Are you a good listener?
If you spend a lot of time in meetings, on the phone, or talking to other people, paying attention to what other people are saying is essential. But do you really listen? Or are you just hearing what they are saying and not really thinking about what you have heard?
Listening is a skill, and to be good at it you need to practice. Learning how to be an active listener can help you retain information and can improve your communication with others. Improving your listening skills can also help avoid misunderstandings, which can be a source of stress.
Active listeningThere are three steps for active listening:
- Hearing - Listening carefully enough to hear what the speaker is saying and be able to repeat it.
- Understanding - What you think the person speaking might mean.
- Judging - Does what the other person said make sense?
This may seem obvious, and it is, but many people have blockers that keep them from being good listeners.
Look at the traits below. Do you have any of these traits? If so, you may not be as effective a listener as you think you are!
Mind reading. You read the speaker's mind instead of hearing what they are saying. For example, "He said he liked it, but I can tell he didn't."
Selective hearing. You pay attention only to things that concern you, or that you want to hear.
Daydreaming. You're unable to listen because your mind wanders.
Self-comparison. Thinking about how you compare to the speaker (for example, "I am smarter than this person") rather than listening to what they are saying.
Jumping to conclusions. You have ready-made ideas about an issue before the speaker has finished talking, which may cause you to draw incorrect conclusions.
Have to be right. You'll go to any lengths to prove you are right, or look for ways you can twist the facts to your point of view.
Opinion giver. You give opinions, particularly negative ones, before the speaker is finished and tend to "put down" the speaker.
Pre-empter. You assume you know what the speaker is going to say before you let him or her finish talking.
Topic shifter. You have a habit of changing the subject before the speaker is finished.
Planning ahead. You think of questions and solutions while the speaker is still talking. Thinking is good, but you may not have finished listening.
Pleasing. You agree with everything before understanding the whole situation completely.
Top tips for being a good listenerGive your full attention to the speaker. Don't think about what someone else is wearing or look out the window! And, focus on content not delivery.
Let the speaker finish before you begin to talk. Don't pre-empt what they are going to say.
Finish listening before you start talking. You can't listen if you are thinking about what you are going to say next.
Avoid emotional involvement. Listen to what the speaker is saying, not what you want them to say.
Ask questions. If you don't understand, make sure you get the information clarified.
Give visual feedback. Engage with the speaker and nod to show you have understood; smile, laugh or frown to show your feelings.
Improving your listening skills can improve your overall communication skills. Practice active listening and see how much more you can gain from meetings and how much better you are able to understand other people's agendas.
- Cooper CL and Palmer S. Conquer your stress. Management Shapers published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. 2001
Dealing with stress at work
Stress costs U.S. businesses about $10,000 per worker each year and about $300 billion a year overall, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
If you feel that you are experiencinga stress-related problem, don't keep it to yourself. Take steps to nip it in the bud before it becomes a bigger issue. The following tips may help you to help yourself and add some extra calm to your working day.
Take your timeComing into the office, sitting at your desk and launching into the day's workload is not necessarily the best way to start your day. Instead, make a list of all the tasks you have to achieve that day, estimate how long each task will take, and allow a little extra time to complete each task. Next list them in order of priority.
Be sensibleIf you simply have too much work, talk to your manager. Trying to hide the way you feel or cover up the fact that you can't meet your deadlines will increase your stress. You're only human, and there are only so many hours in the day. If you don't highlight a problem, no one will be any the wiser. If you do highlight a problem, then someone can help you resolve it.
Be professionalMake sure your desk is clean and your papers are organized. It may seem obvious, but clutter can cause disarray and make you appear unprofessional. If you are genuinely organized and using your time effectively but still cannot meet your targets then you should talk to your manager. If you are completely disorganized, and your work pattern is erratic then you should reassess why you aren't meeting your deadlines and why you are working long hours.
CommunicateTaking the first step toward speaking to someone about your workload is the hardest. Think carefully about which colleagues you are comfortable talking to. Arrange a 20-minute meeting with them and take a little time to get organized beforehand. Think about what you want to say, how to present your case and what you want to the resolution to be. For example, will extra resources, more time or help prioritizing your work resolve your issues? Think of solutions and suggest these to your manager.
Break it upIf you're really busy, taking a break can seem like a bad idea. But working too much can cause your productivity to drop1. Even taking 5 or 10 minutes to calm your mind can make a huge difference depending on how you choose to spend your time. Relaxation exercises can seem a little strange at first, especially if you haven't tried them before. But if you're feeling stressed and they work for you, what have you got to lose? It's better to try new coping strategies and discover they are not for you, than plod along being stressed and feeling sorry for yourself.
- Eliot R and Breo D. Is it worth dying for? How to make stress work for you and not against you. Bantam books. 1989
Dealing with stressed colleagues
Managing your own stress levels can be taxing enough, but how can you help someone else with theirs, without it becoming your burden?
It can be difficult to help someone who appears stressed and unhappy - how do you approach the subject, what should you say, and how do you know when to listen and when to offer advice?
How to recognize a colleague who may need helpPeople can experience stress whatever level their job is, but how we react to pressure is different for all of us. Some people seem to be coping well and then erupt in anger, or dissolve in tears, while others let you know how stressed they are all the time.
Some of the warning signs to look out for include weight loss or weight gain, teeth grinding, nail biting, hypersensitivity, aggressiveness, depression and anxiety1,2.
How can you help?Talking to other people can be a great way of coping with stress; it can give a different perspective on the problem, provide ideas on how to deal with the stress, and provide reassurance and support.
How to approach someone you suspect needs helpApproaching someone who you think could be suffering from stress can be difficult. If you know them well, you could approach the subject head on and ask how they are doing. Or, perhaps mention that you have a lot of work and ask if they do also. Talking to people can help them realize they are not alone in feeling pressure. All they may be looking for is a little reassurance that they are coping and that it's quite normal to feel some degree of pressure.
If you don't know them very well, you could make an effort to be more approachable or speak to another colleague you know they are close to. When you are stressed little things that go badly can seem a lot worse than they really are, but little acts of kindness can go a long way. Why not offer to bring them a cup of coffee or make an effort to say hello in the mornings? Or, ask if they want anything when you go out for lunch? They may start to open up to you.
What can you suggest they do?There are many things they could do to help them reduce the stress they encounter in their daily working lives. They may need a little help working out exactly what is causing their stress; is their workload too great? Do they have poor time management? Maybe they don't understand what is expected of them. Talking to you may help them put their problems into perspective and to take positive actions.
An easy first step is to make sure desks are clean and organized so the things that are needed are nearby. Next, make sure the day is structured and write a list of everything that needs to be done. Prioritize the work that needs most urgent attention.
If deadlines are not going to be met, make sure the relevant people are informed. Work that is not completed due to poor time management and organization is a reflection of the individual, but work not completed due to unrealistic deadlines or excessive demands has to be reassessed.
If personal issues are a problem, and not something you want to be involved in or that they want to talk about, perhaps you can suggest that they talk to friends or family, or maybe take a little time off. Be sensitive to their feelings and what you know of the situation.
How to prevent stress from being passed on to youCoping with your own stress is difficult enough, but having to help someone else cope with their stress as well can turn into a burden. If you honestly don't have time to help a colleague or are worried that their stress will affect you negatively, seek help. Talk to your manager or to your Human Resources department in confidence.
If you do choose to help a colleague, it is important that you don't allow their stress to impact your daily working life. For example, make a point of talking to them at their desk rather than at your desk - this way you control the amount of time you spend with them.
Be firm. If you are really busy explain that you cannot discuss things at the moment and it would be better when you can give them your full attention at a later time. If you can't give them the time they need, suggest someone else that they could talk to who may be able to help.
Follow good time management and organizational practices to ensure that you have a coping strategy in place for yourself when faced with stress. This way you are prepared to deal with your own stress before helping someone else tackle theirs.
Offering practical advice such as the above and showing that you are happy to listen and talk things over when needed will make a lot of difference to someone.
- Greener M. The Which? Guide to Managing Stress. Which? Consumer Guides. 1996
- Eliot RS and Breo DL. Is It Worth Dying For? Bantam Books. 1989
To achieve your goals, it pays to be assertive. How can you learn to be assertive without appearing aggressive?
Assertiveness is not aggression. Assertiveness is asking for what you want and need, but it is based on the premise "I'm OK, you're OK". It shows you respect yourself and the person you are dealing with. It is very different from being passive - "I'm not OK, you are OK" - and from aggression where "I'm OK, you're not OK".
Neither passivity nor aggression is beneficial - especially where your career is concerned. Do you want to be seen as a pushover? Someone who may be pitied, but not respected? Being passive may give people that impression. Not only will you not get what you want but also you may find you feel unappreciated.
Passivity may get you an easy life by allowing you to avoid stress and conflict. But are you also giving the impression that you don't respect the person you are dealing with? Do you doubt their ability to take disappointment, to shoulder responsibility, to tackle problems? These are all signals you could inadvertently give out.
However, it is important not to appear aggressive. Aggression will cause resentment from others and you may find people even less inclined to help you.
Assertiveness treads the middle ground. It gives you the right to express your feelings, ask others what they feel and come to a mutually agreeable conclusion.
How to be assertiveThink about your message. What is the situation, how do you feel, and what do you want to happen? State your facts, feelings, and requirements to the person you are talking to. Identify the source of the problem, say how you feel and suggest what you would like to do to rectify the situation. This method concentrates on how you feel, and should result in a positive response rather than an aggressive one.
Other things to think about are:
- Acknowledge your own feelings
- Be clear, specific and direct in what you say
- Be prepared to repeat yourself
- Keep calm
- Respect the rights of the other person - make sure you are not being unreasonable
Confront your fearsMany of us have fears about asserting ourselves. What makes you fearful? Is it feelings you have about yourself or thoughts about what other people might think of you? Identifying your fears will help you face them next time you need to be assertive. What are you scared of?
Remember these are only thoughts not actual events. Being assertive will help you get what you want and feel more confident.
Improve your productivity at work
Many things affect how productive you are at work. These range from your level of motivation and interest in the job, to your general health and how good you are at managing your time.
Your health and workBoth your physical and mental health affects how productive you are at work. Good health benefits your productivity1. Make sure you are looking after all areas of your health & well-being.
Don't be a sleepyheadWork out how much sleep you need and make sure you get it.
Being tired is detrimental to your concentration, memory, and mental alertness. Fatigue has contributed to a number of fatal accidents, such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Sleepiness is also thought to cause up to 33% of car accidents2.
Getting enough sleep will help improve your productivity, as you will be more alert and have the capacity to do more. Work out how much sleep you need so you don't wake up tired. Most people need about 7-8 hours sleep a night. Find out your ideal amount of sleep by varying the time you go to bed and recording how you feel.
Stay calmLearn how to manage your stress levels.
Some pressure is needed to motivate you into working; this is what is known as "good stress." However, too much stress can have effects on both your mental and physical health. A high level of pressure for a limited period of time can be highly motivating. However, if your stress is prolonged make sure you have some good stress management techniques.
Good time management is critical for improving productivity and reducing stress. Work out exactly what you need to do and prioritize. If you can see clearly what you are going to do in what order, it will help your stress levels and your productivity.
Stop being a fast-food junkieMake sure you get all the nutrients you need.
A balanced diet is important for providing all the nutrients you need. Nutritional deficiencies can affect both your mental and physical health. One study in the British Journal of Psychiatry showed the dramatic effects of nutrition on behavior: it found that improving the nutritional intake of young men in prison reduced antisocial behavior, including incidents of violence3. While this is perhaps not relevant to you sitting at work, it does show the dramatic influence nutrients can have on brain function.
Make sure you are not short of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids by making sure you include lots of fruit and vegetables in your diet, and make room for nuts, seeds and oily fish.
However busy you are, make sure you eat breakfast. It will set you up for the whole day. Try and have something high in fiber, such as cereal or toast, and wash it down with a glass of fruit juice. It will help keep your blood sugar levels stable throughout the morning, providing energy for your brain and body.
Don't be a couch potatoDo some exercise.
Being physically active will keep you in shape, making you less prone to conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity. Physical activity can also be helpful in reducing stress and helping you sleep better.
Physical activity will also give you more energy, improve your mood and reduce symptoms of depression.
Being productiveTaking control of all areas of your life is important to help you move ahead and become more productive. Remember that being productive doesn't necessarily mean working all the time. It means working efficiently and effectively. As well as working hard, try to maintain your work-life balance.
- Burton WN, Conti DJ, Chen C, Schultz AB and Edington DW. The role of health risk factors and disease on worker productivity. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 1999: 41; 863-877
- Pierce RJ. Driver sleepiness: occupational screening and the physician's role. Aust N Z J Med 1999; 29: 658-661
- Gesch CB, Hammond SM, Hampson SE, Eves A, and Crowder MJ. Influence of supplementary vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids on the antisocial behavior of young adult prisoners. British Journal of Psychiatry. 2002: 181; 22-28
How to succeed
What do top athletes and successful managers have in common? They have the ability to regularly picture success before taking the necessary actions to achieve it.
Success starts with a vision. Without a well-defined vision, priorities become confused, time management collapses, and performance wanes. Positive mental imagery (PMI) is a simple and effective technique to help you in your everyday working life1.
Proactive daydreamingTo understand PMI, think back to the times when you've daydreamed2. Without consciously thinking, your mind comes up with colorful images, sensations and actions that gave you a compelling picture. We can learn to draw upon this powerful human resource and focus on it to achieve the results we desire.
Build an internal strategyPMI is used in the athletic world to rehearse competitive events before they occur. By rehearsing the exact type of performance required - physically, mentally and emotionally - the athlete is able to develop an internal strategy that prepares for the actual event. In the world of work, the technique has also been used to prepare for presentations and meetings.
Simple and effectiveTo start using PMI, find a quiet place where you know you will not be distracted. Taking five minutes in the morning or evening will be time well spent. You can sit or move around, depending on what activates your thinking. Select the specific event that you want to focus on. Slowly picture the exact situation - one frame at a time. Use all your senses to get the most impact. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? What do you smell? What do you taste?
Imagine the specific outcome you want. Make it bigger, brighter, and louder. Heighten the emotional impact. See yourself overcoming any obstacles or barriers. Picture any solutions you need. Adapt your breathing to suit the result you want. This may require you to breathe more dynamically, or to breathe in a controlled and relaxed fashion. Let your muscles also adapt to the scenario. If it requires them to be firm and taught, or soft and relaxed, adopt the right muscular position. Re-run the image in your mind until you have clearly anchored the exact result you desire.
Repetition is the keyAlthough it may sound unrealistic at first, consistently practicing PMI does achieve results, and it can improve a variety of situations3. For specific events, such as presentations or meetings, you should practice as far in advance as possible. For everyday activities, including telephone calls and regular communications, it is helpful to rehearse the mental image of your desired outcome right before you answer the call or return an answer.
Be innovativeProbably the greatest benefit of mental imagery is that it can lead to innovation. We live in a fast-paced world requiring quick solutions. Training your mind to influence the delivery of results can be extremely beneficial. There is an old saying, "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always got." Be prepared to use mental imagery to get the most benefit.
- Covey S. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Simon & Schuster. 1989
- Wilson P. Calm for Life. Penguin. 2000
- Robbins A. Unlimited Power. Simon & Schuster. 1988
Relax and unwind
Daily life can be full of unforeseen stresses. Make sure you always perform at your best.
- Eat breakfast.
- Make time for yourself.
- Don't feel guilty about taking time out.
- Get some exercise.
- Make sure you get enough sleep.
Eat an energy-boosting breakfast
Eating an energy-boosting breakfast will help start your day off on the right foot. Having slept for a number of hours without food, your body is going to need refueling. Otherwise you'll end up feeling light headed, hungry and irritable before you even get to work. Eating oatmeal or cereal with fruit and nuts will provide you with lots of essential nutrients, such as fiber, vitamins and minerals, as well as a constant supply of energy throughout the morning.
Plan your weekend
You work hard all week, so make the most of your weekends. Spend a little of your lunch break each day planning the things you would like to do, and make a commitment to do them. Perhaps you simply want to relax, visit a theater, or go on a trip. Whatever it is, never feel guilty about making time for yourself, and don't keep putting things off until next weekend.
Feeling under pressure does not mean that you are unable to cope. It simply means that you are human. Stepping back from a problem until you are in the right mood could be the best strategy. If one piece of work has you puzzled, start something else for 15 minutes before returning to the difficult part. The solution will probably come to you in a short time, and the positive feeling of "crossing off" tasks is very satisfying1.
Go for a walk
If you can't get out at lunch, take a walk after work instead. Research shows that exercise is one of the best ways to tackle stress, release tension, and relieve anger or depression, as well as increase vigor2. Relax, listen to your music, walk at a comfortable pace and breathe deeply.
Get some rest
Sleep deprivation has measurable negative effects on physical and mental performance. Loss of sleep can cause confusion3 and frustration, so getting seven to eight hours can keep you happy and healthy. Make sure you have enough rest each night, get up with plenty of time to spare, and have that energy-boosting breakfast to start the next day.
The power of color
As early as 570 BC, Pythagoras believed in the healing properties of color, and the ancient Egyptians encouraged enlightenment by shining beams of light through amethyst and rubies. Although this might sound like nonsense, studies have shown that certain colors (especially blues and greens) seem to reduce stress and anxiety levels in some people4.
- National Mental Health Association (USA). Stress - Coping with everyday problems. 2001; www.nmha.org
- Mersy DJ. Health benefits of exercise. Postgraduate Medicine. 1991; 90(1): 103-7, 110-2
- Harrison Y and Horne JA. The impact of sleep loss on decision making - a review. Journal of Experimental Psychology - Applied. 2000; 6: 236-249
- Jacobs KW and Suess JF. Effects of four psychological primary colors on anxiety state. Perceptual and Motor Skills. 1975; 41(1): 207-10