blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, self improvement

How To Talk To People -10 Tips For Better Conversations

How to make small talk less of a big deal

happy people talking daytime
Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

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.
Doug Larson

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.
Diogenes

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.
George Santayana

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.
Lynn Coady

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.
Frank Carson

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.
Truman Capote

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.
Ricky Maye

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.
Dorothy Nevill

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.
Cicero

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.
Susan Cain

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)


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blog, relationships, self improvement

How To Make Friends With Your Anger

the counterintuitive power of a supposedly negative emotion

angry emoji man_PDPics
PDPics via pixabay

Never go to bed mad. Stay up and fight.
Phyllis Diller

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.
Mark Twain

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.

Image by PrettySleepy2 on pixabay
 

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.
Aristotle

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.
Buddha

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.

blog

Go On, Make Someone’s Day – I Dare You

daisies_Congerdesign
Image by CongerDesign via pixabay

Kindness and a generous spirit go a long way. And a sense of humor. It’s like medicine — very healing.
Max Irons

What does it take to make your day?

It might seem that only the biggest things can turn a rotten day into a better one. You long for a scratchcard win, a £50 note discovered on the ground, a declaration of undying love, or a letter of acceptance for that thing you’ve been hoping for and dreaming about. Those things would certainly make you feel better.

They’re also almost guaranteed not to happen.

What are the odds, right?

But something changed my mind.

Work had been difficult, and then I caught a horrible cold. Think congested, feverish, head stuffed, can’t breathe, can’t sleep misery. Well, still gotta work, so I slogged on. After surviving one long morning in which all I wanted to do was run away home and hide under my blanket, there was a knock at my door. I expected another claim on my time and fading energy, and my heart sank.

Instead, the receptionist brought in flowers. A pink bouquet with a card that read ‘your (sic) in our thoughts’. It had been left by someone I had seen earlier. I was so moved by this, I could have wept.

I work in a so-called caring profession. I have colleagues, family, and friends, some of whom knew how ill I felt. Yet this came from a near-stranger, who went to some trouble to help me feel better.

Even a humble daisy would have shown me she cared. And I let her know I appreciated her gesture, more than she knew. It made me smile on a tough day, and that can be the greatest gift of all.

The excellence of a gift lies in its appropriateness rather than in its value.
Charles Dudley Warner

It takes so little to shine a light, and you never know who needs it most.

It need not be flowers; it can be any small, authentic kindness. Eye contact and a smile, a sincere inquiry followed by active listening are often missing in daily life. If we supply them and are genuine then we connect on a basic human level, and that’s what we all crave.

Make that tea or coffee without being asked. Drop change in the cup. Buy their favourite pastry, just because.

When backed by action, the thought really does count.

How could you brighten someone’s day? Look for ways to pay it forward. Go on — I dare you.

(first published 16 May 19 by Publishous on Medium)


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blog, relationships

Is Love Ever A Mistake?

red heart shaped balloon in blue sky
Photo by Andreas Wohlfahrt on Pexels.com

Have you ever loved someone and it didn’t work out?

You tried, they tried, but ultimately you parted company. Then you were left to either heal a broken heart, or hide your relief at escaping something that had lost its shine.

When that happens a few times, you start to wonder whether love is all it’s cracked up to be.

Love is supposed to be our ultimate goal.

Most of us chase it all our lives, and sometimes even find it. But in the nature of these things, finding and keeping is not the same thing. There are different kinds of love of course, but our culture puts romantic love top of the list.

We act as though love is forever and yet we know it is not. We enter into contracts and exchange rings that symbolise an unending circle. And we quietly build exits and escape clauses in the form of prenuptial agreements, running away money, and the number of a good lawyer, just in case.

The Matrix Revolutions argued everything that has a beginning has an end. Why should love be the exception? Maybe as you lick your wounds from your last battle with forever, you ask yourself, “Is love ever a mistake?”

A few people get lucky, but most of us contend with detours and blind alleys before we find The One — if we ever do. That holds true whether we seek love or a life purpose or something else of value. Winning the ultimate prize is like running a maze with no idea if a solution exists, or if a lifetime is long enough to find it.

Why keep running when success seems more elusive than a lottery win?

Cross My Heart And Hope

Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.
Søren Kierkegaard

You can’t know how your life will work out down the road when you can’t see the whole map. Perhaps there are no mistakes, only progress you can’t yet recognise.

When things seem to be going wrong, think of it as taking an unexpected turn on the road of life — a plot twist, if you like. Once made, your footprints can’t be erased anyway. We can’t change our past; we can only make peace with it.

With this in mind, look back at past experiences and take what can be learned from them. Some loves are like flowers; beautiful and doomed, and all the more precious because they are ephemeral.

But even more precious than love itself is the capacity to feel love not once, but many times. To have that opportunity, you need to draw on hope.

Hope encourages you to try again and trust that you’re making progress. Hope might lack the certainty of faith, but it persists even in the face of disappointment. Hope keeps you going.

Pandora found that when all is lost, hope is the tiny flame that lights up the darkness. And the deeper the darkness, the brighter it shines.

Hope can be a powerful force. Maybe there’s no actual magic in it, but when you know what you hope for most and hold it like a light within you, you can make things happen, almost like magic.
Laini Taylor


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blog, productivity, self improvement

The Power of No – The Nice Person’s Guide to Setting Boundaries

a pink morning glory flower on a chainlink fence
Image by Adina Voicu from Pixabay

One key to successful relationships is learning to say no without guilt, so that you can say yes without resentment.
Bill Crawford

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.
Paulo Coelho

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?

bearded man leaning against a fence
StockSnap via Pixabay

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.
Seth Godin

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.

Oprah


(first published 5 April 2019 in Publishous on Medium)

blog, self improvement

How To Know What You Want From Life

Colourful fruit tarts
Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
Oscar Wilde

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.”

  1. Wrong place
  2. Wrong timing
  3. 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.

Fred DeLuca

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.
Tom Ford

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.
Yogi Berra

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.

Photo by Nicole Wilcox on Unsplash

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.

Jon Bon Jovi

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.

Jose Bergamin

(Originally published in Publishous on 29 March 2019)

blog, productivity, self improvement

How To Survive and Thrive In The Modern World By Using 4 Key Skills

person jumping photo
Photo by Fru00f6ken Fokus on Pexels.com

What’s money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.
Bob Dylan

What does it take to succeed in life?

How high is the skills stack you need to make it big?

Some say ten skills are enough. Others say twenty, or fifty-two. Maybe it’s a hundred or a thousand, who knows? These are arbitrary numbers.

One thing is for sure. Success is not found by wearing the same outfit, taking cold showers, or reading five hundred pages every day. These habits are correlated with some measures of success, but they don’t cause it.

Your definition of success is bound to vary from mine in the details, but deep down we hold the same desires. Once we satisfy the basic human needs for safety, shelter, and food, as described by Maslow, we look for higher level satisfactions.

The search for companionship in its widest sense, a sense of purpose, and above all autonomy, hide beneath many of our rational and less rational activities. We can dress up our motivations in fancy language if we want to, but it comes down to this.

We want to be safe. We want to belong. We want to matter.

Everything else is froth on the top.

So if everything we do can be stripped down to very simple drivers, what do successful people do that allows them to survive and then thrive in the modern world? I don’t know for sure. But developing as a whole human being, not a lopsided one with all the success in one corner, requires four keystone skills. Work on these, and see how far you grow.

Curiosity Won’t Kill The Cat

I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.  
Eleanor Roosevelt

If you’ve ever shared living space with a kitten or a toddler, you know their principal quality is endless curiosity. They explore, get into tight spaces and sometimes even escape without help, over and over. They’re not very much afraid, until they learn to be.

Adulthood squashes your curiosity. If as a child you enjoy nature, books, or music, adults kill your enthusiasm with boring study and assessment. Forced to dissect books and poetry, learn the Linnaeus binomial classification, or study the life of Mozart, younger you learns a hard lesson.

You learn that study is pain, teachers are the judges, and parents aren’t interested in your interests unless they bring in top grades. Then interests become work.

You learn to mind your business and show no joy in anything, lest it be sucked from you as you’re forced to do anything but enjoy yourself. Play isn’t serious and it certainly isn’t preparing you for adult life.

Look again at the quote above. Every one of us comes into the world with that gift of curiosity. We ask questions that have no answers and some that do. But somewhere along the road to adulthood we lose our most precious gift.

Curiosity is an open mind and a sincere smile. The world is as amazing as ever, but you need to open your eyes to see it. Be amazed. Look up at the stars in wonderment, and down at a flower in awe.

People share incredible stories if you ask questions and wait to hear the answer. If you can be open enough to reveal a little of yourself, others are empowered to do the same.

Once, I made a flippant remark about how I’d rather be gardening to the woman sitting next to me in a boring meeting. We got talking and I discovered she was also a passionate gardener. Finally I had someone who understood my struggle, was sympathetic when my Meconopsis died before flowering, and was delighted to visit the Chelsea Flower Show with me.

Curiosity will also help you adapt to changes. Technology has disrupted industries and lives, often for the better. Sometimes it’s difficult to sift out the things that will help you from the mass of options.

Ask yourself simple, child-like questions about new things. What does this do? How do I do X with Y? What if I wanted to do something new, who could show me how?

Whether it’s a new food or a new country, if you attend to the basic need for security, try something different regularly. If you don’t like it, no worries. You have an opinion based on experience and since you’re an adult, you don’t have to do it again.

Curiosity and open-mindedness leads to the next keystone skill.

Feel My Pain, Feel My Joy

Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something and has lost something.
H Jackson Browne

We’re faced daily with the evidence of inhumanity both large and small. Opinions and positions are increasingly polarised, fed by echo chambers that spring up around algorithms showing us more of the same views we already hold. We are more connected but more divided than ever.

Cynicism and numbing of emotions are inevitable when we’re fed a daily diet of sensational news stories and disasters far from home that we have no influence over. Some even advocate a news diet to avoid the distress it causes.

And yet it remains true that humans want the same things. We may name our needs differently, we may take different routes to satisfy them. But mothers want happy secure children, adults want meaning in their lives, and no matter how twisted the expression of these desires they are at heart the same.

Most of us will never hold public office. But in the equally messy politics of our own lives, within our own circle of influence, we can choose to see the other side through a more empathetic lens. We can negotiate for win-win outcomes rather than seek destruction of the opposing side just because it’s the opposing side. After all, the last time someone wronged you the pain didn’t go away, did it? It went underground, festered and grew, until it found another way out.

An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.
attrib. Gandhi

Instead of raging, take a breath. Consider the possible reasons behind people’s behaviour that may have little to do with you as a person. None of this excuses or forgives wrongdoing, but it gives you the chance not to add to it.

You don’t have to practise random acts of generosity. Being kinder to the people in your life already is a big enough task for most of us, but one which is worthwhile.  Hold the door, let someone into traffic, make a drink without being asked. If you’d love it, chances are someone else will.

On the flip side, empathy allows us to share in the joy of others too. There’s no truer friend than the one who can be honestly happy for and with you. Why not be that person for somebody else?

Empathy lets us feel the ties that bind us. We have more in common than we think. We must not give up on ourselves, which leads to the next keystone skill.

Until The End Of The Line

The difference between winning and losing is, most often, not quitting.
Walt Disney

There’s a saying that A students end up working for C students. Consider person A, one of the hardest workers in her class. She was never in the top ten percent, and that kept her hungry. She learned at an early age that hard grind would be the key to success.  

Compare with person B. Gifted with intelligence, athleticism and charm, he excelled in sports and school almost without trying. But in those last three words were the seeds of his downfall. He struggled in higher education because for the first time it required effort. He never learned how to study and college seemed too much like hard work.

You can guess which person became director at a major brand, successful by their own and society’s standards, and which one has a great future behind them. They are separated not so much by IQ as by perseverance.

Call it grit, perseverance, persistence, bloody mindedness, or whatever you like. Winners don’t quit and quitters don’t win. If you give up before the tipping point, you soon find yourself back at the starting line, while others plod on with their eyes fixed on the finish.

If you have grit, the means to keep going, to stick it out, to tolerate not winning until you do, the road to success is open to you. It isn’t easy though it sounds simple; turn up, day after day. Write, train, sell, paint. Put it out there and go again.

Find your own ways to keep going even when you think you’re failing. Try a different approach if your current one isn’t working. If you have a habit of bolting when things get tough, try sitting with the discomfort. Journal it, dissect it, find the fear that sits under the surface.

If you think you’re not good enough, you’re afraid to fail, scared of success, worried about the future, panicking that you can’t do this – then welcome. Everyone feels the same and success doesn’t make that go away. Digest this fact, and get back to work. There are no medals for sitting on the sidelines.

Perseverance is a vital component for the last keystone skill.

pillow fight_allen-taylor

The More You Know

Examinations are formidable even to the best prepared, for the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer.
Charles Caleb Colton

You’re curious, open-minded, able to empathise and relate to others, and have sticking power. That’s great, because you’ll need all these to supercharge the final key skill for survival in the modern world.

Ageing is inevitable, but have you noticed how some people get old really quickly? Their world shrinks, they stop asking questions, and they’re not interested in anything except the pain in their hip and how terrible the kids are these days.

I met many people like this in family practice. Often they were men who had retired without planning their next life stage. Without the structure of work they drifted, annoying their wives and suffering low mood.

When I asked what their hobbies were, or what they did with their days, they were blank. They shook their heads. “Nothing.”

Or they were older women without family ties for various reasons. They had a hundred reasons why they couldn’t join local groups, go to tea dances, try pottery, attend church lunches or knit blankets for charity.

These were people without curiosity and who refused to learn. They had time, but their mindset was fixed. They believed those activities were not for people like them. And so they remained stuck and unhappy, unwilling to leave their very small comfort zones.

To survive and thrive you need teachability – the ability and willingness to learn.

Embrace a growth mindset that welcomes the chance to develop. You’ll need curiosity to find out what might suit you and try it. You’ll need empathy to understand that teaching isn’t easy, and other people are just as worried as you are under their social smile.

You’ll definitely need grit, because everyone sucks in the beginning. And we hate to suck, but it’s unavoidable until we get better. We only get better with practice.

Leaving your comfort zone can feel like being dropped in a distant forest with no map or compass. Think of learning as going to the edge of your map and looking out at unknown but interesting forest nearby.

You still have your home base, which holds all the skills you have already. Now you’re ready to explore, bit by bit, with your teacher or mentor or YouTube video showing the way. Still a bit scary, but not so bad, right?

Learning happens at the edge of your comfort zone.

Don’t overload your brain by going too fast, too soon. Go at your own pace, but keep going. The more you learn, the more you realise how little you know. That’s humbling, but also inspiring because there’s always more to learn, whether in your own patch or somewhere else.

Rule of Four

Now it’s time for you to apply these rules in your own life.

    • Ask more questions and listen to the answer.
    • Be kinder and cut people some slack occasionally.
    • Stick with things until they bear fruit and don’t give up too easily.
    • Learn something new and enlarge your world.

It’s a crazy world but also full of good things, should you choose to notice them. Sometimes, like jewels, magic lies under the surface waiting for someone to dig it out, hold it to the light and make our lives a bit brighter.


(originally published in Publishous on 20 March 2019)

blog, productivity, self improvement

How To Use Envy To Fuel Your Journey

comparison shows you the way

balanced tower of rocks with hands making another tower
image by Samuel Francis Johnson via pixabay.com

We’re only envious of those already doing what we were made to do. Envy is a giant, flashing arrow pointing us toward our destiny.
Glennon Doyle

How are you doing with your writing?

Are you earning four figures every month and counting thousands of followers? Or are you only reading about those who are?

You know you shouldn’t compare your behind-the-scenes footage with someone else’s highlight reel, but it’s just so easy. Social media sites thrive on peacocks preening under envious glances from the rest of us, selling us their secret sauce along the way. Everyone wants to be a beautiful unicorn, not a plain carthorse plodding through a humdrum life.

Comparison leaves you dissatisfied and unsettled. Far from being a motivating force, it saps the very energy you need to move forward – because you’re number one or you’re nowhere. As Roosevelt said, comparison is the thief of joy.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Me Me Me

You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.
Eleanor Roosevelt

You’ve probably done this. You look at X who has something you don’t. You feel envious because you deserve that thing, angry because they don’t deserve it, or ashamed of your lack.

Notice that all these emotions point back at you. X is out there doing what they do, and you’re beating yourself up over it. Comparison is a thief. It steals your peace of mind and uses your own energy to do it.

None of this helps you to feel better, or achieve more in your own life. Worse still, when you think about it you’ll see that X is unaffected by all your angst. You are both the author and the sole beneficiary of this bad blood.

You can redirect that energy for your own good.

Envy is a magic mirror that shows your true desires. If you think you don’t know what you want, use envy. What makes you angry when other people have it? What object or activity cuts so deep that you have to cover up the pain with sarcasm or sweetness, otherwise you’d scream?

That. That’s what you want.

And you can go for it, because other people are paying very little attention to you. The spotlight effect makes you feel as if you’re the centre of attention, but others are as consumed by their inner dialogue as you are by yours. Even when they scrutinise you, that critical gaze is really a projection of their own self-talk. Just like when you watch unicorns and covet their rainbow manes.

But consider this – what if you could be a unicorn?

unicorn-transparent_SabrinaSchleifer
 image by Sabrina Schleifer on pixabay

Fuelled By Envy

Find out who you are and do it on purpose.
Dolly Parton

I’m no writing superstar. I write and publish, and sometimes get discouraged. I have to remind myself to keep going even if there’s no immediate payoff, and to take pride in my achievements even when it feels like I’m failing.

Because one truth lies at the heart of my work – I’m a writer and that’s what I do, good days and bad, fair weather or foul. Still… good days are more than welcome. It’s been a grind recently, for numerous reasons.

A writing group friend came up to me last week and said, “I read your articles and I’m amazed you’re able to write so much.”

He went on to say that he’d been sitting on a story for a long time. Inspired by Medium, he committed to writing one hundred words a day, and he was delighted to have a forty-five day streak under his belt.

This struck me for two reasons. First, I’d been beating myself up for not writing enough; and second because that’s how I started my serious writing journey. I read Shaunta Grimes and took on board her teeny tiny goals. I kept going, and now I’m here.

Maybe you’re not at the goal yet. But perception is relative. The top of the mountain is shrouded in cloud, but you are a speck in the distance to somebody who’s just left the starting blocks. Maybe you’re even an inspiration to them. Rather than envy, they recognise a kinship which motivates them to go on. If you did it, so can they.

Wherever you are, you’re further on than the person who didn’t start yet, further on than you were. The only useful comparison is with your past self. Make sure you’re pulling away from your previous position.

Then you’ll find the unicorns are people like you. Yes, they ran faster and/or started before you, but they all began where you did – at the starting post. They’re on their path, and you are on yours, but remember that there’s room at the top for everyone who works for it.

So keep going. Be inspired by those ahead of you, and an inspiration for those behind.

 

blog, creativity, self improvement

Reboot Your Dreams To Get More Out Of Life

Photo by Paulin on Unsplash

Kids these days, huh?

They have it so much easier than you and I do, caught up in the humdrum world of adulthood. It makes you angry, how carefree and downright dreamy they are.

Under the anger lies envy. You long for something you lost long before you could even really appreciate it, and now you can’t see how to get it back.

Parents and teachers told you not to waste your time dreaming, because it doesn’t lead anywhere. They told you 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 were caught in a trap and told it was the right place to be.

But your dreams didn’t go away completely. Occasionally you glimpse them out of the corner of your eye, when your brain drifts in 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.

You know, deep down, something’s missing from your life.

An Imaginary World

Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.
George Bernard Shaw

None of the technological and artistic advances we now enjoy were created purely 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 can be as expansive as your imagination. In other words, 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 make something new, you must first dream a new dream. That’s how the world got cars, airplanes, telephones, computers, and video games.

That’s how you’ll get where you want to be.

Put Away Childish Things

It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.
Berkeley Breathed

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 badly you can’t 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.

School days are far behind you, but when you browse painting sets online your old art teacher whispers that you have no talent. And instead of wondering why you’re looking at paints, you click away. That’s not for me, you say.

Here’s the thing. You’re an adult now. 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 so much of your inner self-talk are no more than an outdated script. When you realise that your reaction today is based on the memory of a conversation that’s decades old, you can escape your past.

That was then and this is now. You can choose to respond differently and write a new script.

That’s when you grow up.

Start Your Second Childhood

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.
Julian Fleron

You’ve had your share of bad experiences that have shaped your life. 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 seek something better.

This means rediscovering your inner child. Try books from this list to guide your journey. Or let go of your old programming and try something new, like the artist dates described in Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way.

We are all innately creative. You can be a functional adult and still retain childlike wonder and creative flow. Both are essential to a sense of wholeness.

Photo by JR Korpa on Unsplash

From Reality To Fantasy

Creativity is putting your imagination to work, and it’s produced the most extraordinary results in human culture.
Ken Robinson

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 putting your dream on hold while you work on strengthening the foundations of life.

Look Inside

This simple visualisation exercise is designed to bring your dream into focus so that you can use it as fuel 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. Future you has achieved your wildest dream. What do you see?

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.

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.

In dreams there are no limits to what you can do.

If you want to be a number one bestselling author, touch the cover of your book. If you want to finish a triathlon, hear the spectators’ cheers. If you want to build a million dollar business, see your signature on the annual accounts below a seven-figure number.

In this place there are no limits to what you can do. And it can only come true if you first create it mentally.

When you have the picture and the feeling that comes with it, associate it with a physical sensation. 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 work towards a clearly defined image of success. They’ve lived it so many times in their minds that it already feels real.

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, check whether your actions move you closer to your goal or away from it. That might mean giving up socialising because you’re training hard, or putting your great novel aside for six months while you concentrate on financial stability.

Sometimes the way forwards is sideways or even backwards. As long as you stay pointed at that wonderful dream destination, you can still make it.

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.