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Tag: active listening

Anger: I am angry so that I am important?

Active listening

I thought I had a post somewhere on basic active listening.  It seems not.

Active listening is often required when we least expect it

Active listening isn’t hard.  Provided we remember to do it!  When we are needed to listen, simply listen, we are often in a rush ourselves and it is the hardest ever to slow down and pay attention.

Three situations require active listening

There are three classical situations when we must pay attention and listen

  • Requests: Please may I have .   .  .!
  • Help:  Everything is going wrong!
  • Anger:  Life is unfair!

We rarely miss anger!

The third, anger, is the one we don’t miss.  Angry people get in our face.  They are bristling with rage.  They want something to change now and they’ve decided that it is all our fault!  Can’t miss it 🙂

It can be hard to react with applomb

Sadly, because other people’s anger often takes us by surprise, we don’t react well.

If we have a moment to catch our breath, we are probably OK.  We give the person the attention they crave so desperately and reassure them of their importance in the world.  They calm down and feeling a little sheepish, become our new best friend.

But what of our anger. What we we are angry?

It strikes me that England is an angry country.  And people enjoy being angry.

Anger in Britain is a treasured state

Anger in England isn’t an unpleasant temporary state that people want to get away from. It is a treasured state to be sought.  People even seem to feel important when they are angry.  “There!”, they seem to be saying, “I am angry too!” It is almost as if their status is restored by being angry.

I get angry so that I can be important enough to be insulted?

It’s a perversion.  Usually we are angry when our status is diminished, and we want it restored.  When an angry person also has a triumphant gleam in their eye, I wonder whether they are also delighted to have found a situation where they are important enough to have been insulted?

Someone needs some deep respect

If I am right, and there is no reason that I should be, then a way to reduce anger is to help people feel valued.  Courtesy and politeness do this in part – but they avoid “dissing” the other person.  Courtesy and politeness isn’t respect.

If we want to help people find status without resorting to some bizarre form of tantrums, then we need to take the trouble to find out what about them is deeply valuable to us ~ and tell them.  I found a great quotation from E E Cummings yesterday ~ we have to mirror to people what is so wonderful and why we would be so much poorer without them!

Extreme experiments in life

Try that as you are next on a commuter train and your neighbour is annoying you.  Pay them some attention. Yes, I know you are English, but try.  It will be a fun experiment, won’t it?

What will happen when you pick on the one point that is so important to them and that you would really miss if they weren’t part of your life?

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Find the courage to apologise and invite by understanding the deep hurt

When we are outraged, we don’t make a lot of sense

I went to a fairly “diverse” university during a civil war: we had black students, white students, and others!

Life as an “other” was interesting. People who were partisan assumed that you were “for” them, or “against” them, on whatever criteria they thought relevant. It was nothing to do with you exactly ~ you just happened to fit in to some fantasy narrative they had in their heads.

As an “other”, you also spoke to people on both sides and you got to hear what they thought of “the other side”.

Conflicts are deadly. Don’t get me wrong, but if people knew how funny they sounded, maybe they would stop to hear themselves.

I don’t hate you because you are different ~ I make you different so that I can hate you

This is how it went.

Black students said white students were ‘thick’ and white students said white students were ‘thick’

The evidence, on both sides, was that ‘they’ had to work so hard!

I studied psychology and sociology, and even if I didn’t, I would have known that we are ignorant about people we never speak to and that we over-simplify their stories. We also describe common human failings as evil, rather than common human failings.

What was amusing is that both sides perceived working hard as an insult! That was what we all had in common.

Yaz stupid if you have to work hard!

Being lazy wasn’t an insult, but stupid was.

We make people different when we hate them but we are not all the same

Not all cultures believe that being lazy at college is cool. I taught in NZ for a number of years and we had many students from China.  Almost without exception, they would arrive talking about ‘working hard’.  Invariably, by third year, they would be saying, “These Kiwis might have something going here. They don’t do half as much work as I do and they get by”.

So what we value is not universal by any means. Our insults are not universal by any means. Indeed, when our families haven’t spoken for generations, it is a bit of a miracle that we think the same way.

When people don’t ‘like’ us, we make them different

People locked in conflict often do have heaps in common. Most of all, they want attention from the other side.

  • They want to be heard.
  • They want the ‘other side’ to acknowledge them.

Conflict is about status and belonging. We should never forget that.

The conflict spiral is a contorted, complicated process.

It goes like this.

  • I do something (following my imaginary but highly valued story in my head).
  • In that story, I am somebody.
  • My actions set up a relationship with you (good, bad or indifferent).
  • My actions may give you pride of place (or take away your status).
  • If I have taken away your status, you have a choice of reactions.
  • If I am very powerful relative to you and I have many resources that I could share with you, you might choose to go along with my abrogation of your status.
  • If I have power but I lack anything that you really want and can only get from me, you are more likely to react.
      • You might react angrily. In which case of course, my status is threatened and a new process begins. If I have more power than you and very little social sense, I will probably hurt you.
      • You might have great social skills and make a joke which would allow me to apologise quickly, should I be so inclined.
      • The culture that we share might have other solutions. There might be ways that I can “pay you back” that are understood and accepted. Irony is one such leveller.
      • The culture might have solutions that allow me to pay you back in ways that you don’t know about ~ you spit in my tea, for example.
      • Or you might choose to seek redress in other ways. The most likely way is that I lose status in your eyes. You stop believing that the status that comes with my power is legitimate.

In the short term, I might never notice nor care. I have the power, right?  Why should I care?

But I no longer have your respect. In time, you will slowly start to make me the mirror of all you worry about in yourself. If you think that working too hard is a sign that you are no intellectually-equipped to be at university, that will be what is wrong with me too. Not because it is true, but because I don’t talk to you any way. As I don’t talk to you anyway, you might as well be the place where I “dump” all that worries me about the world!  You make me different (in a way that is intelligible to you) to explain why I don’t like you!

And as our relationship descends in to one based only on power, I will be able to live out my fantasy narrative without worrying about how it affects you.

We are on a one-way hiding to nowhere!

So how could we have resolved the conflicts at my university?

We were in the middle of a war and on the whole, the university did a pretty good job of keeping things moving.

  • We were open and we were studying. Under the circumstances, that was pretty good going.
  • We did have a class of “others”. Some of us were crossing the divide and learning a little. Painfully, sometimes. But stripping away generations of animosity has got to be more painful than removing a sticking plaster, right?
  • We did have tutors who held up mirrors to our interaction. Social science lecturers often drew a map of where we sat and showed in other ways how we thought and behaved.

We needed more though. The trouble is that in a civil war, the attitudes of young people reflect the attitudes of their elders and who was going to do ‘more’?

What we learn from communities who’ve lived through intense conflict

The message for those of us not living in communities torn apart by strife is this.

Don’t go there! Don’t move along that path!

When you are ‘dissed’ by someone .  . .

.  .  .you will be angry, disappointed, powerless and dejected.   You will want to retaliate.  You should remember that your ultimate weapon is contempt. By diminishing your status, they have lost status too. The have last status enormously, actually, because the only way to regain that status is with your good will which is not available right now.

Maybe when they insulted you, they meant to be aggressive. It is possible.  Maybe they have got carried away with their fantasy world. We may be want to head that off gently!  Or, maybe their lack of sensitivity to us was caused because we were insensitive in some way to them. Maybe, we did something to inadvertently kick off the spiral of contempt and conflict?

The first possibility to avoiding ridiculous conflict

When we are over our initial irritation (which we feel like it or not), our first possibility is to attempt to restore their status. Just gently. Invite and apologize.

When you have power (and you may have more than you think) .  .  .

.  .  . you will probably be thinking something like “I am right”.  You will be justifying your actions to yourself.  That is a good sign that you are riding roughshod over someone.  Watch yourself!  Remember it is easy to do because it is easy to do.  When you have power, it is oh, so easy.  You more than anyone must bring to a halt this one way hiding to no where.  When you leave people with no alternative but to think “He, or she, has behaved badly.  I have to pretend to offer respect but that is all it will be.”  Then the spiral begins, so slowly that you may not notice at first.

When you notice the spiral, stop.  Don’t worry where it began.  Don’t worry who began.  Just stop and say to yourself.  My loyalty to this person is worth more than anything else.  I can absorb a little irritation.  I can absorb a relationship where I don’t throw my weight around quite so much.  Let me acknowledge that they want my respect as I want theirs.

Let me just stop and show my respect.  Apologize and invite, as Ben Zander says.

Apologize and invite, no matter who is right and who is wrong.  Anything to avoid getting into deep conflicts where we make each other the bad guy to cover up our hurt.

 

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The positive psychology of anger and hate

Hate is such an aggressive word

Some time ago, I worked with people who used the word “hate”, a lot.  I was mesmerized.  I “loathed” doing my tax return. I “loathed” broccoli (I like it now – good with a lemon sauce).  But “hate”?

Hate is an active word.  Hate is a doing word.  When we hate something, we want to do it harm.  I didn’t want to do my tax return harm.  It wish it wouldn’t bother me.  But I didn’t want to do it harm.

I also never used the word loathe for people, either.  I sometimes said that “I can’t stand so-and-so”.  I didn’t want to be around them and avoided them if I could.

More often I would say something like “I think so-and-so annoys me because <reason>”.   Once, my reason was that “he seems to think he is my equal.”  My interlocutor agreed with me.  “I think that’s why he annoys me too.”

With that out of the way, we could relate to this “johnny-come-lately” without visible annoyance and without allowing our sense of his impudence to impede a constructive relationship.

Hate is a funny thing – it comes from anger

Hate is closely linked to anger, of course.  Some people make a career of anger.  Others have had so much go wrong in their lives that they’ve lost hope of being treated decently.

For that is what anger is about.  Disappointment and dejection that people who we treat well, treat us badly.

So my colleagues had probably had hard lives.  At the time, I was young, so I thought they should get on with being positive.  I sure they could have done.  With age I have become more compassionate and recognize that they might have had a lot of shit-happen.

Anger is a funny thing – very dangerous but easily resolved

If hate is a contorted emotion, so is anger.  It is so easy to help someone who is angry.  Agree with them.  Let them know that it is OK to be angry.  Watch them relax as their status is restored.  Then help them make a plan.

It is much harder to deal with your own anger.  The triangle of disappointment locks us in.

  • We like so-and-so.
  • They disrespect us and don’t care what they do to us.
  • We can try talking to them about what they are doing to us but we run the risk they confirm they don’t care!

We are left with 4 choices.

  • Living with an uncomfortable double bind where we know they don’t care about us but we all pretend that they do.
  • A dishonest hypocrisy where we know our relationship is rubbish.  But we keep up a pretense and do the minimum.
  • We walk away but wonder forever if we could have restored the relationship.
  • We bring up the problem and have our worst fears resolved.

This choice of 4 bad choices is why social support is so necessary.

Social support cleans up anger in families and organizations

In well run families and work organizations, uncles and aunts and other senior members of the organization step in to resolve conflicts.

  • They alert people to the effects of their behavior on others.
  • They broker apologies and restore status.
  • They suggest equitable separations when a relationship must end because it no longer has an honorable foundation.

Sadly, when we are made angry we don’t tell many people.  We are already suffering from an acute sense of shame and aren’t going to advertise our loss of status to the world.

Unless the uncles and aunts and elders of an organization or community are alert, a lot of anger gets buried.  Pressures and tensions build up and eventually they explode.

People have personal policies for dealing with anger

  • Some people raise the problem immediately.  Their policy is that if you choose to disrespect me, you will live with it.  It is a case of Strike 1 – you know I am unhappy.  Strike 2 – I ask you for an apology.  Strike 3 – If you don’t make good, we share the discomfort -I won’t absorb it alone.  Some people do this explosively.  Some people are brilliant at making a joke.  Both are asserting themselves and making it clear that you should deal with them respectfully or accept loss of status yourself.
  • Some people never raise the problem.  They try to absorb the tension themselves.  They really shouldn’t because the other person might just be clumsy.   But they’ve made a habit of absorbing tensions and will continue to do so.  Watch out for those quiet ones.  It’s not good for any of us that they absorb all the pain.
  • Some people won’t raise the problem but retaliate in due course.  “I don’t get mad but I get even”. I know people who pursue someone else for years until they get even.  One fellow I know would sit in his office doing nothing and keep someone waiting in his outer office for the same time (or more) that he was late.  He would agree to give references and then spike them with faint praise.  His aggression was never overt.  The other person might never know.  But he felt better.  I looked on in wonder.  A lot of energy went into this.  Why not just say “you are late!”?  Well, for the obvious reason that the relationship might break up altogether.

Only the transgressor can truly resolve anger

The trouble with anger is that its resolution is in the hands of the transgressor.  If the transgressor does not apologize quickly, then we are in a lose-lose situation.  It doesn’t matter how you deal with anger – you are still in a lose-lose situation and yours style is just a matter of preference.

Pick your style

Maybe we should just live an “extreme life”?  Deliberately work with people who make us angry for a longish period until we settle on a style that makes the best of lose-lose situations – though there is nothing best in them.

A positive style for dealing with your anger

Or we could be like Ben Zander, the orchestra conductor who lectures on positive psychology:  apologize and invite.

Apologize to the person who made us angry and invite them join in.  Would that work for you?

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Shh! We are talking about status and pecking order and noone must hear!

I spent 6 years’ training as a psychologist and status and pecking order were rarely mentioned. Yet, both status and pecking order are central to much of what we do, and at the heart of how we feel about the way others treat us.

I think we should discuss status & pecking order more – at least in the circles of organizational designers and developers.

All important topics are subject to taboos, and status & pecking order is not exception. But it is the job of social scientists to break taboos. If a subject is too important to be discussed openly, then it is also too important to be ignored!

Status explains anger

Take this explanation for anger, for example.  We are angry when we feel we have been demoted.  Just writing the explanation creates a frisson of annoyance.

Resolving anger requires restoring status

Because demotion is often the cause of anger, the quickest way to restore someone’s good temper is to resolve the status issue. Apologize. Help them take their rightful place in the pecking order.

Anger often signals unnoticed shifts in status

Sometimes, someone’s anger takes us by surprise.  Children, for example, sometimes assert themselves rather unexpectedly.  Suddenly, they feel they should be consulted about something, and startle us with their asssertion.

We have to mark shifts in status of our professional colleagues

In professional groups, shifts in status happen too.  Sometimes status changes are marked by rites-of-passage, like graduation day.  We are reminded to start involving people much more deeply in decisions that affect them. But there are also moments where there are no rites-of-passage.

I not only studied psychology. I taught it too – in the last 3 years of the 6 year training period. My students were going from students to legally-qualified-and-registered-psychologists. Graduation was not enough for them. They needed to do something which marked the change. Sometimes they hired me as a consultant (they were the boss now), or they took me out to lunch (and paid)!

It took me one or two batches of students to pick up the trend, and then I began to enjoy the transition.

I also started to build ‘rites of passage’ into our professional internship system.  Students could request a slot at ‘conferences’ to show off a project that (in their minds) showed them using our professional skills at a professional level.  They volunteered, and no one ever missed these sessions because they were very good!

Slides down the status ladder are equally interesting.   In the world of management, which pivots around power, slides-down can be quite entertaining.  I’d be amazed at how quickly people noticed poor contributors, and the way non-performers began to fall off email lists and not be consulted when important decisions were being made.

How much of strife at work is due to mismanaged status?

It strikes me that many issues in the workplace come about because we haven’t considered status issues.

Active listening

Restoring a person’s status, when it has been lowered accidently and even innocently, is sometimes seen as an insult to the next person. Yet anger from accidental reductions in status is easy to resolve. Dealing with anger is one of the 3 scenarios in active listening. No one should be in management position or in a customer service role without understanding and applying these scenarios.

Loyalty to our colleagues

We are also only pleased by an increase in someone else’s status when our own status is fairly secure. Those of us who are organizational designers and developers can’t expect people to manage or deal with customers when they are uncertain about their own status. Where management have reached the LCD of asserting will, rather than talking about joint goals, we can expect status wars to erupt spontaneously.

Rituals for status shifts

We need rituals for younger people to show off their new skills and be accorded the status they deserve. Without these rituals, only a few will discover for themselves appropriate ways to claim the status that is their due. Others will be angered by the lack of recognition. And when we miss that signal too, we hurt ourselves. We should expect passive aggression or outright hissy fits.

Do you think we should talk about status and pecking order more forthrightly?

I’ve noticed that not even the new ‘service designers‘ talk about status and pecking order. Funny that. Must ask them.  Why do we ignore status & pecking order?

How many problems at work do you think we could resolve if we were more thoughtful about status and pecking order?

And could we be more thoughtful about how we adjust our status rankings ‘as play unfolds’?

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5 Little Understood Ways to be Resilient in Hard Times

I am 99% persuaded by positive psychology, largely because I thought like a positive psychologist long before it was invented.  I never took to clinical psychology so I had nothing to discard, so to speak.

But it is the darker side of life where I think positive psychology has its limits.  Maybe the typical positive psychologist does not feel that because they have the skills to deal with people who are deeply unhappy.

My reservations come at many levels.   As a practitioner, though, I want to know what to do when we are in a dark place.

What does it mean to be resilient when times are terrible?  What are the critical processes that we are trying to leverage?

If I succeed at exercising leadership when times are miserable, if I show resilience and help others to be resilient, what might these processes be?

Here are 5 processes underlying resilience

I would be interested in your thoughts.

Active listening

The key to listening to angry people, among which I include people who are deeply insulted, humiliated, frightened, defeated and generally gibbering wrecks, is to acknowledge their emotion.  We don’t have to agree with their emotion.  We don’t have to copy their emotion.  We don’t have to make any comment about the circumstances.

We simply have to acknowledge the emotion, and show, through our acknowledgement, that we still respect the person, in spite their emotional display, and in spite the circumstances that led to these humiliating circumstances.

Generally, that leads to slight embarrassment on their part but that is a much more comfortable emotion than the anger and hurt.

Developing a group

We are often angry and humiliated when we have lost status and losing status usually means losing status in a group or being ejected from a group. Referring to a group to which we are both a part helps restore status.

Additionally, when people have been humiliated in front of their nearest and dearest, particularly the partners, children and parents, we should restore their status in their eyes too.

Identify small actions

Anger comes from loss of status and be implication, loss of control. When we look for small things we can do now, and we do them, we feel better.

Be grateful ourselves for having the opportunity to help

While we are doing all three above, we are active. We take the initiative. We are in control. We belong.

Be grateful, and allow our gratitude to show to the other person.  They will be grateful in turn.

Gratitude is a great mood-lifter.

Enjoy the results

As the other person lifts from utter dejection to a willingness to try, enjoy.  And be grateful again.  That way we share the ‘positive feedback’ with the other.   Let them share the way our mood has improved.

And watch the entire group become more buoyant

If we have done our job well, collective efficacy and trust should have risen.  And we all know that collective efficacy – our belief that our colleagues are competent – is the most powerful factor in raising school quality.  It is bound to have the same impact in other circumstances.

Trust also creates upward positive feedback spirals.  Though, we may need a lot when we start from a dark place.

What do you think?

  • Are these the effective mechanisms for regaining resilience in desperate places?
  • Are these effective mechanisms for encouraging people who really have few ways forward and little to push off from?
  • Would these questions even help you in the day-to-day dispiriting trials of the western world – like getting stranded in an overcrowded airport?
  • Are you able to try them out in the less-than-terrible conditions so that one day you can use them when life is truly terrible?

To recap:

L – Listen

G – Group

A – Act

G – Gratitude

E – Enjoy

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Can I give you some feedback?

An irritated face at my door

Some one came in to my office and said to me: can I give you some feedback?  Yes, of course I said.  Sit down.  Would you like a cup of tea?

My interlocutor had though, absolutely no intention of giving me feedback about anything.

Feedback is not about me

Feedback means the distance between where we are and the goal we want to achieve.  And preferably, contains information that allows us to steer towards the goal.

If my interlocutor had such information, they should not have been keeping it to themselves.  That would be poor team play indeed.  And if they really had feedback about our joint goals, why would this be cause for embarrassment?

Oh, you have a complaint?

Of course, my interlocutor really wants to make a complaint.  They feel annoyed or irritated with me about something.  And as these are rather hostile emotions, they feel embarrassed.

No one likes to feel embarrassed, so they’ve become indignant and righteous instead.

Am I feeling playful?

Now if I were in a mischievious mood, I could let them sweat.  But as I wasn’t, I thought I would let them off the hook of their own anger.  Grab a chair, have a cup of tea, and tell me all about it.

Anger is such difficult emotion

It can be so difficult to give up anger.  Anger is to do with status.  Someone has ‘dissed us’ and we want our status restored.  So often we want nothing else.  Just an apology, an acknowledgment, and a sense that we are appreciated.

But it is too embarrassing to begin the conversation – you dissed me – so we dress up our anguish in other terms.

So feedback was just a request for an apology?

Of course, sometimes there is more to someone’s complaint than anger.  And we can address whatever specific issues arise.

But most times, the redress and correction is easily done.  What’s really wanted is for status to be restored.

How was that cup of tea?  Do you feel better?

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Active listening

For fear of ever losing it, I must quote The Bumble Bee word-for-word here.

“Imagine you are the leader of a new team or network.

How can you quickly find out what each team member’s number one concern is about working in this scenario?

Dr Lewis recommends you get each of them to repeat the following 5 words out loud without thinking about it too much:

“We can’t do that here”

Listen carefully to which of the five words they stress – if it’s:

  1. We – they are worried about their identity
  2. Can’t – they are worried about their beliefs and values
  3. Do – they are worried about their skills
  4. That – they are worried about their behavior
  5. Here – they are worried about the environment”

UPDATE:  This heuristic is quite sophisticated listening, yet it is needed.  Even IT people struggle with comments like : We can’t do that here.  What exactly does someone mean when they say that.

Can we separate out the ideas a little more?

1  We – what will my friends and significant others think of me?

2  Can’t – that doesn’t make sense with the other things we think and do

3  Do – we don’t know how to do that, or manage that

4 That – we can do it another way but not like that

5 Here – what you suggest will harm this place

This is highly nuanced listening which helps to find a person’s underlying objection.

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