Monthly Archives: June 2012

Changing paces – a lesson in new behaviour

A hero for me of the year so far is Ruth Field, aka The Grit Doctor.  Her achievement has been to help me to realise after 40-odd years of inactivity that it’s good to move.  In fact to go beyond the realisation, because after all everyone knows exercise is good for you, and actually to do it and then keep doing it.

PE at my school was a pretty dispiriting experience if you weren’t inclined or able to shine.  It was netball or hockey in the autumn and winter, tennis or athletics in the summer term.  An occasional alternative if the weather was really bad: climbing bars and ropes in the school hall.  I was one of those always the last to be picked for teams, always uncoordinated and hopeless at everything.  What a relief to get into Sixth Form and leave it all behind forever.

Of course it was not just a matter of saying good-bye to Mrs Chester and Miss Bell, but also to any healthy exercise.  I continued through adult life with a self-image of being useless at any sport/game and, whilst maintaining an acceptable BMI or whatever, probably not what anyone would classify as physically fit.

Enter, in a post-Christmas feature in The Times, Ms Field and her book
‘Run Fat B!tch Run’.  As a result I am more toned, healthier, in touch with the benefits and serotonin arising from regular exercise, and out in the fresh air for a 3.5 mile circuit at 7am at least three times a week, more or less in all weathers.  I miss it and feel ill-at-ease if I don’t go.  It’s a major new behaviour established over a few months and on reflection it’s been an object lesson in bringing about lasting change.

The first step is to tap in to the knowledge or suspicion that the status quo won’t do.  All individuals and organisations know that life isn’t as good as it could be.   Even if it’s buried deep, somewhere there’s a nagging voice that says there’s a different way, and it’s probably a better one.  Then what?

  • approach whoever you are dealing with as one human being to another
  • make it simple and practical
  • make it fit with established preferences or what they are already doing (I have always been a morning person so getting up a 7am isn’t a problem)
  • make it sound achievable, possibly even enjoyable (though the Grit Doctor would never admit this)
  • make the change incrementally
  • get them to try it just enough to begin to see some benefits
  • emphasise that keeping it up is critical (‘if you don’t like re-starting, stop giving up’)
  • be empathetic but not patronising, disclose what you find hard about it too
  • get them to keep on keeping it up by motivating them with the benefits – or with the disbenefits of not doing it
  • be available to answer questions and offer support
  • offer role models, but not those who are so good that they are impossible to emulate
  • have other sources of expertise available so that you don’t have to have all the answers
  • encourage mutual support among those trying it out – social media platforms make this easy
  • set goals
  • let the new behaviour be its own reward, but also celebrate when goals are reached

So far, so straightforward.  But there is another ingredient which can be harder to manage – personal style.  Somehow Ruth’s approach just did it for me, but there are others whom she no doubt rubs up entirely the wrong way.  When you write a book, you just have to write it, send it out into the world and hope for the best.  Some will love it, others really won’t.  But when you’re working in person to make change happen you need to adapt your style to suit the situation, which means: a) getting to know what your personal style is, and b) learning how to be heard by those whose preference is very different.

And that’s another story altogether.

In other pews

Astonishingly, an item on the Today programme 8 o’clock news that I actually have experience of, not just an entrenched opinion about.  The Church of England has held a competition to design a chair suitable for replacing pews but still in sympathy with historic interiors.  A recent Daily Telegraph article: ‘Pews move back into churches after plastic seat horror’  gives an indication of how some churchgoers feel about the issue.  But still, in a way it’s a relief for the Church of England to be in the news for something other than sex and gender.

Our church, initially founded to counter the village’s reputation for drinking alcohol and taking part in recreational games on a Sunday instead of coming to worship, is an unassuming mid-Victorian building which has since been altered several times.  In 2009 the Parochial Church Council finally got to grips with the need to replace the pews in the south aisle with more flexible seating.

It was facile to suggest in the news report that churches are removing pews in the light of ‘dwindling congregations’.  In our case, the arguments in favour were that access for wheelchairs and baby buggies was severely limited and the fixed pews led to a bizarre kissing-gate routine for those wanting to go through the south door to the church hall for refreshments after a service.  The arguments against were: ‘it’s always been that way’, ‘we won’t like the look of it’, and even hints that it was just pandering to ‘political correctness’.  One of the most vociferous opponents was a neighbour who rarely, if ever, comes inside the building.

The project was a challenge to handle and it was essential to respect deeply held views on both sides.  Our vicar showed excellent leadership as she took it forward with just the right balance of determination and empathy.  But undoubtedly some members of the congregation are still hurting.  It’s just that people really don’t like change, especially when they are already feeling a bit uncomfortable, as many Christians are these days.  It goes against the zeitgeist to belong to the Church of England and the C of E generally gets a bad press.  In reality the pews – now chairs – are mostly filled with normal folk who puzzle away at questions of faith and doubt, and who in many cases are the engine-room of the Big Society, doing the rounds for Meals on Wheels, and running youth clubs and community projects.

Our chairs are not ugly or plastic and are a lot more comfortable than the wooden pews.  We can now welcome families with very young children into the heart of our services and we have a practical space for meetings and study groups.  It took a couple of years to agree the idea, apply for and be granted the faculty (planning permission) from the Diocese, do the work and afford the chairs.  The impact on some in the congregation will take longer to recede – previous changes to the building or to services are often spoken of as recent, but if you ask exactly when they were introduced, it was probably 25 years ago.

…… For anyone not steeped in the ways of the Church of England, have a look at Dave Walker’s cartoons .  They capture the way it is for many of us who are keen to resist the urge to take ourselves too seriously.

Can you keep a secret?

Of course you can – you’re a professional after all.  But it’s worth pausing occasionally to think about what you mean by ‘everything you tell me will be treated in strict confidence’.   Really??  You won’t be discussing the key facts that came out of the conversation with your colleagues?  The ‘hard’ data and the more interesting stuff about how your interlocutor felt about that time a colleague seemed to take the credit for their idea?   Clearly, unless you are going to work out advice to your client entirely in your own head, it’s not, strictly speaking, confidential, is it?

Trust is the bedrock of every relationship, professional or otherwise, and keeping confidences is one of the behaviours which makes trust happen.  One loose remark and months of relationship building are undermined.  So the confidentiality agreement needs to be more than something hidden in the terms and conditions of your contract, more than taken as read, it’s got to be real, and evolving.

Confidentiality has to be addressed upfront as soon as your interactions begin.  If you omit to say something about it and assume there’s some unwritten norm in the ether of the interview, possible outcomes are that your client (substitute the appropriate word for whatever relates to your role) spills the beans and then regrets it afterwards, or clams up.  In the first case the relationship will be off to a rocky start because the client is already feeling at a disadvantage.  In the second, you will have missed the opportunity to learn anything useful.

It has always seemed to me that the key is to be absolutely clear (and honest, of course) about what will happen to the information you gather in the meeting.  Then whoever you are dealing with can regulate for themselves how much they tell you.  If they know that topics will be analysed in your team meetings, or be part of your feedback to a wider group within the client organisation, they can judge what to share with you.  Which brings me to: ‘of course everything will be treated as non-attributable’.  It’s a mighty elephant trap for the unwary.  Believe me, I’ve been there, and it wasn’t pretty.  People within an organisation can always pinpoint the source of particular opinions.  So when in the ‘feeding back the results of our interviews’ session, an observation goes up on the screen or flipchart, client staff will know that Eric or Fiona said that.  They always know.

Underneath trust is confidentiality and underlying confidentiality are clarity and honesty.  And after being real about it, comes evolution.  Once you have demonstrated in practice that you don’t tell people what you think of someone else (making them wonder what you’re saying about them to others), and you don’t inappropriately share information even from casual conversations, you will get a reputation for not betraying confidences.  Only then is the client likely to share with you the real reasons the new system won’t work, or why that team underperformed.  You move on from a somewhat limited association with someone which operates only with information in the public domain, to a deeper relationship which can genuinely address the issues at hand and develop options with actual traction in the organisation.

So there’s the answer.  Just don’t tell them I said so.