If Britain had a face – what expression would it have right now? It feels unkind, slightly sneering, maybe angry, resentful and full of blame. I feel uncomfortable about the imposition 24 hour news and media has on my mood and the impact it has on my assumptions about others; it’s catching and I can feel my impatience and irritation rising. I feel myself becoming more prone to judge, to disagree and to argue. We are all having a hard time and we are all looking for someone to blame.
So I am trying a different tack in my work in the NHS – starting with liking people first again. I think we all have something that draws us to certain people. I am deeply impressed by knowledge – any knowledge. It can be about stuff I am both interested in, and not; people who know the Latin names of plants, astrology, the history of Edinburgh city, how to dismantle and rebuild a car, every Eurovision winner since 1972, the life and times of J.K.Galbraith, and what actually constitutes a good goal in football. It’s seeing someone’s interest and passion alive in them, and their inevitable generosity in wanting to share it. I love that in people. It really excites me when people talk knowledgeably about anything that matters to them.
Your thing may be different – it might be skills based, families, dress sense, accents, record collections or literary preferences. Something that gives you an insight and understanding of people and helps you get to know them. There’s a man that works in the NHS who I never really meet, we are miles apart and I don’t really know him, but I know his music taste because he shares it on Twitter – suddenly he is a human being to me. It is so much harder to hold prejudice and judgement against someone with whom you have made even a very tangential human connection.
Then there is the darker side of us all. I like my people like I like my heroes: deeply flawed. I can’t really get on board with perfection. I used to run a programme developing senior leaders where I would get them to explain who their hero was, and then when they had shared whatever inspired them I would ask them to think about the darker side, the other part of who they were. It taught us two things. Firstly, that we all hold that – every single one of us – something of the night inside. Understanding that in ourselves and others gives enormous insight into humanity. But second, I think it also tells us something about us. What are the kind of flaws and foibles that we can tolerate in others, or even kind of admire? That is a hugely helpful thing to know about yourself.
Which leads to my final insight, which is to question what really matters. Once you have connected with the human being, once you have understood some of their flaws, where they come from and what it says about you that you regard them in that way, only then should we turn attention to the non-negotiable. What are the kinds of behaviours I cannot tolerate, under any circumstance? What things, if I see from another human being, are completely unforgivable for me? I presume that’s not a huge list, but it is an important one.
The challenge for me right now is this; seek first to understand appreciatively, second to know wisely and only then, when all else is exhausted, draw my lines about unforgivable or intolerable behaviour. The latter is a last resort but is so vital in the NHS. There is a huge imperative to recognise, value and understand difference and an equal need to identify and manage poor behaviours, incongruent speech and values that don’t uphold what is dear in the NHS.
Try this now where ever you are – look around you. What might these people have about them that might delight you, how might they add to your life experience, or to your work, thinking and ideas? And what if, just now, you smiled at them? Go on, make that human connection, allow yourself to think the best not the worst of people. If you need a little inspiration about how fabulous NHS people are have a look at this and let’s have the NHS face smile…