After years (and especially the last year) of constant emails, texts and troubles, this week the tone has changed.

My last two jobs have been all about problems: building failures, system crashes, unhappy people, complaints, campaigns, strikes and unreasonable and unrealistic senior folk.

As a result every time I put my phone down I was expecting another electric shock to come my way – via text, WhatsApp or email. Saturday morning, Sunday afternoon pick your hour, there’d be someone who’d find something to trouble me about.

Of course 2020 takes some beating for stuff going wrong (plus a tree smashed our studio and the dog has now died) but in truth, I’ve been suffering pretty much constant electric shocks from work since 2005.

So imagine my delight this (Saturday) morning to find no new problems in my inbox. No texts. No WhatsApps…

How long it will last who knows. But not having to look after the reputation of a national institution or the operations of a multi-campus university certainly made my day today.

Peace at last!

War and Peace

Two good books came to my aid this week – ‘Fierce Conversations’ and ‘The Anatomy of Peace’.

The first argues persuasively that there isn’t a relationship you can’t improve (or set back) with your next conversation. 

The thesis is that the conversation is the relationship – and you’re relationship only as good as the conversation you’re having. Stop talking and your relationship is automatically going backwards; start talking and you’re in with a shout of improving things.

The further argument is; some conversations need having – even if you really don’t want to have them. I had one like that this week. 

The second book ‘Anatomy of Peace’ and the related ‘Outward Mindset’ are very simple too. But being simple doesn’t make them easy. These say that what’s happening around us (and to us) is often far more of our own making than any of us would like to recognise. 

The thesis of both: is that the essence of what we create around us flows from whether we are seeing and treating people as people. Most of our problems are caused by our heart subtly and quietly hardening against people – and consequently seeing individuals and groups (even whole countries) as obstacles or vehicles. 

Stop seeing the person, or start focusing more on your own needs – and we start the self-reinforcing process of pushing, shoving and self-justification.

This week I stopped pushing on the cusp of starting shoving, and had a frank and open ‘fierce conversation’ instead. An important work relationship is improved; I’m much happier and a whole slew of future problems feel suddenly more tractable – we will tackle them together not push them at each other.

Going to war with people is always easier than making peace; but the consequences rip and ripple out, and are endless either way. 

Separately, coming somewhat ‘shell shocked’ from a downbeat meeting on problems with a major building project, someone kindly asked if was alright. I stopped a moment and said: “Yes, I was quiet because I was thinking.” A white lie, but partially true.

And then I mentioned the stoicism of Germany’s ‘brick women’ after WWII whom I’d read about in Neil MacGregor’s Germany: Memories of a Nation’

As Wikipedia has it, the Trümmerfrau (literally ruins woman or rubble woman) helped clear and reconstruct bombed cities where 4 million homes had been destroyed and another 4 million damaged – half of all homes – plus half of all schools and 40% of all infrastructure; they collectively tackled 400 million cubic metres of ruins.

Puts a few of my work ‘infrastructure problems’ in perspective. But it also speaks to the power of people to objectify, justify, hate, fight and destroy each other – and very often the same people to come together in a testament to the indomitable human spirit: to restore, recover, rebuild and recreate. 

We have the capacity for both in us all.

Peace in our times

The Anatomy of Peace’ sounds a heavy read; and the fact it comes from the cultlike-sounding  ‘Arbinger Institute’ put me a little on edge… But I’d promised someone I’d buy it, so I did.

In essence it’s a simple thesis: 

1) We all spend far more of our time tackling things that are going wrong, than doing things to make them go better.

2) When people: co-workers, children, family members etc, resist our attempts to correct them, we combine increased coerciveness with talking them down – first in our heads, then increasingly out loud.

3) Once we start to coerce people and start talking them down, three things happen: 

a) they resist us all the more;

b) we demonise them in our minds and with other people to justify ourselves and our actions;

c) we increase our attempts to coerce them and talk them down further.

This focus on correcting, and the cycle of attempted coercion, self-justification, resistance, demonising and a hardening heart is everywhere, all around and at all levels – all the way up to nation states.

Heavy stuff.

What to do? There’s plenty that’s common-sense: listen more, build enabling relationships etc. But it all starts with the heart and stopping yourself getting into – and learning how to get out of – the downward cycle of correcting, coercing, hot and cold conflict and going to interpersonal war. 

I’ve tackled three difficult work situations with these new techniques this week; pitched battles, either in full-blown standoff or seething with cold professional anger. 

Tricky stuff. But acknowledging people as just that: flawed, frightened, angry and frequently frustrating; but first and foremost people, is the trick to developing a ‘heart at peace’ in the Arbinger jargon. 

And who doesn’t want a workplace, a home and a heart at peace?