Thursday, 8 March 2012

The best thing I read this week...

...had some stiff competition. I finished Consider the Lobster and read The Sense of an Ending, both of which have ended up pretty high on my "best things I have read so far this year" list. But the best thing I read this week was not fiction or literary non-fiction. It was a very short ebook by Andrew Lightheart which has the potential to be game-changing for me in a very important way.

Andrew's current focus can be found at, on the topic of difficult conversations and how to deal with them. I was intrigued by a blog post on the site which someone linked to from Twitter, and even more intrigued by the existence of the e-book - so much so that I did what I never do, and signed up to a newsletter. With my work email address and everything. I have a couple of dirty email addresses (mostly spam and newsletters, nothing important likely to come through them), one (my gmail) which is a balance of clean and dirty, and my work email, which I like to keep cleaner than clean (except in terms of language and content, of course). Any kind of syndicated email publication is anathemic to my own conception of clean email, so I tend to sign up for newsletters using one of my dirty email addresses and then never read them. But the blog posts I read over at A Peaceful Resolution looked interesting (and visually clean) enough that I didn't think the newsletter was going to annoy me, so I took the potentially-besmirching plunge and signed up with my work account.

My reward for doing so was the ebook which I have already mentioned, the BTIRTW of this post's title. Now, I imagine that a large part of A Peaceful Resolution's target audience is people who have just come to the realisation that they need to have a difficult conversation (defined as "any interaction that isn't totally straightforward", usually because there are a lot of emotions in play) and, worse, that they are desperately ill-equipped to do so. People with an acute case of difficult conversation syndrome who are looking for topical relief. When I came to the site, it was not as one of them. That's not to say that I never have difficult conversations. They crop up more often than I'd like, and usually when I'm least expecting them. And some important and necessary conversations are always going to be difficult. Therapy, for example, is one long difficult conversation. But (as is the case in terms of conflict resolution with other people as well as within the self) there are times when it's got to be had. No, I did not go to APR because I wanted the eponymous peaceful resolution for some specific conflict. I went there by accident, but when I did, it became clear that there was a lot of stuff worth sticking around for.

The first weekly email I got after signing up contained not merely discursion, but also a task. A simple task, but one which I hadn't done before. It outlined the concept of the emotional heatmap, with a four-stage scale encompassing green (emotional wellbeing & general good feeling), low amber (niggling anxiety & emotional discomfort), high amber (clenched, high-intensity negative feeling) and red (outright rage or grief), and theorised that most of us spend most of our time shuttling between the ambers - true green and true red are rare. The task was to spend the rest of the day mindful of the heatmap, and to take into account the shifts in feeling which occur during the day.

Think about how you felt on a particular day and you'll probably pick one static feeling which characterises the whole of that day for you. "On Monday I was really happy because I had a really nice date with x", or "Thursday was a total write-off; I couldn't concentrate at work and went home with a terrible headache." The most overwhelming of the emotions experienced on any one day seems to paint itself into the cracks of time and colour entire days, but, from hour to hour and minute to minute, the reality of human experience is not that clear-cut. I had some idea that this was the case, but didn't realise the full extent of it until I tried thinking about how I was feeling in terms of the emotional heatmap. It turned out, on the day I tried it, that I was all over the place - from solidly in the green to right up at the top of high amber, not-sure-I-can-keep-this-in-check style emotional intensity. Admittedly, it was an outlier of a day because of all kinds of non-typical stuff I had going on. But if I hadn't been bearing the heatmap in mind, and you'd asked me today how Monday had gone, I would probably have said that it was mostly terrible but got slightly better towards the end. Which, based on what being mindful of how I was feeling brought to light, would not even begin to cover all of the places my feelings were going over the course of one afternoon.*

Already, I was impressed with APR - I'd received an email newsletter which didn't annoy me at all in terms of formatting or tone, and which had contained a task that I found both fascinating and useful. Double win. And then I read the ebook I'd received upon signing up for the newsletter. It was incredibly simple and incredibly effective.

The ebook, Stop the Dread!, is an 11-step pointer in the direction of difficult conversations. It lays the groundwork which needs to be done before having the conversation itself. All 11 tips are interesting, and some are truly inspired. The best and simplest deal with the kinds of cognitive biases which affect the way we think every day - things like trying to predict how the other person in the conversation is going to react, or being sure of what they think, when really we can't know anything beyond what we can perceive and what they tell us. And the reminder that what you do and what you say is in your control, but, beyond that, not a lot else is - you can't control what the other person does or says or thinks, or how they react. It's really simple stuff, but it's stuff that I have an enormous tendency to forget, especially when emotion triumphs reason (as it so often does in highly-charged situations).

I'm not a big believer in self-help or personal change, especially not through a weekly email digest or thought for the week format. I'm too much of a cynic to believe that the majority of these self-help- and business help-style newsletters are doing anything more than making money and paying lip service to common sense. The stuff being covered on APR should be common sense, but so often, in the heat of the moment, it isn't. We all lose sight of things, lose sight of ourselves and our control and our reason when we're wound up about or wounded by something. Stop the Dread! is simple, effective mindfulness at its very best; the stuff it contains can be applied to any difficult conversation, conflict or interaction, from medicine to workplace to romance. I recommend you sign up to the newsletter and read the ebook right now. Go on. It's awesome.

*Side note: this is the problem I have with every kind of mood-tracking software/app that I've tried - none of them go into enough detail, either in terms of timeframe or in terms of emotional intensity. A graph which is minute-by-minute on the x-axis and able to be distinct and precise into the thousands on the y-axis would be perfect (scale of 1-10 doesn't quite cut it), but the stuff that's around at the moment is too blunt to capture that kind of data.

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