deal
The trouble with her is that she lacks the power of conversation but not the power of speech.
George Bernard Shaw
Imagine you’re going to a party. You know the host and a couple of other guests. There will be drinks. There will be small talk.
Are you excited to meet all those new people? Or are you shrinking away in horror and already thinking about faking peritonitis to get out of it?
You’re not alone.
There are two kinds of people in this world. The first go by the Irish principle of strangers being friends they haven’t met yet. And the second live by Sartre’s principle that hell is other people. Unfortunately for the latter, they also have to socialise at least occasionally.
Good conversation is like a well-paced game of tennis, neither too fast to return serve, nor failing to return and letting the ball drop. Here are ten tips to help you raise your game, whichever camp you’re in.
1. Assume rapport
Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.
If you struggle with talking to strangers, approach them as though they’re someone you know. Assume you already have a friendly connection. Drop your shoulders, breathe out, offer a smile or a brief but firm handshake as appropriate. Odds are they feel the same about you, and you’re not intimidating, are you?
2. Listen more
We have two ears and one tongue that we might listen more and talk less.
Most people wait until the other stops speaking and then weigh in with their own observations. Active listening is a technique that aims to ensure the speaker feels heard. And since most people want to talk about themselves, they will think you’re great if you let them. Listen, acknowledge by gestures such as nodding, and then summarise what they said before responding. Try, “So what you’re saying is…”
3. Avoid interrogation
The primary use of conversation is to satisfy the impulse to talk.
A rapid-fire series of questions isn’t just hard to respond to, but can come across as aggressive. Relax and let them answer one question at a time. Remember you’re meant to be listening, and if your questions come in a constant stream you aren’t really listening or responding.
4. Don’t choke
That’s all small talk is – a quick way to connect on a human level – which is why it is by no means as irrelevant as the people who are bad at it insist. In short, it’s worth making the effort.
It’s easy to mock small talk about the weather, the game, or property prices, but they’re safe and universal subjects to get things started. You might fear you have nothing to say, but there’s always something. Look at the local newspaper or trade magazine before you arrive to see what the hot topics are. If you don’t watch the current big thing on TV, have something else to talk about in books or movies.
5. There’s an art to delivery
It’s the way I tell ’em.
We draw a great deal of meaning from the way speech is delivered. Practice a stance you’re comfortable with and avoid closed body language. The words are often less important than tone, speed, and clarity of speech.
Breathe evenly. Adjust your volume to match the room. Speaking too fast will lose your listener, and too slow will bore them. Keep your point in mind so that you don’t meander and lose the thread of your statement.
Some people are effortlessly funny, some are unintentionally funny, and then there’s the rest of us. Comedians are masters of timing, but even they practise their material in low stakes situations before headlining their national tour. Avoid telling jokes unless you’re confident, but laugh at them whenever possible.
6. No monologues
A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That’s why there are so few good conversations: due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet.
Even if you’re the most knowledgeable person on the topic being discussed, avoid monopolising the conversation. You don’t know what other people know and you risk coming over as arrogant. Remember that conversation is a game in which both parties speak and listen. If you hold forth, you’re lecturing and people’s eyes will glaze over. We’ve all been trapped by the single subject bore. Don’t be that person.
7. No open combat
Conversation isn’t about proving a point; true conversation is about going on a journey with the people you are speaking with.
Conversation is not a full-contact sport. Rein in the need to be right all the time and keep away from arguments. If someone tries to pick a fight with you, decline. Move away, feign ignorance, or change the subject. Social gatherings are rarely a good setting in which to confront people. If you think you’re superior to other people, keep it to yourself and consider you’re probably wrong.
8. Steer away from controversy
The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.
In a mixed gathering, there will be a range of opinions on any subject. Deeply held convictions are not going to change over the canapes, and that includes yours. One of the great joys of life is discussing deeper issues, but reserve that for the right audience. Avoid politics, religion, and any charged subject from the news.
If you’re faced with someone espousing views you’re absolutely opposed to, you have the right to move on. Don’t put up with unnecessary discomfort. Socialising is hard enough.
9. Practise emotional intelligence
Silence is one of the great arts of conversation.
Be aware of the person you’re talking with. Do they show signs of interest with open body language? Are they oriented towards you, the exit, or someone else? One of the worst sins is constantly scanning the room for the next mark. This makes the other person feel ignored and insignificant. If you see someone else you want to speak with, finish your conversation and excuse yourself politely.
Know when a conversation has ended and try to move on with grace. Pay attention to cues.
On the other hand, if you do connect with someone, ask open questions and listen. If you want them to say a bit more, try waiting combined with encouraging actions such as smiling or nodding. Often people will respond again to fill the silence. If not, offer something of your own. The best conversations happen when both people are relaxed and willing to reveal something true about themselves.
10. Know your limits
Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas…many have a horror of small talk but enjoy deep discussions.
Extroverts are energised by social contact, whereas introverts are drained by it. Both need other people to varying extents. If you’re introverted, plan accordingly. Watch your energy levels and leave before you’re exhausted. Accept that you’ll need a period of withdrawal to recharge and work it into your schedule as a priority.
Don’t Sweat The Small Talk
Brave the introductions and small talk, and introverts have a chance to find a kindred spirit who’s happy to chat in a quiet corner while the extroverts work the room. If you’re lucky enough to go with a more outgoing partner or friend, that might offer the perfect cover. You’ll still have to drag them away at the end though.
Treat small talk as a starter for ten rather than a trial. Life is all about making connections and that means being comfortable with social situations, whether you prefer talking or listening.
You can’t get to the deep without first going through the shallows.
(first published by Publishous on Medium 8 June 2019)
Have a comment? Drop it below and start a conversation.
Have you given up on a dream?
You tell yourself that you’ll get back to it later. When the kids are grown, when you retire, when you have more money…then you’ll learn the guitar, get back to painting, write your novel.
Or you tell yourself it’s too late. Too much time has gone by and you can’t change your body, your relationship, your job. So you settle for the inevitability of further decline.
There’s no escaping the march of time. But it holds opportunity too.
An Acorn Is Not A Tree — Yet
Somebody is sitting in the shade today because somebody planted a tree a long time ago.
The idea that we overestimate what can be achieved in the short term and underestimate what can be achieved in the long term has been attributed to Bill Gates, among others.
It’s like failing to harvest mature wood from an oak sapling, then abandoning it because you think it will never grow big enough to be worthwhile.
Often we start something in a flush of enthusiasm. But when it doesn’t yield significant results immediately, we get discouraged and give up. The gym routine, language class, or novel is dropped because you thought for sure that a month or two of effort would be enough to make progress.
But take a different view. How would future you feel if you persevered with small efforts now? In five years, what can you achieve by daily practice?
Graphic designer Ethan Tennier-Stuart showed stunning improvement over five years. Every skill responds to deliberate practice. Talent has to be matched with effort to achieve its potential.
Small Numbers Still Count
All difficult things have their origin in that which is easy, and great things in that which is small.
Everything starts off small — a word, a note, a brick — but put enough of them together and you can build something astonishing.
Write two hundred words daily and you’ll have enough material for four novels. Writing over a third of a million words is guaranteed to hone your skills.
Years ago I wanted to write seriously. But I was juggling home and work and exhaustion, and couldn’t see how to find time or energy for it.
So I committed to one hundred and fifty words daily after dinner, whatever happened, even if I just typed I’m so tired over and over. Sometimes it was gibberish but eventually those words turned into short stories, then a novella.
If I’d waited for the ideal conditions I might never have started. My daily goal was tiny, but that’s exactly what made it achievable. Persistence pays off in the end.
When it comes to ageing, we can’t turn the clock back. But we can slow some processes down. Future you will thank present you for wearing sunscreen daily, cutting out that dessert or bread roll, and getting enough sleep.
Walk thirty minutes daily and you’ll see your health improve. Make time to connect with a child daily, and reap the benefits. You’ll build better connection in fifteen intentional minutes daily than in the most amazing annual vacation.
It’s all about building big improvements in small increments.
One step after another in the right direction will take you as far as you need to go. Don’t discount any small amount of progress — success is built of innumerable tiny actions.
The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.
Make time work with you, instead of feeling helpless.
Time will pass anyway, so use it to build something you’ll be proud of. Pick up your first pebble right now and start to move your personal mountain.
the counterintuitive power of a supposedly negative emotion
Never go to bed mad. Stay up and fight.
Are you afraid of your anger?
Perhaps you’re like Bruce Banner, hiding behind a mild mannered facade that conceals constant rage. You live in fear of what anger might do, fear of unleashing it, and fear of the consequences.
In real life, expressing anger leads to loss. You can lose relationships, health, possessions and in some cases your liberty by getting angry with the wrong person at the wrong time.
So that makes anger a bad thing, right?
More Than A Feeling
Feelings are something you have; not something you are.
Shannon L. Alder
We can’t escape anger. But maybe you’re shaking your head now because I’m wrong about you. You don’t get angry because it’s unproductive, destructive and just not nice.
Do you get irritated? Are the people around you consistently disappointing? Irritation and frustration are anger with the volume turned down.
Do particular situations that don’t directly involve you trigger a desire to call out injustice and unacceptable behaviour in others? Moral outrage can be a proxy for real anger with its roots elsewhere.
Are you a perfectionist, hypercritical of yourself, and need to control even small aspects of your environment? This combination of internally directed anger and fear hides under a veneer of achievement and desire for approval.
Last of all, are you always nice to everyone, in any situation? Do you apologise when someone wrongs you? People who bury their feelings under niceness and socially sanctioned compliance are often angriest of all.
Everybody’s angry at least some of the time. Why is this a useful response?
Anger helps you survive because it motivates you to approach a threat and overcome it.
When some guy cuts you off in traffic, you feel a threat to your territory — your vehicle and its surrounding space. You’re enraged and you’re ready to get out and fight.
By contrast, fear motivates you to avoid a threat to survival. If that same guy is driving an eighteen-wheeler, survival instinct tells you that fighting him for the same road space is unwise. But unexpressed anger doesn’t necessarily go away. You hold it in your body and mind.
When your child spills his drink later, you shout because your head hurts and you have heartburn and is it so hard to just use a cup? Now you’re both angry with yourself and guilty, and you reach for your numbing agent of choice.
Emotions are not of themselves good or bad. You have emotions, and your choices in dealing with them have more or less value. There are ways to make anger work for you.
Count To Ten?
When angry, count four. When very angry, swear.
Anger is processed very fast in the amygdala, part of the brain that deals with identifying and responding to threats. The cortex, seat of rational thinking, takes longer to catch up. This is the reason behind the advice to count to five or ten, giving yourself time to think of an acceptable response.
Anger triggers an alert state, with stress hormones flooding the system. Heart rate and breathing increase, muscles tense, and the body gets ready to fight. You can learn to tune in to these reactions before your anger escalates too far. Long, slow exhales help to limit the effects of adrenaline. This is essential; otherwise you’ll be at the mercy of emotions and unable to make a considered move.
If you live or work in an environment where anger is often expressed, you know that getting angry doesn’t help the situation. But sometimes anger escapes before you can direct it.
I once had a patient whose spouse had left him and their young children. He worked hard to care for them but had to sacrifice much of his previous lifestyle to do so. We spent time unpicking his many symptoms, which required various referrals and treatments so that he could keep going.
One day he came to discuss his progress. He said nobody was listening and he felt uncared for. This wasn’t so uncommon. Normally I’d listen, give him space to vent, and then formulate a plan.
That didn’t happen.
It was like a switch was flipped. Instead of empathising, I challenged him directly. We remained civil — we’re British after all — but ended without resolving either position. He never returned to see me.
I was already tired and running on empty for a variety of reasons, but I thought my emotions were under control in a professional setting. Turns out that if someone hits where it hurts by implying you don’t care so you’re not doing a good job so you’re not a good person then knee-jerk responses can outrun the best training.
When you’re already carrying a stress load, your trigger point is much lower. You might need to walk away from or avoid situations that you know will be difficult to manage. If that’s not possible, at least you can recognise your shorter fuse and be ready to count to twenty if needed.
Take a time-out if needed. Defer the conversation to a later time. Be self -aware and respectful of the other person, so that you can broker an acceptable resolution.
Afterwards find a trusted person to debrief with, or write a journal entry. Go over the events, be honest about what happened and own your choices. Treat it as a learning opportunity and plan a better course of action next time.
Most of all, resist the impulse to turn the anger on yourself without resolving it. That will eat you from the inside.
Anger motivates action, so choose your action. And if your previous actions hurt someone, apologise sincerely, forgive yourself, and move on.
Don’t let anger rule your life; there is a better way forward.
A Call To Action
Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.
So you recognised your anger for what it is and learned to control your first impulse to attack. What comes next?
Controlling your anger is not the same as denying or repressing it. In fact James Gross has shown that trying to suppress anger makes you feel worse .
Think of it as an energy source; a laser that can be focused with great effect. Hold that energy and take aim.
Start with the physical. Your body has been wound up to deal with a threat. Work through the adrenaline flooding your system by running, lifting weights, or digging the garden. Exercise is a healthy response and the answers to fix the original problem may well come to you on that fast walk around the block.
I use my angry energy to do domestic chores that I hate. Afterwards I have a clean house and my muscles can relax. The negative encounter and all the thoughts following are converted into tangible benefits, which is a win-win situation.
If your anger is prompted by injustice for others do something to help, however small. Give time or money, or speak out. Take your anger and turn it into something real and useful.
If it’s a person or a situation in your life, talk it over with a third party to see what your options are. Trying to organise change in the white heat of anger will lead to questionable decisions. The other person can also dismiss your reasonable grievances as mere emotion — which will enrage you even more. Figure out what exactly makes you angry and only then seek the solutions.
Some people will goad you to snap so that they remain in control. Family members especially can be adept at button-pushing. Do not give them that advantage. Know your trigger points and plan how you will respond in advance. Instead of having the same argument over and over, change the script. Remember that the only actions you can control are your own.
If you’re angered by being put down or treated as insignificant, redirect the energy. Use it to work on your weaknesses and enhance your strengths. Spite and the desire to prove someone wrong has propelled many success stories.
If your anger is internal, driven by poor self-esteem, shame, or lack of belonging, these need careful handling. Facing the truth about your feelings can be the hardest of all. Think back to your last bout of anger. Dissect your feelings using the 5 Whys technique and a journal. Name the pain before you can cure it, with or without external help.
If you’re too nice with undefended boundaries, learn how to say no. The energy you save by not feeling resentful can be used for something better — like your own ambitions.
If you’re angry all the time, for trivial reasons, understand this is a symptom of something deeper. Strain in your relationships is a warning that change is urgently needed. Take responsibility both for your chosen actions and the results. Nobody makes you react in a particular way. It is always your choice to give in to your initial impulse.
Seek ways to manage your anger and work on your stresses. As Marcus Aurelius said, the consequences of anger are much worse than their causes. The ability to keep your cool is an advantage in many situations.
Win Your Cool
Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.
Anger carries the energy of a coiled spring. Holding it in requires more energy than letting go, but you need to handle its release with intention so it doesn’t blow up in your face. This is neither simple nor easy, but learning self-control has a tremendous pay-off in mastering your emotions.
Hardwired into every one of us, anger is neither hero nor villain. It’s a call to action which, when properly managed, can be turned from indiscriminate bomb into a targeted weapon for change. Temper your anger with clear thinking so you can focus it with precision.
Know your anger, embrace it — but not too tightly — and use its power for good.
Adulthood isn’t all that.
From the moment of birth, you’re taught how to behave and be accepted in the world.
Adulthood means submitting when life knocks off the corners and edges that don’t fit in your assigned box.
Adulthood means growing up, and growing up means forgetting all those ridiculous daydreams.
Your parents and teachers told you not to waste your time dreaming, because it doesn’t lead anywhere. They taught you that success comes from hard work here in the real world, doing serious jobs. You took that lesson to heart, put your head down and became realistic about what you could achieve.
You forgot to look up at stars and sky, and wonder.
You were caught in a trap and told it was the right place to be. Society rewards conformity with peer and elder approval and punishes the maverick with exclusion and ridicule. Who wants to be that guy?
But your dreams didn’t go away completely. Occasionally you glimpse them out of the corner of your eye, when your brain drifts during a boring meeting or long commute. Sometimes the sight of someone else living your dream makes you envious or sad, and you can’t fully explain why.
Deep down, you know something’s missing from your life.
No Dreams, No Wings
If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses.
None of the technological and artistic advances we now enjoy were created by realists. Sure, when it comes to implementation, refinement, and exploitation, a concrete approach is essential. But concrete builds solid foundations. It does not let us fly.
Everything that exists in the world begins as an idea. An idea has no mass. It can be as expansive as your imagination. Ideas are limitless. Work must be done to manifest ideas in the real world, but dreaming is free.
Realism doesn’t produce innovation, it produces incremental improvement.To produce something new, you must first dream a new dream. That’s how the world got cars, airplanes, telephones, and computers.
That’s how you’ll get to where you want to be.
Voices In Your Head
You can’t believe everything people tell you — not even if those people are your own brain.
When you decide how to behave in a given situation, the voices of caregivers and authority figures loop endlessly, and often unrecognised, in your inner conversation.
Your father no longer scares you so much that you never look him in the eye, but when faced by an aggressive manager that’s exactly what you do without thinking. And you wonder why you can’t assert yourself.
When you find yourself browsing painting sets online, an old art teacher whispers that you don’t have an artist’s eye. And you click away because that’s not for you.
Here’s the thing. You’re an adult — no-one is the boss of you. You get to decide how you act at all times, and you take responsibility for your actions.
At some point you need to stop blaming parents, caregivers, teachers or others in your past for how you respond to life now.
The past experiences and attached emotions that make up much of your inner self-talk are no more than an outdated script. Once you realise that your reaction today is based on the memory of a conversation that’s decades old, you free yourself from it. That was then and this is now.
You can choose to respond differently and write a new script.
That’s when you truly grow up.
A Lost Child
The creative adult is the child who survived after the world tried killing them, making them grown up. The creative adult is the child who survived the blandness of schooling, the unhelpful words of bad teachers, and the nay-saying ways of the world. The creative adult is in essence simply that, a child.
Everyone has their share of bad experiences. You’ve been shaped by them to some extent. Now it’s time to turn the page and write a new chapter with new rules. Acknowledge what feels bad and let it show you where you need to find something better.
This means rediscovering your inner child. Try books such as these to guide your journey. Or you might need to let go of your old programming and try new ways, like Julia Cameron’s artist dates in The Artist’s Way.
We are all innately creative. It is possible to be a functional adult and still retain childlike wonder and creative flow. Both are essential to a sense of wholeness.
From Reality To Fantasy
Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable.
Now you know that cultivating dreams is not only good but essential and nobody can tell you otherwise, it’s time to examine what that means for you.
Although dreams look very different on the outside, they can be stripped down to a small number of basic desires.
- Security: safety, stability
- Love: belonging, bonding, intimacy
- Esteem: respect, confidence, achievement
- Self-actualisation: spontaneity, knowledge, purpose, and meaning
Understanding your underlying drives will help you see whether different approaches to similar goals are right for you.
One person might value respect, another stability. The first is happier writing well-reviewed literary fiction, the other writes copy that sells. Their dreams might look like ‘my novel is featured in The Times Literary Supplement’ versus ‘I support myself by writing for others.’
Both are writers but their dreams lie on different paths. Our desires form a hierarchy of needs and we are happiest when the earlier needs are met before seeking out the higher ones. That might mean your dream is on hold while you work on strengthening the foundations of life.
This visualisation exercise is designed to bring your dream into focus so that you can use it in the real world. I’m going to talk about writing, but it can be applied to anything you want to create.
Get comfortable and close your eyes. Breathe slowly. In the future, you’ve achieved your dream. What does it look like?
You’re typing on a new laptop in a cosy study, and your days as a wage slave are behind you. You’re holding a copy of your book in Barnes and Noble. A bus drives past advertising the film of your book. At a party, you say confidently, “This is my latest project.”
Now zoom in on specifics. What are you wearing? Is the bubbly in your glass Prosecco or beer or mineral water? Use all your senses. Turn up the brightness and create a vivid picture.
There Are No Limits
If you want to be a number one bestselling author, touch the cover of your book. If you want to finish first in a triathlon, hear the spectators’ cheers. It can only come true if you first create it mentally.
When you have the picture and the feeling that comes with it, fix it in your mind with an anchor. The anchor is a physical sensation. Linking the sensation with the vision makes it easier to recall. Pinch your thumb and middle finger together firmly while picturing your dream in all its multicoloured glory.
Practice frequently until you can recall the dream with ease, simply by pressing your thumb and middle finger together.
Great athletes use visualisation to increase their chance of winning. They have a clearly defined image of success, and that allows them to work towards it knowing that they are heading in the right direction. And the image can be a comfort when things are not going so well. The prize is still out there, waiting for you to reach it.
Where Are You Going?
It doesn’t matter where you’re going, as long as the destination matters to you.
Once you have a dream fixed in your mind, you can check activity against whether it moves you closer to your goal or away from it. That might mean giving up chocolate because you’re training hard, or putting your great novel aside to make enough money to live on by writing copy.
Either way, you’re in charge. You own your decisions and their consequences. You stop making excuses. Your destiny is in your hands.
Go get it.
giving is good – taking is great
Give without remembering and receive without forgetting.
Would you rather give something or get something?
You’ve heard that it’s better to give than to receive. The idea of giving is central to most religions around the world. Winston Churchill supposedly said “you make a living by what you give, but you make a life by what you give.”
If you’re the lucky recipient of a gift, how do you receive it? Get it wrong, and the whole exchange is soured.
You’d think it was easy, but gift giving is often a fraught affair, hedged round with expectations and social norms. Some people don’t know how to give; others never learn to give. Even when we’re following that golden rule, it can still fail.
During a writing group meeting, I once complimented a writer on her dialogue, which flowed on the page with the polished elegance that comes from a finely tuned ear. She smiled uncertainly and protested that it wasn’t that good – at all.
So we both felt bad. She felt undeserving of something good, and I felt as though she had thrown my words away. What made her react like that?
Given But Not Taken
Gracious acceptance is an art – an art which most never bother to cultivate. We think that we have to learn how to give, but we forget about accepting things, which can be much harder than giving…. Accepting another person’s gift is allowing him to express his feelings for you.
Alexander McCall Smith
I’m certain that my writer friend would never throw a physical gift on the ground and walk away. But in refusing to accept the intangible gift of praise, she essentially did just that.
When parents and caregivers teach us to be polite, they leave out the most important skill in receiving. Politeness hides many a scowl of anger and disappointment, and its lack of authenticity is obvious even when cloaked in smiles and happy words.
The art of receiving a genuine gift (or even a fake one) is in understanding that when a gift is given it must also be taken. Both sides are necessary.
Learn to give without strings. A gift with conditions is at best a loan of something the giver still controls.
The art of receiving a gift is first in feeling worthy enough to be given something, and second in expressing genuine gratitude.
When given a compliment, are you:
- embarrassed because you don’t deserve praise,
- suspicious of their motives because they must want something from you, or
- angry because they’re clearly mocking you?
These emotions have their roots in old programming and/or traumatic events that you’re holding on to in the present.
Think back to the last such encounter and examine your feelings. There’s often an old memory attached that still shapes your behaviour in the present. Perhaps you were taught that taking things was selfish, accepting praise was a sin of pride, or simply that compliments weren’t for people like you.
To rewrite this script, here is one thing you need to accept about yourself.
You are worthy.
You are good enough, so is your work, and you deserve the rewards you receive. Whether it’s a yummy cupcake, a well-written report, or a project delivered on budget and on time. So accept that compliment. If you refuse it either outright or by deflection, you hurt both parties.
As interactions become more transactional and less genuine, dysfunctional gifting can be seen as a microcosm of a wider problem. When your gift is covertly rejected, you become cynical. There seems no point in giving, so you restrict yourself to exchanges that directly benefit you in some tangible way. When you refuse a gift, you replay an old script that says you are unworthy. You add to your burden of self-doubt.
The donor is hurt because rejection robs them of the pleasure of giving. You hurt yourself because you reinforce old lies that whisper you shouldn’t have nice things. And an exchange that could start to heal those wounds is wasted.
Take The Box
After all, you must have a capacity to receive, or even omnipotence can’t give.
It’s easy to fall into a trap of feeling under-appreciated while simultaneously refusing credit where it’s due. Hidden under the guise of humility or self-deprecation, this form of self-sabotage eats away at self-esteem unseen. It’s time to find a better way.
Next time someone says something good about you, remember you’re being offered a gift. Don’t walk away or bad-mouth it. You know how you’d like your gift to be received. Make eye contact, smile and thank the giver sincerely. There’s no need to explain more. Don’t follow up with how hard you found it, or minimise your efforts. Don’t give away the gift by saying anyone could have done it.
There is no giving without taking. They complement and define each other.
Stay in the moment and acknowledge the gift. When you do that, you honour both the giver and receiver. That’s the gift you give back.
This isn’t life in the fast lane, it’s life in the oncoming traffic.
I was Iron Man once.
It all started with an invisible birthday. You know, one where you have appropriately low expectations and still you come away disappointed. Instead of getting resentful or angry, I did the grown-up thing and bought my own damn gift.
Back then I was deep in the trenches of life, juggling my practice, children, spouse, and parents. Everything was top priority except me. While driving home late one evening a sleek black car passed me by, slung low to the ground with a restrained purr. I watched it disappear in my rearview mirror, knowing I’d never be able to own anything like that. Where would the kids go, and the guitar, and the cello, and the dog?
But a seed had been planted. Months later, I booked myself a supercar experience day. It was time to change the script.
Go Your Own Way
When I’m a bit sad I just go for a drive in the country, quite fast with my music up.
The world is full of people ready to tell you why you can’t do something just because they can’t envision themselves doing it. I turned up to an old airfield for the track driving day feeling both apprehensive and excited. Everyone I asked was busy that day so I went alone, and soon found that all the other women there were part of a couple.
Did they regard me with pity, disdain, amusement, or disapproval? I chose not to worry about those possibilities, and instead watched the cars flying around the track. We were all there to enjoy fast cars, and their opinions of me were unimportant.
Other people’s expectations and judgement will throw you off course. Often the best plan is to keep your own counsel. Don’t talk about what you will do. Just do it, and let actions speak for themselves.
In The Driving Seat
I am not reggae, I am me. I am bigger than the limits that are put on me. It all has to do with the individual journey.
We listened to our safety briefing, and then the instructors came to collect each couple for their drive around the track. While I watched the first few people take their laps, a man asked me if I’d really come alone. I told him it was my birthday treat to myself, and he gave me a pitying smile.
“So there’s nobody to take photos of you? Well, never mind.”
We say pics or it didn’t happen because modern society runs on proof that can be posted to social media. But photos are only a proxy for experience. Memories matter.
In the end, there’s only one person in the driver’s seat and that’s you. Don’t wait for someone else to agree, go out there and do your thing regardless.
A Helping Hand
I used to have horrible cars that would always end up broken down on the highway. When I tried to flag someone down, nobody stopped. But if I pushed my own car, other drivers would get out and push with me. If you want help, help yourself – people like to see that.
Soon it was my turn to be called. Joe, my instructor, was totally unfazed that I was alone. He pointed out the controls on the Audi R8 and let me get used to the unfamiliar paddle shift. Signs around the track reminded drivers when to brake and change gear, but with so much happening it was hard to take it all in.
That’s when the calm voice of my instructor cut through my adrenaline, giving instruction and suggestions. This intense driving experience took me back to being a new driver, overwhelmed by inputs from every direction. As hard as it seemed, I had to take a breath and listen, even as I also steered through curves and held on down the straights.
Find a coach or mentor for your activity, whatever it is. Be humble about your lack of knowledge and respectful of theirs. Open your mind and be teachable, and you’ll find yourself going further and moving faster.
Need For Speed
If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.
By the start of my last lap, I relaxed a little. The car was unlike anything I’d ever driven; more powerful, more precise, more responsive, more everything. My top speed of one hundred and thirty-two was more than enough to keep me happy.
My instructor had other ideas.
After steering through a fast chicane that was already a favourite, I accelerated towards the second last turn.
“Keep your foot down,” he said.
“Really?” I eased off, obeying years of ingrained caution.
“Not yet.” Joe seemed unconcerned by the rapid approach of the Brake Now sign.
We barrelled towards the turn, every red light flashing in my brain. Surely this was certain to end badly?
“You’re all right. You have time.”
At that moment time slowed down. Joe had put his life quite literally in my hands, so I had to trust myself too.
The brake sign was a distant memory and my mouth was dry, but I focused, listening for one word. Nothing else existed.
I braked hard. The car responded to my every command, following the curve cleanly and then bursting forward in an explosion of glorious speed that took me all the way to the finish line.
You can go further, harder, faster than you believe, with a little encouragement at the right time. Going beyond the limits you set yourself even once is exhilarating, building self-belief and the confidence to dare again.
So stretch your goals, ask more of yourself than you think you can do. If you can be that person urging someone on, do it. Show them the faith they don’t yet have in themselves.
A Dream In Parts
A psychologist said to me, there are only two important questions you have to ask yourself. What do you really feel? And, what do you really want? If you can answer those two, you probably can leave your neuroses behind you.
I drove home buzzing after my track experience in a sensible family car that suited my needs at that time. Parking, speed bumps, vandalism and lack of interior space would have made daily ownership of a supercar impractical.
But any dream can be broken into parts, some of which are within your grasp even if you have to stretch. The first step is to know what you dream of. The second is to look for ways to make it happen.
The dream of owning an R8 that had been ignited by a chance encounter seemed impossible. I had to rethink the parameters.
Consider renting, borrowing, or sharing a dream.
For a short time, enjoy the benefits of a fast car, a beach house, or a city penthouse. Then give back the keys and walk away without having to worry about the grim realities of upkeep and insurance.
Before you do even that, dig a little deeper. What do you really want? What does the car, the house, or the title of CEO really mean for you? Uncovering your motivations steers you in the right direction so you won’t spend time and energy in the wrong place.
For me, the car represented more than the money needed to buy it. It worked perfectly. When I asked, it responded. For once there was no compromise – I got exactly what I wanted. Having complete control was exhilarating.
Dream car = total freedom.
Every time I see an Audi R8 I smile and remember. That joy alone, repeated over years since my drive, repaid the cost and difficulty of making it happen a thousand times over.
So the next time you find yourself fantasising, ask yourself what does this dream represent? How can I bring it within my grasp?
Then ignore the naysayers and make it real, just for you. You deserve it.
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One key to successful relationships is learning to say no without guilt, so that you can say yes without resentment.
Let me guess.
You’re a super-nice person who’d help anybody do anything at any time. You’re proud of your reputation too.
I bet you’re also secretly consumed by envy of people who put themselves first and know how to say no.. In fact they make you angry… because they please themselves and get away with it. Meantime you’re stuck pleasing everyone but yourself, taking five points for niceness that leaves a bitter aftertaste.
We all have to do stuff we don’t want to do. But some make it a very small portion of their lives. Should you be aiming for the same?
Two Hard Letters
When you say yes to others, make sure you are not saying no to yourself.
Society would crumble if we all said no to anything even slightly unpleasant. In fact society runs smoothly precisely because so many of its members are socialised to say yes, to smile, to be agreeable. But there’s always a price to pay.
Being agreeable on the outside often conceals inner wounds which go unrecognised. Anger comes from being wronged. Resentment grows from unmet needs. Pain held inside twists and surfaces far from its source as a myriad of physical and emotional symptoms. Pain turned outside, but restrained by fear of expressing it, manifests as a hypercritical comment and passive aggression.
So you hide all of that behind a smile. You’ll be punished by disapproval if you display anger. You’ll be rewarded by approval if you play nice.There lies another problem.
Saying no risks losing your “nice” badge, the one that says you’re a good person. Refusing to help your friend move apartments on your weekend off when you’re perfectly capable of so doing is plain mean, isn’t it? And you can stand yet another football game because your companion loves it and it makes them happy.
Weak boundaries invite others to walk all over you. Everybody uses the doormat, but nobody really notices it.
Each time you put your needs second, or last, you add another small piece of resentment to the pile. It drags you down, lying heavy on your back where you probably don’t see it. Sometimes you almost say no, but you swallow it – and agree.
Before you can learn to say no, you must wean yourself off the excessive need for approval. That need might stem from childhood or respect for authority or fear of rejection. Those around you have already learned the best way to manipulate your reactions for their own benefit. You’re probably hyper-aware of verbal and non-verbal cues, so that you read sadness, disappointment, or anger instantly and move to soothe it.
There are times when it’s right to put others before yourself. Parents feed their children first, doctors drop everything for a crash call, firefighters rush into burning buildings. A good friend misses their favourite programme to comfort a bereaved companion.
As with so much of life, it’s about balance. You have an equal right to get what you want some of the time. Compromise feels a lot better than win/lose, yes/no outcomes. Unbalanced relationships don’t feel good, no matter how many smiles you paste over the cracks.
Take time to review your relationships objectively. Are you getting as good as you give? If not, maybe it’s time to make changes for your benefit.
That’s all very well, you say. Exactly how do you say no face-to-face without feeling like a heel and losing your nerve?
Just Don’t Do It
Just saying yes because you can’t bear the short-term pain of saying no is not going to help you do the work.
Saying yes is seductively easy. Everybody smiles, everybody’s happy – except you. You’re angry with them for catching you again and with yourself for caving.
Saying no is hard. Saying no is risky.
But saying no for the right reasons frees you up for greater rewards down the line. It’s like the marshmallow experiment except you’re trading a crumb of approval now for the entire cookie of self-confidence based on strong boundaries.
Train yourself to take that hit by practising in low-stakes situations. Say no to your co-worker’s birthday cake if you actually don’t like chocolate cake. You’ll feel anxious, but that will pass. You’re building assertiveness and you don’t have to choke down any more cake, because next time they’ll know.
When we communicate in person we respond to the words spoken and their delivery; both verbal and non-verbal cues. Tone of voice, body posture and facial expressions all contribute to the message. Both sets of cues must match it we want our message to be understood.
If you struggle to say no, practise in the mirror. Assume a confident body position – head up, shoulders back. Make eye contact with your reflection and say, “No thanks.” If it sounds like a question, try again. A question invites persuasion in an effort to change your mind, and you don’t want to be persuaded.
Observe that person you know who can say no assertively and steal their script.
“That sounds like an awesome project, sorry I can’t be part of it. Best of luck.”
“Thanks for thinking of me, but I have plans that weekend. Have fun without me!”
“Sorry, I don’t have time.”
Work up to no by degrees.
Listen to the request and think before you answer. Start by saying “maybe” or “I don’t think so” and follow up with one of these.
- I have to check my schedule
- I have to check with my partner/friend/doctor
- Let me get back to you on that
There’s no need to apologise or explain. A smile is absolutely optional. Then go on with your day.
Playing for time gets you out of a tight spot, and you can decline gracefully later by text or email. It’s not necessarily your job to solve someone else’s problem; therefore you don’t have to feel guilty for not fixing it.
Of course you also have to give up the buzz that comes from being the one who solves everyone’s problems. You might not even realise how much you need to be needed until you stop offering your services. But you’ll reclaim energy for your own life — a worthwhile trade.
You might worry that saying no will lose you respect. In fact, the opposite is true. When people learn that you have well-enforced boundaries, they’re much less likely to cross them. As Robert Frost said, good fences make good neighbors.
Using the hardest word will make your life easier. Listen to requests, balance your needs against the requester’s needs, and say no with calm confidence. Two letters have the power to improve your life. Use them wisely.
“No” is a complete sentence.
There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
Do you know what you want?
Our desires vary from the mundane need to scratch an itchy back to the intangible urge for self-actualisation.
You’re looking for satisfaction but you aren’t very good at figuring out what satisfaction looks like.
You’re like that person who can’t decide what to order. They look at the menu, ask what’s in every dish, wonder if they’re not really hungry, and bounce from one item to another until you want to scream.
Here are three possible reasons why you “struggle to order.”
- Wrong place
- Wrong timing
- Not hungry
Each of these issues requires a different solution.
Can I Get Extra Cheese On That?
You could have everything right but be in the wrong place. You think your business is no good, but really, the problem is your place is no good.
When you’re hungry for pizza and you stop in the first restaurant you find, there’s a high chance that the menu won’t suit you. The more specific your desires, the less likely that you’re in the right place.
You might want to create something. Trying to write a novel when you really want to build a scale model of the Eiffel Tower will only lead to frustration.
Identifying the details of your desire means asking more questions. The 5 Whys technique is useful for getting to the heart of a matter. If you want to do something, ask why. Repeat up to five times until you reach the kernel of truth. That often manifests as an “aha!” moment.
It seems obvious, but you’ll get the things you want more quickly if you’re looking in the right place.
No Stars in the Daytime
In fashion as in life, the right thing at the right time is the right thing. The right thing at the wrong time is the wrong thing.
Suppose you want steak and a glass of Chianti, but it’s nine in the morning and the restaurant is only serving breakfast. You’re in the right place at the wrong time. No amount of effort on your part can change day into evening.
Life tends to happen when you’re not looking. An unexpected pregnancy, change of job, or illness can derail your plans so that there’s no way to make them work at that time. The only way through is around. You’ll have to recalculate your route to the goal, taking time into account as a major variable.
Taking a longer view and reframing it as a definite goal helps to diffuse the frustration and disappointment of putting something off. Rather than vaguely saying you’ll do it later, take control and commit to specifics.
The statement “I will apply for X course in January 2021” feels very different to “This sucks – I’m missing school because of family issues and it’s not fair.” Sometimes it really isn’t your fault, but it’s still up to you to fix it.
Time is elastic. You have more than you think, especially when viewed from a lifetime perspective. There’s almost always another chance to do something, though you might have to approach it differently. As Oprah said, you can have it all – just not all at once.
You Can’t Get There From Here
If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.
Your meal is in front of you, but do you want what you ordered? Consider whether your hunger belongs to you.
If you’ve studied almost any subject at the college level, you know that some of the students don’t actually want to be there. They worked hard to be accepted because “everyone goes to college” or “you come from a long line of doctors/lawyers/engineers” or “it’s the best route to a good life.”
They may be feverish over-achievers or they may be failing, but they have one thing in common.
They are fulfilling someone else’s destiny at the cost of their own. The professions are full of unhappily successful practitioners. And it takes real guts first to admit you don’t want this prize that “everybody” says is so great, and second to walk away.
My undergraduate class in medical school harboured many who would rather be somewhere else. A girl consumed by anxiety and driven by expectations to become a third generation physician. A gentle boy who preferred music to science and drank every weekend until he passed out alone in a corner. A boy from a working-class family who was the first in his family to enter university.
Others hid it better. They all said and did the right things, and were praised. They all died a little every day to achieve something they didn’t believe in.
Only the working class boy got out. After the first year, he escaped life sciences for the greater rigour of maths and physics. His parents were distraught, but it saved his life. Others weren’t so lucky.
Be brutally honest with yourself about what you really want.
It’s very easy to fall in with other people’s plans if you have no internal compass or goal of your own. It’s very easy to delude yourself that the prize is something you value.
Sure, college, a life partner, children, a profession, a new car, and one holiday a year are right for some people, some of the time. Now you need to think; are you some people, or are you an individual, living in the world of now and the future rather than the rose-tinted past?
What worked twenty or even ten years ago won’t necessarily work today. You’ll need a map of the current terrain, both interior and exterior. Here’s how to approach that.
A Big Adventure
Map out your future – but do it in pencil. The road ahead is as long as you make it. Make it worth the trip.
You think you want something important? It’s time to test that want to destruction.
Use the 5 Whys
If one of your reasons is “to make X happy or proud” be very careful. Making someone else proud is neither necessary nor sufficient for your happiness. Their pride should be that you are doing what makes you happy. Pause before you sacrifice your happiness. Then do what you must to prioritise it.
Write in your journal
The bigger a goal and the more effort it requires, the more you need to be as sure as you can that it’s right for you. Write about any and every aspect and don’t hold back. That thing you can’t say? Write it down, because the truth lies close to the thoughts you don’t express. It’s safe on a page and you can’t be judged if you keep it secret.
Step into the future
Use a future visualisation exercise to imagine yourself at the goal. How do you feel? If your feeling is immediate dread, a sinking feeling, anxiety, or tightness in your chest, don’t do it – yet. It’s called a gut feeling for a reason, and it’s often more truthful than the justifications we come up with.
Use your head to figure out solutions, or to conclude that you need to look elsewhere. Spend more time refining or changing the goal until it aligns more closely with your true desire.
Find a guide
Ask somebody who’s done what you hope to achieve. Ask them what they wish they’d known when they started and what they enjoy about their journey. Be polite and don’t expect them to solve all your problems. The path you choose is yours to walk. Others can walk beside you but they’re not there to carry you.
Use the negative reality check
Finally, flip the visualisation exercise on its head. Imagine you didn’t achieve your goal. Your life stayed on its current track. Now step into that life five, ten, twenty years from now. What’s your very first impression? That’s the true one. Do you feel disappointed, regretful, angry? Or do you feel relief?
All the rational reasons in the world are nothing compared to how you feel about your goal. Why else would fame, money, and adoration fail to satisfy so many outwardly successful people? They are feeding the wrong appetite, living someone else’s dream while starving themselves of what they deeply desire.
We all have desires. Being satisfied is a matter of making sure that your appetite aligns with the food you choose.
Sometimes you drink water; other times you are thirsty. To be thirsty and to drink water is the perfection of sensuality rarely achieved.
(Originally published in Publishous on 29 March 2019)
feel better without drugs or therapy
We see the world, not as it is, but as we are.
When you look at the world around you, what do you see?
Do you see beauty, hope, and possibility? Or do you see destruction, despair and delusion? It all depends on your viewpoint.
As seen above, the Golden Pavilion Kinkaku-ji has natural beauty, man-made elegance, the richness of gold, and the calmness of water reflecting serenity.
The reality was much less attractive. We visited at the weekend and the site was swarming with tourists from all over the world, their different languages clashing in a modern day Babel. Everyone wanted unobstructed photos of the pavilion, everyone was waving a selfie stick, and everyone crowded at the barrier.
We’d travelled a long way and we wanted our picture too. Frantic tourism and ancient tranquillity fought for the same space, and I knew which I wanted to remember. By stepping back from the crowd and being patient, I was able to spot the opportunity to capture a moment.
Was that choice reasonable, or was I refusing to see the truth in order to present a lie?
Open Your Eyes
You see what you expect to see, Severus.
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Just open your eyes and look — but it isn’t as simple as that. You filter and disregard far more information than you retain. It’s essential, because you could not hope to pay attention to all the inputs.
Studies estimate that the brain receives 400 billion bits of data per second, of which the eyes receive 10 million bits per second. You’re only aware of perhaps 2,000 bits per second.
Thinking about buying a new car, maybe a blue VW? Suddenly you see VW cars everywhere, and especially blue ones, where you didn’t notice them before. That doesn’t negate the existence of all the other cars on the road, but they’re temporarily less important than the ones you’re paying attention to.
Your brain is wired to take shortcuts and build theories to deal with all this data quickly. This can be helpful, but it also leads to confirmation bias, causing you to ignore evidence that disagrees with your first impression. That bias is a bad thing if you’re investigating a crime or making a diagnosis.
But if you’re trying to stay positive in a negative world, confirmation bias can be your friend.
Mind The Gap
Stress is the gap between our expectation and reality.
The lifetime prevalence of major depression in high-income countries is 14.6%. Less severe mood disorders affect a further 12% of patients in family practice. How can this be, in this era of technological advance and generally high levels of personal safety and freedom?
As high as living standards may be, our expectations at every level of society are still higher. Driven by comparison on social media and seductive advertising, our desire for more is constantly fed and never fully satisfied. We rapidly adjust to each step up – and there’s always something new to aspire towards.
Unmet expectations induce emotions such as anger and resentment, and feeling unable to reach them leads to helplessness and despair. While you absolutely can use envy to fuel your progress, there are times when that’s not appropriate. Expectations must be managed.
Taking a vacation is an example. Before booking a hotel, you probably look at reviews. Surprisingly, guests staying at the same time often give wildly varying accounts of their stays. One guest was disappointed not to be given the best room in the property, treated the staff like servants and saw reasons to complain about everything from the weather to the amount of ice in their drink. Another was happy to be on holiday, treated others with respect, and saw reasons for praise.
You will be happier when you match your expectations to the limits of your personal influence. Where you have no or limited influence, try to manage your expectations as low as you can tolerate.
If you are content with less, then everything else is a bonus. If only perfection will do, even a small deviation will disappoint you. You can see this play out at the Olympics, where a study of medal winners’ expressions showed bronze medal winners are generally much happier than silver medallists.
It’s tough to work hard for something and then try to let go of your attachment to the outcome. It’s galling to hear people who have already achieved your goal say it doesn’t matter because process is the real prize. But that doesn’t make it less true.
Make your product or your advice great, send it into the world, and get on with the next one without obsessing over the reception you think it deserves. As soon as you talk about what you should have, your expectations are showing.
There is only one person you can expect more of, and that’s you. If you have given your all in the pursuit of a goal, that is a form of success. You can’t force any result to go in your favour and the world does not owe you.
The simpler your needs, the more likely they will be met or even exceeded. When needs are met you can be content; when needs are exceeded you can be happy. How can you make this shift in mindset?
How Much Is Enough?
My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.
Sometimes we’re told to live each day as if it were our last. How would you spend your final, precious twenty-four hours?
You could either focus on all the time you would miss, or you could focus on what you still had. The taste of your favourite coffee, the smile of your favourite person, birdsong, or the scent of a rose would take on a new significance.
The good news is, those things are available to you right now. Happy feelings can be yours, if you look for them. Rather than discount all the real things you have compared to the imaginary stuff you don’t, appreciate and enjoy them. Compare your current experience not with some fictional worse-off person, but with not having them yourself.
Reacquaint yourself with gratitude.
Gratitude journals have been shown to increase happiness. However, I’ve found that people react to the idea with disbelief or cynicism, particularly when depressed. Those with low mood have the most to gain, but their focus is unfailingly negative. There’s a way around this.
First acknowledge the suck. The suck is real so feel free to pour your heart out on the pages of your journal. Then once you’ve run out of suck, you find three things to be grateful for that day and write them down.
I’ve done this exercise and the truth is, some days it’s a struggle to find positive things. It’s tough. That’s when it’s most needed. You might have to dig deep but even little tiny things count. A cup of tea given without asking, a puppy running in the park, flowers, a pretty sunset, hot water and indoor plumbing, or no queue at the checkout are all reasons to smile.
For anyone preoccupied with everything that’s wrong, focusing on the tiny spots of light in the darkness can produce a real shift in attitude – without therapy or drugs. And since what you focus on grows, the more you seek out positive things the more you’ll see.
Of course it’s not the whole picture. You are applying a filter to the world, not changing it, so does any of this matter?
Your viewpoint matters because you can’t hope to feel content when everything looks negative. You can’t change your world from a position of despair. You need to feel better first.
Turn To The Light
As long as this exists, this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?
With practice, you can be happier without therapy or drugs. The keys are managed expectations and regular deliberate focus on positive moments in your current life.
- Work within your circle of influence, which is your thoughts and actions.
- Expect the most from yourself and less from others.
- No matter how bleak things look, make the effort to look for the small positives in everyday life.
The little pleasures you notice along the road to your future will build your positivity so you can take on the world.