In honor of World Mental Health Day’s theme for this year, the workplace, here is a guest blog post by Markus van Alphen that talks about how to deal with anxiety in the workplace.
One of the most powerful theories on how to motivate people on the work-floor is Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory, which stems from research into job satisfaction and is therefore all about motivation. The term Observational Listening was coined to propose a way of listening that focuses on emotions people are currently experiencing. The common factor between these two is emotion, how these affect the communication process and by extension how emotions are key when wanting to motivate others. In this post I will briefly touch on these ideas and then focus on a specific emotion: Anxiety.
Self-Determination Theory and the basic psychological need for safety
Self-Determination Theory states that the fulfilment of three psychological needs influences job satisfaction: Mastery, connection and autonomy. The need for mastery is in a nutshell the feeling that you are good at what you do. The need for connection means you don’t only go to work to earn a living, but also because of the good feelings you get from positive interactions with your colleagues. And the need for autonomy is the respect you receive for yourself as person: You are allowed to be who you are and also may choose how and when you do the things you do at work. So the good feelings you get when these three needs are adequately fulfilled in your job makes you feel good about yourself and therefore happy about your job.
If we extend these needs into the social arena, the need for autonomy and connection seem to be essential for wellbeing and need no further explanation. Social mastery needs some elaboration: It has to do with competency in terms of being able to anticipate others’ behavior, reacting appropriately to this behavior and the ability to influence others. In short, it has to do with a feeling of being in control, or the basic psychological need for safety.
It isn’t difficult to see how these basic psychological needs tie in with someone’s current emotional experience. When people feel safe, connected and autonomous they generally experience a sense of wellbeing. Bear in mind, though, that everyone differs in their needs and to what degree they require these to be fulfilled. Also note these are psychological needs, not material needs. Many people who find themselves in objectively dangerous conditions still feel safe as they feel they (to some extent) are able to react appropriately or even exert influence on their situation.
Anxiety is a very basic emotion and has a positive intention: It prevents you from doing silly things, things which could endanger your existence. The survival instinct is so strong, that almost all sensory perception is first filtered by an organ in the midbrain: The amygdala. This organ is responsible for our so-called negativity bias: We first need to scan the environment for potentially dangerous situations, as these have priority. So anxiety really is an adaptive emotion, it ensures we survive. It only becomes a problem when its intensity isn’t appropriate for the actual situation at hand.
On a very basic level, human beings are social because we need each other. Exclusion from the group that surrounds us is a potentially dangerous situation, something borne out by research: When a person ventilates a view which is different from the majority of the group, their amygdala react. They react irrespective whether the person actually experiences fear when standing up for their view. Also when they feel excluded for what or whom they are, this will lead to anxiety.
Anxiety and communication
In the same way anxiety has its role to play in communication. In first instance it prevents us from saying silly things, things which will obviously lead to our exclusion from that group we would like to belong to. On the other hand it may also inhibit us, prevent us from saying the things that should be said (when others cross our boundaries, for example), prevent us from making contact with others (think of shyness, for example) or simply cause us to provide politically correct responses so as not to stand out too much from the group.
So what can you do when dealing with an anxious other? Firstly you will need to be able to recognize an anxious response: eyes wide (or wider than normal: both eyebrows lift), the tightening of the lip, the rapid breaking of eye-contact and moving uncomfortably are tell-tales. As people seldom feel competent in an atmosphere which doesn’t feel safe, your task is to ensure you provide a space in which you and those around you may speak freely. Giving well-meant compliments from time to time may also be beneficial, although those with (extremely) low self-esteem won’t really believe the compliment anyway and see your compliment as manipulation.
A safe space
So what can you do precisely to create that safe space where even anxious people are stimulated to speak more freely? Practicing Observational Listening is a good start: By concentrating on what the other understood by your message (rather than what you meant), you see their current emotions more clearly and can respond to their emotions more sensitively. Also by being a role model, showing for all to see that you are an empathic person of integrity who acts accordingly. And by displaying some of your own vulnerability in the appropriate use of self-disclosure. Thereby you are the safe space where even anxious people feel safe enough to speak about what’s on their mind.
Note: The academic version of the book Observational Listening is already available. The self-help version is expected around the end of 2017.
About Markus van Alphen
Already after completing his degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Cape Town, Markus realized the impact individual characteristics and interpersonal interactions have on people’s work and lives. This led him to complete a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology at the University of Amsterdam.
As Thought Leader he proposes how the art of Observational Listening can lead to improved communication and interaction between people in a variety of contexts, whether professionally or personally.
He currently works as a worldwide therapist for individuals, couples and families using webcam technology. He is a trainer, lecturer and curriculum developer in undergraduate and postgraduate psychology, counselling students at various colleges and universities across the Netherlands. He writes books in the field of psychology and is also a contributing author for various professional literature. As a restorative practitioner he works hands-on, being called in to resolve incidents and initiate the process of conflict resolution, as well as train others to implement the restorative approach.
This is a guest blog post by Markus van Alphen.
An important task you have as a leader is giving feedback. Not only in terms of task performance (so that the other knows how he or she is doing), but also in terms of social behavior. This article is about just that: giving feedback on someone’s behavior with the intention that the other actually does something with that feedback. In other words, you give feedback because you would like to see different behavior. In a previous post, we looked at the difference between compliments, criticism and feedback. We now deal with the rules you should follow in order to increase the chance that your feedback will lead to desired results.
Feedback Is About Behavior That Can Be Modified
The term feedback stems from General Systems Theory, where it means that the output (or result) of a system is fed back to the input, with the objective being to maintain or change that output. In communication theory, feedback means telling someone what the effect of their behavior is, in order that they can change it. Feedback is about behavior that can be changed. It is different from criticism, in that the person receiving the feedback is actually able to do something with it. Feedback in its simplest form is nothing other than giving someone a tip, a suggestion how to handle something differently. In its most complicated form it is an observation on the effects of certain behavior and a suggestion as to what alternative behavior would be preferred.
Feedback Is Used To Elicit Different Behavior
There are three main reasons to give feedback: A tip may be given simply to help the other person; another may ask you for feedback, or you can give feedback so that the other will change their behavior. Even when giving another person a tip, as a leader you will often do so because you want them to do something differently. So, other than when someone specifically asks for feedback, you generally give it for your own reasons – you want the other to behave in such a way that you or your organization benefits (or is disturbed less). In that sense it is a special form of making a request. So, before even thinking of giving feedback, it is good practice to consider what you want from the other, why you want that, and whether it is realistic and acceptable to expect this of them. This because there is little point to giving feedback when you up-front know the other isn’t going to do anything with it. In that case some other intervention is more appropriate.
The Best Way To Give Feedback
What, then, is an effective way to give feedback? Here are some general rules to raise the probability that the other will actually (attempt to) autonomously change their behavior:
- Face-to-face, alone: Especially when feedback is unsolicited, it isn’t given publicly but privately. This may mean you need to create an opportunity in which feedback can be given. Usually a simple invitation will suffice, such as: ‘May I have a word with you?’, ‘Do you have a minute for me?’ or ‘When could I speak with you privately?’
- Introduce the goal: Without beating about the bush, briefly state the purpose, for example with: ‘I would like to speak with you about something I have noticed / something that bothers me / something I don’t appreciate’. By being direct and transparent, you are being forthcoming and genuine. Suppress the desire to begin with something positive or a compliment, as the receiver will already anticipate what is about to happen. They are waiting for the ‘… but …’ and will interpret the compliment as a trick. It isn’t a compliment at all (everything before the word ‘but’ may be erased), rather a devious way to introduce something negative.
- Recent behavior: Let bygones be bygones. It is easier to remember something that happened today or yesterday than something that happened last week. If the other cannot even remember exactly what happened, chances are your message won’t come across. Also, stick to that one recent event and don’t drag in the past using all the previous occasions and examples as ammunition. Doing that will probably lead to a discussion, meaning that the essence (that which you would like the other to change) is left untouched.
- Concrete behavior: What did the other do exactly? You will need to spell this out in terms of concrete behavior. ‘How you behaved towards your colleague’ or ‘The way you dealt with that client’, are far from concrete: What do you mean by these statements? Better are: ‘You were gossiping about your colleague at the coffee machine’ or ‘You repeatedly interrupted the client whilst he was speaking’.
- The effect of current behavior on you in the I-form: Behavior has an effect on a person, and it is a good strategy to mention how another’s behavior affects you, using the I-form. It sets a general tone: It is difficult to question another’s feeling. This reduces the chance the other will get defensive and start a discussion. When I say, ‘It makes me feel uncomfortable’ then most people will intuitively know that saying ‘No, it doesn’t’ isn’t really an appropriate retort. Even in your position as leader it is better to stick with your own personal experience (‘I feel very uncomfortable when clients are treated disrespectfully’, for example) than refer to the effect of the behavior on others.
- Offer alternatives: In terms of concrete, executable and desirable behavior, even if it is only one alternative, the other can at least choose to continue their behavior without change (in which case another intervention might be needed later on) or try the alternative. This is also the essential ingredient of feedback: Letting the other know what you do want or would rather see.
- Short and sweet: Your message and your wish come across strongest when you don’t beat about the bush, but stick to the core issue. You weaken your message (and the other’s willingness to do something about it) by bringing in several arguments as ammunition (such as why you are justified in expecting this). You already have given your strongest argument when you say what the effect of their behavior is on you.
- Ask for willingness: The other’s willingness to change something in their behavior increases when you explicitly ask: ‘Would you do that for me?’ This is for two reasons: Firstly, most people find it difficult to turn down a request for help, more so than any other kind of request. Secondly, by not explicitly asking, the other could see your message as nothing more than a comment in passing, and won’t feel any urgency to act on it. When the other says they will do something (or try to do something), the chances become greater that they will actually do what they have promised.
- Listen to the reaction: The last step is to be quiet, listen to any reaction the other may give, and if at all possible leave the choice up to them. When people are given the opportunity to make their own decisions, they feel in control, that their opinion counts and that they are taken seriously. By formulating feedback as a choice rather than a demand, you give them the power to act as capable, independent individuals. A self-made choice is far more likely to lead to them to actually follow through on that choice.
Feedback needs to be given in the correct dosage, meaning taking the other’s resilience into account. Extensive feedback using the rules above is effective when used occasionally and for meaningful issues; it certainly shouldn’t be used for every triviality.
Others can also give you feedback, regardless of whether or not you ask them for it. Even if they do or don’t follow the rules for giving feedback, if they address behavior you could change, then the best strategy is to thank them for their input or (at the least) tell them you will think about it. If you do decide to do something differently, you do the other more than justice by telling them what you did with their feedback. Whether you like it or not, as a leader you are a role model. The message you give is that it isn’t a bad thing when someone calls you on your behavior, and that everyone is in a position to change something in their behavior.
Just like receiving compliments, receiving feedback also requires certain skills. Firstly: Feedback shouldn’t be taken personally. You may assume the other has something to say about how you do something, not about you as a person. So it is good practice to suppress the tendency to get defensive. If you are only thinking up arguments why the feedback is unjust, you’re missing an important opportunity: The other is making an effort to offer you alternatives. Maybe those alternatives will work, maybe they won’t, but you will only know if you know what they are and try them out. That is why it is better to listen attentively and direct your attention to what you can do differently. In other words, take advantage of the alternatives offered you. It is also a sign of respect to thank the giver of feedback.
To recapitulate: Criticism usually disrupts in a negative way, largely as the receiver cannot do very much with it or about it. Feedback is a way to make wishes known in such a manner that the chance of the receiver being able to do something with it increases. The main characteristics of feedback are that concrete behavior is described and that specific, realistic and desired alternatives are suggested. If at all possible it is then left up to the receiver whether they actually want to do something with this feedback.
This past summer, I was blessed with the opportunity of interning at the Environmental Protection Agency’s (E.P.A.) headquarters. Going into the internship, I had no idea what to expect. I remember the nervous excitement I felt as I carefully picked out the suit I would wear the night before my internship (which I had borrowed from my mom), and repeatedly checked my alarm clock three dozen times before bed to ensure I wouldn’t be late.
The first day was a blur full of awkward initial introductions and jittery excitement—there was so much for me to absorb. From the security guards and the metal detector at the entrance to the huge glass meeting doors etched with the E.P.A. logo, I was surrounded in an entirely new environment. My coworkers gave me brief explanations of the projects they had been working on using complex jargon which had no doubt become second nature to them. I was excited to devote my summer towards working with like-minded professionals who were as passionate about environmental sustainability as myself.
My project this summer was to organize the National Stakeholder Forum promoting Sustainable Materials Management in the Built Environment (B.E.) which would be held the upcoming fall. The built environment encompasses everything from buildings, infrastructure, parks, and public transportation systems, and is a crucial component of our daily lives. At the forum, the E.P.A. would work to promote a relatively new concept called Life Cycle Thinking amongst stakeholders, which focuses on reusing and recycling at all stages of a product’s lifecycle rather than just the end.
Within the first few days, I learned of the dire environmental impacts of the built environment—something I as well as most have probably never considered. In the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. received a D+, which has negative implications for the reliability and safety of our nation’s infrastructure. Approximately $4.59 trillion in investments will be needed in the near future to refurbish the built environment, and demand for these materials are expected sky-rocket. Because these materials are becoming scarcer to find in their natural form, it is all the more critical that we begin to reuse and recycle them to preserve them for the future.
To further our work on the National Stakeholder Forum, I sat in on key stakeholder phone calls and worked with groups such as the U.S. Green Building Council, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the World Economic Forum. My weeks were always packed with meetings, ranging from intra-agency briefings to those with the U.N. Environmental Program (U.N.E.P.) that covered briefings from the G-7.
During my seven weeks at the E.P.A., I was shocked to realize just how much of the skills I had obtained from UniversalGiving had translated. Even the simplest tasks such as drafting professional emails to co-workers were something I had first learned to do during my time at UniversalGiving. At the E.P.A., I was able to manage time-sensitive tasks efficiently and thoroughly, to independently solve problems I encountered, and to easily adapt to changes in the workforce, all of which I attribute to my experience in UniversalGiving’s fast-paced environment.
Another reason I was excited to work at the E.P.A., a larger governmental agency, is because it would allow me to compare the work I did there with the work I did at UniversalGiving, a smaller-scale nonprofit. Both were driven by a similar mission of helping others, and I wanted to determine first hand, how the different organizational structures would play out in their work. Though I believe both sectors had their pros and cons, what struck me was the passion and kindness that were commonplace in both work environments. There was not a time when I smiled more, or felt as passionate about my work than when I was working with like-minded individuals at the E.P.A. or at UniversalGiving. Oftentimes, it is easy to become discouraged and to feel alone when facing a battle as large as tackling poverty in developing nations, or combating climate change. However, through my time in both organizations, I have come to understand the value of community. Community is what keeps us grounded in our goals despite hardships, it is what keeps us passionate, and it is what gives positive change a place in the world.
In August 2017, the Western Peninsula of Freetown, Sierra Leone experienced torrential rain, a series of flooding events and a large landslide. Over 500 people passed away, over 800 people have been reported missing and many more families were rendered homeless. Entire houses were swept away by the flood waters.
Many individuals and organization sprang into action, helping to provide emergency food and water. As one of the organizations active in Sierra Leone, Develop Africa is helping to provide psychosocial counseling, emergency supplies and activities for the kids. This is helping to meet the immediate needs of the victims.
Changing Future Outcomes
Beyond the initial response, in Freetown and globally, there is active discussion on how we can possibly prevent a reoccurrence or at the minimum reduce the impact of future disasters. The same is being done with regard to hurricane Harvey and its impact on Houston, Texas. Changing outcomes demands understanding, strategic analysis, and action.
Worldwide, cities, including Freetown, are under the threat of urbanization. 54 % of the world’s population lives in urban areas. This proportion is expected to increase to 66 % by 2050 (UN, 2014). In the developing world, rapid and unplanned urbanization has resulted in dire and fatal consequences.
Due to inadequate city planning and housing, youths and migrants from the provinces are squatting in shanty towns in Freetown. They have built fragile shacks on the hillsides and in undesirable locations – often directly in river beds. Sadly, many locations have poor sanitation, no running water, limited or no hospital facilities, schooling etc. With thousands of people living in close proximity and squalor, diseases such as typhoid, Ebola, and cholera spread rapidly. These low-lying areas were the hardest hit by August flooding.
In Sierra Leone, deforestation has compounded the urbanization crisis. In the hills surrounding Freetown, trees and the vegetation have been indiscriminately cut down for firewood and unplanned housing. Deforestation is not only threatening biodiversity and ecosystem balance in the country but is also contributing to global climate change. In Freetown, the run-off water from the surrounding hills accentuates flooding and results in loss of property each year.
Fortunately, these challenges are not insurmountable. Here are a few thoughts on what we can do as global citizens that are committed to and looking for ways to make the world a better place.
1. Social Media For Good
Social media is a powerful and growing force that can help us tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges. The Arab Spring is an excellent example of how social media can help change the world.
“Social media has become an important tool for providing a space and means for the public to participate in influencing or disallowing environmental decisions historically made by governments and corporations that affect us all. It has created a way for people to connect local environmental challenges and solutions to larger-scale narratives that will affect us as a global community,” says Shannon Dosemagen.
In late August 2017, social media played an important communication role during Hurricane Harvey in Texas. FaceBook and Twitter posts alerted authorities and volunteers on where help was desperately needed, acting as an alternative to 911 calls.
Rightly applied, social media can be a powerful force in highlighting the problems associated with urbanization. WhatsApp messages, Facebook videos/posts, billboards etc. can help to inform and educate the public on the dangers of dwelling in perilous and risk-prone areas. Online petitions, videos, and environmental studies can help to raise awareness of the perils and apply pressure on the government to take corrective action. An empowered public needs to realize that united, with the right tools, it can compel the government to take the necessary action.
As global citizens, we can promote awareness of the dangers of living in protected and risk-prone areas. We could help create educational content that will be shared on social media. We could also help organize online/offline accountability groups or set up agencies that will apply pressure on governments to provide alternative housing opportunities.
2. Reverse Urbanization:
One of the driving forces behind urbanization is the attraction of opportunities in urban areas. With that in mind, a key response would be the development of opportunities in new and strategic rural areas. Governments, NGO’s and individuals can help redirect migration by creating attractive mini-cities outside of the urban areas. When jobs, housing, hospitals, and schools are available outside the large cities, youths will be attracted to these locations.
As global citizens, we can help for instance by teaming together to launch or support new businesses, offering employment in rural areas. This could be for example helping to support a farm or setting up a processing plant that will preserve perishable harvests. One of the most sustainable methods of aid is investing in microfinance or micro credit opportunities. This cash injection helps small businesses to start or expand. It creates jobs and enables people to become self-sufficient. \
We could also volunteer our time helping to build new houses through organizations offering a Habitat for Humanity type of service. Volunteer service in rural schools, hospitals etc. will help to strengthen rural communities and make them more attractive to youths. In this regard, the Peace Corps should be highly commended for their efforts in supporting rural institutions. Furthermore, we could consider working full-time for a nonprofit organization/charity that addresses the challenges of urbanization.
3. Every One, Plant One Tree a Year
Throughout the planet, there is a growing need for reforestation and more green-friendly neighborhoods. Degradation and deforestation of the world’s tropical forests are cumulatively responsible for about 10% of net global carbon emissions (REDD+). According to the watchdog group Global Forest Watch, Sierra Leone has lost nearly 800,000 hectares of forest cover in the past decade, with loss accelerating in 2015.
Imagine what would happen if we could mobilize everyone over the age of 15 (for example) to plant one tree every year! As a global citizen, we can help to keep forefront in everyone’s minds the need for us all to take better care of the earth. We can promote online and offline the need to plant trees, to recycle and to make decisions that protect the earth.
In Freetown, there is the dire need to restore vegetation by planting trees in the surrounding hills. As a volunteer group, we could raise funds for a trip to plant 200 trees over 2 weeks. Alternatively, we could donate funds to cover the cost of purchasing seedlings and other tree-planting expenses.
In Freetown, by restoring vegetation and the forest, we will be helping to combat global warming. These efforts will help to reduce runoff water from the hills. The trees will help to reduce landslides and rock slides that have resulted in the loss of life. Reforestation is essential for the overall health and quality of life of the community.
In summary, the challenges of urbanization are real. With creative solutions, strategic planning and bold action, we can all do our part to mitigate the consequences of urbanization … and make the world a greener, safer and better place – for us all.
We invite you to join Develop Africa in providing hope to flood-affected victims by making an individual or business donation today.