- Lower your expectations
Too often we put so much pressure on ourselves to have (and ensure others have) the perfect Christmas or New Year’s Eve that we end up stressed, frazzled and disappointed. What would it be like actively to set a lower expectation for your family this year? What if you were define a “good Christmas” as simply sharing a meal with your family (whether it’s a Nigellaesque feast, an overcooked turkey, or emergency take-away); enjoying some time off work to play with your kids (even if they squabble a bit); and finding a few hours to read a book (even if you have to get up a bit early to get that quiet time).
- Know where your responsibility stops
You are not responsible for ensuring your family has a good time. Read that again. Sure, you might be in charge of food, or you might be the one who deals with the kids’ presents, and those are definitely responsibilities with a capital R but, in the end, whether or not people enjoy the effort you make is up to them. You can lead a horse to the eggnog but you cannot make it drink…
- Get a little grateful
It’s so easy to let the season go by in a rush of wrapping up work, getting things done, paying visits, shopping, and attending events without stopping to appreciate all the gifts it offers. Over the holidays, take a moment at the end of every day to feel gratitude for all you have, even if – in fact, especially if – you currently feel like moving to a desert island at the earliest opportunity. Take a moment to, if possible, step outside, look up at the stars and genuinely count your blessings. When you go back inside, you’ll be able to see the noisy kids, grumpy father-in-law, slightly wonky tree, and rather cramped sitting room through very different eyes.
It’s that time again, folks: ‘tis the season to be jolly, deck the halls, and sing the 12 days. And while it has become fashionable of late to deride the cheesiness of many Christmas traditions and bemoan its commercialisation, I have to say I love this time of year. Whether you choose to celebrate Christmas, Hanukah or the winter solstice, I have always found this to be the perfect time to wonder, reflect, and get in touch with my values. One of the things I enjoy most is the opportunity to honour the value of gift-giving.
I actually gift shop all year round. I am always on the lookout for special items that are exactly what a friend once said they really wanted or needed, or spot-on gifts that hit all the right buttons for my kids – like the glittery (tick) unicorn (tick) sewing kit (tick) Santa will be bringing my daughter this year. I do this because when I give a gift, I want it to be wanted, or needed, preferably both. I loathe the idea of buying “stocking stuffers” to make up present quantities or getting something just for the sake of it. It’s a waste of time, money and the planet’s resources!
So, in the spirit of offering necessary and appreciated gifts, I’d like to offer a suggestion for a Christmas gift we can all give our loved ones this year. The gift of listening. No, I’m not suggesting anyone gift-wrap their ears, and I’m fully aware that this one will fall flat with anyone who still believes in Father Christmas, but think what a difference it could make to our lives if we all became just 5% better at listening to each other. What a gift that would be!
Learning to listen was, quite literally, item number one on the programme for my first day of coaching training. We were taught that, as coaches, our first job was simply to listen to clients, let them be heard, and give them space to express themselves, and that even if that was all we did for the entire session, we had almost certainly always made a difference. Because how often do we get to sit and talk to someone who is just there to listen to us, without judgement, agenda or expectations of reciprocity, and without jumping in to offer advice or a comparable anecdote?
If you would like to give yourself and those around you the gift of becoming a better listener, here are a few ideas to help you make that Christmas wish come true.
- Set your intention
Active listening – the coachingese term for making a concerted effort to listen to someone – is simple in theory but surprisingly tough to do. The first step is to go into the conversation with the firm intention of listening. Simply by becoming aware that your goal is just to listen will enhance your ability to listen closely and concentrate on the other person. When you enter a conversation, make sure you’re comfortable and not likely to fidget. You cannot focus on someone’s words when you are cold, need the loo, or have a clothing label scratching your neck. Sort those things out before getting into it with your friend and you will be able to give her your undivided attention. And remember to make regular eye contact and offer listening signals such as head nodding and the occasional “uhuh” or “mmm”.
- Listen to understand, not to reply
I have a number of friends – mainly those who live far from me – with whom I have developed the habit of leaving each other long, newsy Whatsapp voice notes. This function of the app is a great way to keep up with pals who live in different time zones or who have different schedules and with whom an actual phone chat is often hard to arrange. My mate Kate, a woman of great wisdom, recently commented that she enjoys how relaxing our habit of leaving messages is: “Since it’s a message not a conversation, you can really listen, without having to think about what to say next”. How often do we listen without mentally drafting our reply or thinking about a similar thing that happened to us that we’d like to share? What would it be like simply to hear someone’s story without feeling the need to share in return? Obviously, there is a time and place for reciprocity in conversation, but the next time a friend starts to share some concern or news, why not try imagining you are listening to a message? Your only job is to hear it. If there are silent pauses, let them be; resist the urge to jump in with “Oh my God, the same thing happened to me!” or “I feel the same – when that happens to me, I always…”
- Stay curious
A coach’s second most important job is asking questions. In training we learn how to ask big “powerful” questions that can turn a client’s limiting belief on its head or make him see a situation from a new perspective. However, some of the most helpful questions (or prompts) a person can hear are often the simplest. Try Tell me more, or What else? Ask for details: What happened next? How did that make you feel? What was the impact of that? Keep your focus on the other person, rather than bringing the conversation back to your stuff, your experiences. An alternative to asking questions is offering thought-provoking observations, for example, Wow, that sounds disappointing! or I can hear so much anger in what you’re saying. By voicing what you hear and inviting a person to express more, you’re showing you are interested, that you value them, and that what they are saying is important to you in itself – not just as a springboard for your own sharing.
- Interrupt judiciously
I initially called this paragraph “never interrupt” but changed that for the sake of precision. I doubt I even have to say that the quickest way to frustrate someone who needs to talk is to interrupt them. Interruption most often takes the form of jumping in with own our story, but equally irritating variants include but are not limited to: interrupting to correct, contradict, offer information that turns into a digression, and the classic “Ah! That reminds me…!” change of subject. The bottom line is no one likes it, so don’t do it. The exceptions to this rule are things like interrupting to ensure understanding and ask for clarification.
Being a good listener is one of life’s hardest skills to learn, but the benefits are multiple. By giving the gift of your listening and attention, you show someone how highly you value them and give them a space to explore whatever situation or predicament they need to share. Plus, this is one of those gifts with a kickback. By improving your listening, you will improve the quality of your relationships as your loved ones (consciously or otherwise) respond to and appreciate your presence and openness and your connections deepen.
And, if you listen well enough and often enough, you’re sure to hear something that sparks a great idea for next year’s gift. That’s an extra win!
If you’d like to offer yourself the gift of active listening with a professional coach to work on issues holding you back, areas of life in which you are stuck, or projects that you would like to accelerate, contact me for your free introductory coaching session to start building a life lived with purpose and on purpose.
- Treat your feet like friends
Clearing out shoes that pinch, jab, squeeze and rub is a radical act of self-care because it has an immediate positive impact on your physical and mental wellbeing. As well as eliminating pain, careful shoe selection makes your movements and activities, boosts your energy, and enables you up to skip rather than hobble through your day.
- Lighten your load
Why break your back carrying more than you need? Clear out your bag at the end of each day and fill it with only the things you need for the next. Invest in miniature versions of cosmetics; leave loyalty/store cards at home – most places can find your details logged in the system using just your name and postcode; clear your wallet of receipts once a week; and have a serious think about how many of the keys on that jailer-like bunch you really need with you.
- Drink, drink, drink!
Find ways to get more water into your system. Make yourself have a glass every time you go into your kitchen, or set the rule of one glass of water for every other beverage you drink (tea, coffee, wine…). Keep a bottle on your desk and by your bed. Make it convenient, easy and habitual.
As I type the title of my article this month, I cringe, waiting for the Personal Development and Wellbeing Overlords to strike me down. I have rebelled. I have taken sacred words in vain. I have dared to suggest that the much-coveted and ever elusive balance on which much ink has been spilt and much energy spent is perhaps… not in fact such a prize. In fact, I will go so far as to say that I believe the very concept of balance sometimes to be unhelpful, misleading and – ultimately – impossible to achieve.*
I hear you gasp. I know. It’s like coaching hari-kiri. But if you can bear to read on, I’d like to explain why letting go of the desire for constant balance, indeed binning the very term, can liberate you to lead a more fulfilling life full of sense and purpose.
The myth of balance
Finding balance seems to be the wellbeing Holy Grail. And on paper, it is an appealing concept. Having every part of your life flourishing and nurtured. Limiting excess in any one domain. Feeling whole and well-rounded and like life is under control. Nice work if you can get it. Let me know if you ever do. Because I take issue with the somewhat simplistic quest for balance that is often touted as the key to calm. In essence, not only do I believe balance cannot be achieved, I’m also not convinced it is something to which we should aspire! In fact, I think that often the pressure to achieve balance actually contributes to us feeling even more off kilter and like we’re just, well, getting it all wrong, not winning at life.
Writing the book of your life
A friend of mine with a young baby recently shared her dismay that she spent all her time either looking after the baby or doing chores and had no time for herself – for personal projects or exercise. As a mother of two and her friend, I sympathised. Those early months (years!) can be brutal. But as a coach, I had more helpful insight for her. Life is a book, and a long one at that. It must be lived in chapters to make any sense at all. You can’t skip forward, nor can you page back and read again. Each chapter has its own function, tone and plotline. Some have action, some description. Others have dialogue and witty repartee.
My friend is currently living through the “home with small baby chapter”. I’ve read it myself – it contains lots of sleepless nights, stained clothes and endless laundry. It also features cuddles, personal growth and overwhelming love. It’s a real rollercoaster chapter with much to offer, but certainly not balance. What about the “young, single and first big job” chapter? That one’s all about late nights at the office, drinks with colleagues, and nights out. Not much balance there either. Or the “falling for the love of my life” chapter in which anyone who isn’t the beloved drops out of sight for a good few months? Or the “setting up my own company” chapter in which a person finds huge personal satisfaction from hours spent finding clients, securing deals, and getting a fledgling business off the ground. Every single one of these chapters is a fabulous read, but not a single one features anything like what I would call balance.
Read one chapter at a time
Over-emphasis on any single aspect of our lives for a prolonged period is, of course, unhealthy. But so is striving to keep every area of our life well-tended at all times. There will be periods when you party too much and do no exercise (the university years, anyone?), some when you hunker down to write a book or take a course and see no one for months, others when you soak in the joys and stresses of a new baby without a thought for your looks, keeping up with the news, or missing social functions. That’s fine. That’s normal.
All too often, the quest for balance mutates into a quest to have and do and be it all – and all at once. This creates pressure to keep all the plates spinning all the time, when really our wellbeing would often be better served if we just put a few plates down and concentrated on the ones that really matter to this particular chapter. Balance is a subjective term, and at different times of our lives it will be necessary and right to let a few things slide to spend sometimes inordinate amounts of time focusing on one thing – a political campaign, a new home, marathon training. So, enjoy the chapter you’re living, and tend to the areas of your life that are most important to its current narrative. Enjoy each chapter to the full and at the end you’ll find you have a bestseller of a book where the only thing missing is regret.
If you’d like help finding the right balance for you and your life today, grounding, holistic, 360° coaching can help you perfect the recipe of your life and achieve fulfilment, peace and joy. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to find out how working together can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose.
- Turn off notifications
You don’t have to completely uninstall every app on your phone to take a break. Simply turn off notifications from Twitter, Facebook, etc. in your phone’s settings or within the app itself. Give yourself the power to choose when you look at the app instead of reacting every time it summons you.
- Put it away
During times when you don’t want to be disturbed by your phone or tempted to check notifications and scroll, put it in a drawer, or in a different room. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s so much easier not to look at that dictatorial little screen every two minutes if it’s not immediately to hand – or indeed in your hand – all the time.
- Not in the bedroom
We both know that if you put your phone on your nightstand it will be the last thing you look at before sleeping and the first when you wake. You’ll also be tempted to check it if you get up in the night. Make resisting temptation easier by buying an old-fashioned alarm clock, putting a book by the bed, and leaving the phone downstairs, in the kitchen, or in your bag.