- 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.
Making the New Year mindful
New Year’s resolutions might give you the chills, but there are lots of other practices and rituals you can use to ensure you step into the new year mindfully and with intention.
It has been said that April is the cruellest month. However, with all due respect to T. S. Eliot, I would suggest that January is the hottest contender for the title of Bleakest Month of the Year. Where I live, it’s the coldest time of year with some of the longest nights. Even for people in the southern hemisphere, it has to be rough. The festivities are over, and the next holiday to look forward to is St Valentine’s Day, and for many that’s the ultimate anti-uplift. Unless you actually have a dinner date with Chris Hemsworth on 14 February, it certainly doesn’t pack enough of a punch to make up for having to take down decorations and sorrowfully finish the last bite of pudding. With that in mind, doesn’t the tradition of making often draconian and self-depriving resolutions at the beginning of this somewhat dreary month seem faintly ridiculous, indeed almost inhuman?
Now, I’m a resolution-maker. I’m a coach, it’s like a professional requirement. However, many people find the whole business stressful and see it as a direct path to disappointment, which is a shame as the turn of the year can be a natural and uplifting cue both to look back and plan forward. So, if you want to use the beginning of a new year to reflect on the one gone by, or to turn a page and enjoy a fresh start without actually making resolutions, here are a few turn-of-the-year rituals I enjoy that you might like to try.
Year-end stock take
In the no-man’s land between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, I like to sit down and write a list of my achievements over the past year. Reminiscing over the high points of the year is a real mood boost. It might be a little harder than usual this year, but that’s all the more reason to spend time actively seeking out the good. Remember to include the little things as well as the big: everything from repainting a wall to redecorating the whole house, reading some good books to teaching your child to read, doing some yoga online to running 10K. Simply keeping up with mortgage payments and doing your job. It all counts. What did you achieve this year?
Look for learning
Another uplifting ritual is to take a moment to think back over the year and list the things you have learnt. It might be something about what makes you tick or what you need to be happy. Or a new life skill, like sewing. Or maybe you’ve read the newspapers more this year and finally have a good grasp of your county’s political machinations. What did you learn this year?
Visualise the year ahead
Now, shifting your mental gaze to the year to come, close your eyes and imagine the year. I see it as a giant planner with gold stars on the big dates like birthdays and anniversaries. Now imagine yourself entering the year. What does it feel like? What colour and flavour does it have? This simple exercise helps me feel like I’m going into the new year more mindfully. I’m stepping into it, paying attention – not just being swept along by the inexorable march of time. What do you envisage for the next 12 months?
Set your intention
Rather than setting a resolution to give something up or change something you do, try setting an intention for your being in the coming year. Complete the sentence: “Next year, I will be…”. Healthy. Patient. Kinder. Calmer. More grateful. Think of your intention as an over-arching theme for the year that will drive all your decisions. Only once you’re decided how you want to be (and therefore feel) can you align your actions and decide what you want to do. How do you want to be this year?
List positive goals
Another great alternative to negatively-worded resolutions (I will eat less chocolate. I will not smoke. I will stop shouting at the kids.), is creating a list of positive goals. I will eat one bar of chocolate per week. In January, I will only smoke on weekdays (And in February, I will only smoke four days a week, etc.). It has often been said that our subconscious mind cannot process negatives. I say “don’t think of an elephant” – what’s the first thing you think of? I say “drink no wine” and I find myself reaching for the corkscrew. Whether you believe that not, it is true that positive statements of intent are more motivating than negative ones. So express what you want, not what you don’t want. What do you want to do this year?
Make a plan
A goal without a plan is just an idea. Once you’ve set your intention, written down your goals, or done whatever you need to do to step into the new year mindfully, ask yourself: what do I need to do to ensure that in 365 days’ time, this is a reality? Write down every tiny step you need to take to get there: from asking your partner to watch the kids next Saturday while you buy running shoes to making a doctor’s appointment for a pre-training medical. Now, read the first task on the list and Do. It. Now. Maybe your goal is to learn a foreign language. Or perhaps you want to write a book. Or find a new job. The second you finish downloading that vocab-builder app, digging out your old laptop, or asking your best friend to help you re-do your CV, you’ve already taken the first step to achieving your goal! How are you going to make it happen this year?
January is traditionally a time when we start expecting more from ourselves, imposing diets and exercise regimes on our bodies, beginning new projects and giving up vices. But what if, this year, you chose to lose a different kind of weight?
Happy New Year, readers! A bit late this time in the month but a hearty wish for health and happiness is never de trop. Actually, my first column of 2013 is coming to you late in January on purpose. We’re spoilt for choice in terms of resolutions and self-improvement articles from about mid-December to mid-January every year and, while I’m a big fan of making resolutions and setting goals, I thought I’d opt out this year.
January is a horrible month to make changes in your life, isn’t it? It’s cold out and you’re trying to take up jogging; you’re stomach’s stretched from all the Yuletide excess and you’re trying to eat less; the post-Christmas blues set in and you’re trying to give up your favourite vices. The back-to-school time in September is a much easier time to start any project, in my opinion, but my letters to the UN suggesting we re-think the calendar fall of deaf ears each year, so I guess we’re stuck with January resolutions.
But hey, here’s an idea, what if this year we made a different kind of resolution? Or rather, what if we framed our resolutions differently? Instead of thinking about “making changes” and “giving things up”, how about simply letting go of things that do not serve your wellbeing?
What are you carrying around?
Let’s take the humble handbag as a nice tangible start. Many of us are guilty of filling to capacity. If you had emptied mine out not so long ago, you’d have found at least three pens, a filofax, my phone, a notepad, lip balm, paracetamol, plasters, tissues, an assortment of hair pins, a novel, a comb, two memory sticks, a few business cards, perhaps a journal, an apple, some post-its… you get the idea. It was like I was trying to prepare for every eventuality in life, make sure I had everything I’d need in all circumstances. One day I got so fed up (and my right shoulder got so sore) that I decided to downsize my handbag – and now I only ever leave the house with the things I’ll really need. The rest – I’ll make do! One pen is fine; leave the journal at home (I never stop in a charming café on my way home to write a few lines); put my appointments into my phone diary… I literally lightened my load.
Shake it off
Applied to other areas of life, the benefits of lightening your load are myriad. Why not stop expecting yourself to behave perfectly all the time? What would happen if you took that weight off your shoulders? Or what about not always obliging yourself to answer your phone or reply to texts the minute you get them? What if, every so often, you let yourself off the hook? As well as getting rid of self-imposed expectations, we can all do with letting go of some other, heavier, mental baggage. Like perpetual pessimism; the long-held and unjustified belief that we are not good enough; the conviction that we’re not great at sports; fear of commitment…
Eliminate the negative
Whether it’s by travelling light, or working to shed a few psychological kilos (yep, living in France, I’ve gone full metric), we can all lighten our load a bit, without dropping balls or becoming irresponsible or unreliable. As we enter 2013, why not think about imposing less on yourself rather than more? I’m not saying don’t give up smoking or take up exercise, of course. But do think about framing them in such a way that you’re more aware of the ways in which you are freeing yourself up than the things you are giving up.
Originally published on Running in Heels.
In the long grey winter months, it’s easy to be negative and hard to act cheery, but just as you are what you eat, so too you feel what you focus on. Choose to change your focus.
You can’t really argue with the Ten Commandments. I mean, as rules for happy and harmonious living go, they’re a pretty solid base: don’t kill; don’t cheat on your spouse; don’t steal; don’t lie. So far, I’m on board. Have a day of rest every week. Yep! Take care of your parents. Absolutely. Without wishing to labour the point, I don’t think many people would take exception to any of the above, whatever their religious leanings. Sadly, however, I have often felt that one commandment was missing.
Don’t get me wrong. Ten is a great figure – it’s even, pleasingly round, fits with our decimal currency, can be nicely spaced out into two five-item lists on a couple of handy stone tablets. I can totally see why Moses would get to the end of dictation, see a nice symmetrical pair of lists, and casually decide to leave commandment Number 11 at the top of the hill, but honestly, I really think he dropped the ball. Our lives would be infinitely more pleasant had he just added one last rule to the list:
Thou shalt not whine
The addition of those four little words to that fateful list would have made such a difference, wouldn’t it? Whining is perhaps one of the least attractive traits in a person, and is certainly one of the most draining. I have an acquaintance – let’s call her Wendy – who, whenever I ask the innocent question, “How are you?” replies with some permutation of, “Oh, I’m so tired. Yep, really shattered – I worked until 10 o’ clock every evening last week. It’s just crazy.” When I first knew Wendy I made the mistake of trying to help her with this apparent problem – suggesting she speak to her boss about her workload, asking whether she was eating properly, that sort of thing. Recently, however, I had an epiphany (I don’t know why I’m on such a religious theme today, I’m on a roll and I’m just going with it). I realised that Wendy isn’t actually asking for help, nor does she need to talk. The bottom line is: Wendy likes whining. And she particularly likes whining about being tired.
You feel what you focus on
I don’t actually know anyone who isn’t tired right now. In the bleak midwinter, it’s dark when you go to work, dark when you leave work. You’re trying to lose the Christmas bulge, keep that resolution to go to the gym, maybe even give up or cut down on something – cigarettes, chocolate, wine… The post-Christmas winter months can feel grim at times, and yes, they’re tiring. But does saying you’re tired all the time help at all? If, every time someone asks me how I’m doing I answer, “Crikey, this rain is getting me down, I just can’t seem to get warm, and I have a splitting headache”, all I can think of by the end of the day is the rain and the cold and the headache and, lo and behold, it’s all actually worse than at the beginning of the day. But if I reply, “I’m great, thanks! Looking forward to a quiet night in, that’s for sure”, miraculously, I can actually convince myself that I do indeed feel full of beans, and that quiet night has become a choice I’m making in order to take care of myself. I find that I feel what I talk about; which means that I don’t also choose to talk about what I feel.
Accentuate the positive
Now, I’m not suggesting we bottle up our feelings or lie, but unless mentioning aches, pains, gripes and groans will actually do some good, why go on about them? Now, whenever I see Wendy, I avoid asking how she is and instead pose very specific, fact-based questions: What did you do this weekend? Did you go jogging like you wanted? It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that not only does Wendy’s whining about being knackered exacerbate her own tiredness, it also exhausts me! If only she could take her focus off the negatives she’s feeling and concentrate on something – anything – positive, that good feeling would be increased instead of the bad. The mind is like a magnifying glass – whatever we choose put under the lens is what our eyes will see enlarged; whatever feeling we choose to talk and think about is what we’ll feel magnified. Luckily, we get to pick what we train our lens on. So, it’s precisely when I’m tired and a bit hungry and maybe a little paranoid that I try hardest to remember to apply the 11th commandment and silently order myself not to whine.
Originally published on Running in Heels.