Much disquiet at work this week, some of it highly practical; more of it to do with how people are feeling.
My contribution was to characterise my job as seeking and feeling operational ‘heat and pain’ and checking in with everyone that we think it’s proportionate and justified.
If all you do is react to ‘heat and pain’ you never change anything. But if you create too much of it – or create it needlessly – you can do a lot of damage and stop helpful progress dead in its tracks.
In one exchange I pointed out to someone the importance of ‘bedside manner’… Telling someone the facts of how badly broken their leg is – and how you’re going to screw bolts into it in five places – may have seemed to them the most important thing… but people also want you to rub their hand and show them you care.
In the big rooms, where ‘big people’ talk ‘big decisions’, all to often any sense of how it ‘feels’ and what ‘heat and pain’ it’s causing is absent.
I felt out, explained to people and fixed a lot of heat and pain this week – especially with a big heave on Friday. I’ll fix some more next week.
A book I’m currently reading urges us to think of ‘fear’ as the mental equivalent of physical ‘pain’.
On one level they’re the things we want to most avoid; but looked at another way they are just simple signalling mechanisms. Pain is the body’s only way to draw our attention to a problem. Fear is the mind’s.
This opens up the possibility of a different approach to fear. Not do everything to avoid it; but objectively acknowledge it, accept it and maybe sometimes push through it…
The idea is that fear is just the psyche’s way of signalling boundaries to us – which is very much the same role pain plays in the body. They are both acutely and finely tuned signalling mechanisms.
Just like a burnt finger keeps us off hot kettles; so fear keeps us away from scary situations. But as a very experienced sports coach told me at work – strength is built by how you recover.
So the idea is to recognise when fear is signalling a boundary and just feel it – don’t fear it. And if it still seems like a good thing to do, push through that fear a bit.
I can’t say I’m quite there on this one yet. Stuff you don’t know how to do, can’t control or which could go very wrong still seems pretty scary to me. But if you accept it’s always going to feel scary, that calms the troubled waters a good deal.
And then what?
Well if you accept fear is often just a signal of the new and the unknown – and that variety is the spice of life – then trying new things and meeting new people are indeed things one might fear; but they’re not things to avoid…
To test my thesis I’m going paddle boarding this week on holidays: a thing I don’t know how to do, with the risk of humiliation and getting wet, for the first time, all on my own, with a lesson from someone I’ve never met.
Exactly what I’d generally avoid – so here’s to giving it go!
Something I’ve done a lot in the last decade is empathy. Indeed it has become one of the things I do the most at work: connecting with people and quite literally ‘feeling their pain’.
Walk a mile in another person’s shoes and you see the world differently; better understand different opinions and why people do what they do – even when it seems to be hurting both them and you.
But it comes at a cost. Connecting with the pain of others is painful for me too. It hurts to see someone hurting; and even more if you go with them to the very source of their pain – deep fears, anxiety, sadness and loneliness.
And this is a problem, because once you’ve seen the contents of someone’s soul, you can’t just shrug and say: “Oh dear, how sad, never mind.”
Not least because neuroscience is proving that our own brain copies the pain and suffering of others when we empathise. We do literally ‘feel their pain’ when we listen and put ourselves in their place. Mirror neurones fire in sympathy – in exactly the same pattern as in the sufferer; and the suffering is shared.
So I was fascinated to read in the New Scientist (in the article pictured above), that we should consider cutting the empathy; and boosting our compassion instead.
What’s the difference? I’m not sure I exactly know – but I can ‘feel’ the difference… Empathy feels like touching a person and connecting directly with their emotions – literally feeling what they are feeling. The science says that’s also what’s happening in your brain.
The problem is that in sharing, experiencing and absorbing the pain of others, we lessen our own reserves of optimism, energy and resilience. And that means ultimately we are less able to summon the strength to help or improve anything. Empathy feels draining.
Compassion feels different. Compassion ‘connects’ like empathy does but instead of firing the pain-mimicking mirror neurones, compassion digs deeper: for warmth, care, appreciation and common humanity.
I reckon this must be how the Pope, aid workers and others who have the suffering of hundreds, even thousands of people thrust upon them daily must cope. Not by directly empathising; but by digging deeper for compassion. Certainly it’s the Dalai Lama’s philosophy.
One thing’s for sure I haven’t cracked it yet. Now I know it, I can feel the difference – beleaguered by too much empathy; strangely strengthened by tapping into warmth and compassion.
But I can’t manage compassion confidently yet; I still want to say at the end of sad conversations “I feel you pain.” But I know now that’s the invitation and trigger to fire those mirror neurones, and carry away my share of another’s suffering.
Talking to a very smart work colleague about it this week, we concluded: if a person is in a deep dark hole, you’re not always helping them that much, if you just jump in next to them.
Similarly if you do try to feel another person’s pain and offer the classic line “I know how you feel” you risk real failing yourself and the person you’re talking to – how can you really know how someone feels?
When someone is in a dark place this week’s realisation is the answer isn’t necessarily to join them in the gloom. Compassion – if I can learn how to channel it – creates the same connection, but offers a better chance of staying happy and healthy; and being some help.
One hesitates to admit to loony sounding practices which invite ridicule, but… mindfulness meditation really does reach the parts other things don’t.
Sure you can read, philosophise, listen to music, exercise or get blotto to blot out a whirring mind. But when it comes to finding out what’s at the heart of the whirring, you have to stop distracting yourself and start meditating.
Mindfulness meditation is learning to connect your mind and body – but without the help of the Buddha. Simple really, focus on your body and breathing and it reveals a deeper understanding of what’s in you mind.
It generally starts with thinking about your feet. More accurately focusing on breathing, and then stopping your mind racing by working up from the feet, to the legs and upwards, concentrating on each zone of the body in turn.
Hey presto, the mind stops racing. Result! But as I discovered this week that’s just a foundation. A very useful one; but it’s not the sum of what can be done.
Turning towards difficulty has been this week’s task – and this has brought some uncomfortable realisations. Quite literally uncomfortable too, as the challenge is to clear the mind, conjure up a difficult thought – a fear, anxiety or problem – and then really feel it. And keep feeling it even when it hurts too. Ouch!
In various runs at this, I have found, thinking about one situation makes my thighs cramp and my face literally twitch with anxiety. Another makes me clench all my arm and chest muscles in controlled fury. And a third – which I thought I feared, I don’t. I also discovered I’m no great fan either of ridicule or being ridiculed…
So what happens next? Well the answer is not to suppress and bottle all this stuff. Recognising mental events often trigger a set of physical responses – which pass, and aren’t so bad really – breaks the vicious circle.
Just like the dentist (where I was yet again on Monday) one way is clench up and hate every minute. Another is to breathe, relax, close my eyes and enjoy half an hour to myself – as the dentist buzzes, whizzes, picks and saws.
I’m off for more dentistry right now and quite looking forward to the chair. I’m learning that when you stop avoiding discomfort and turn to face it – it hurts much less.
Funny, I do find there’s a big big difference between ‘good honest pain’ and the dolorous pain of disease or decay.
A nice deep cut, bruise or surgical scar is a healthily smarting demonstration of the body’s marvellous healing powers. Tooth decay, anything fungal or worst of all tumours, are sickening symbols of decline and fall.
The knife and needle used to scare me, but not these days. Having had various bits lanced, excised and chopped out, you can kept your creams and ointments – nothing beats the clean cut of surgical steel.
Like many men of my age, my general attitude to a health problem is ‘best ignore it’. Of course I periodically moan, but then refuse to get anything seen to and hope it will go away – nearly cost me dear that 20 years ago.
And it is going to cost me again, as I absorb the X-rays of my thoroughly impacted wisdom tooth. Having ignored it, complained about it and recently attacked it with a camping spoon, it has now got the better of me – two teeth to come out, root canal work on a third to hopefully save it and up to £2000 without passing Go.
I asked the dentist whether he could just pull them out and do me a George Washington wooden set. He felt not.
And what I’ve felt subsequently is interesting too… because now I’ve seen an X-ray, my subjective feeling of pain has changed. Now my brain has a picture of the problem, I feel it much more – and in a completely different place.
It used to really only hurt at 3am at night, when it often woke me up. I thought it was a nightly push from the wisdom tooth to get out. Turns out it’s just the nightly drop in cortisol of a healthy circadian rhythm – cortisol falls, the immune system kicks in and the pain kicks off. It still hurts at 3am but I realise it’s not one pushing, it’s another one throbbing.
What was – in my mind – the surging pressure of a wisdom tooth, with an battling desire to burst through, is now correctly identified as just the morbid cry of its near mortally wounded neighbour. Broken, damaged perhaps beyond repair – less George Washington more General Custer.
Three reflections arise. One, doh! Why didn’t I go get this fixed sooner. Two, ow! Pain. Three, oh? So that’s the explanation – and mind and body seamlessly recombine with a different mental picture and a different felt reality; no periodic ‘pressure’ just steady dull pain. Our senses can deceive us. The mind makes up its own mind.
Interesting to read, this week, that our recollection of painful surgery records only two coordinates – the peak of pain, and how much it hurt at the end. Duration is curiously absent, as a significant part of our recollection of pain.
This certainly fits with my memory of the handful of times I’ve been operated on. All I remember is the ‘peak pain’ of the sharp, intense – and after several repeats, increasingly unbearable – pain of multiple local anaesthetic injections going in, before they start to work.
As for the end, just a curious mixture of dull and sharp pain – like a cross between a paper cut and a bad bruise. It is as if we remember the horror moment. And how the story ends. But nothing in-between…
I was talking to someone this week about painful relationships between organisations – and I wondered out loud, if it’s the same. You remember the worst they did to you, and how it was last time you saw them, but – as with pain – not much in-between.
This is an interesting thought. At work, is it your worst behaviour – personal or organisational – which scars the deepest? And is how you ‘are’ next, your considerable opportunity for major salvation.
It might mean worrying a lot less about situations and relationships which have been bad for ages. Only attend to them when you can do something significant to change how the ‘story’ ends.
Dysfunctional relations between organisations and people are part and parcel of the world of work. Treating them like pain might be an interesting approach – mitigate the worst pain, worry less about the duration of discomfort. And attend to them, only, when you can make things a lot better.