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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies


Life, in 2024, can be pretty intense! The volume of information that is sent in the direction of each of us, each day, grows with every passing year, to the point that it's not even close to possible to be able to absorb and assimilate it all. This year is a General Election year in the UK and a Presidential Election year in the US. Those two events have a material impact on the lives of the citizens of those countries and many other countries around the world, but in each case, there are so many factors to consider, so many candidates to look at, so many manifesto pledges to consider, that it would be a full time job to stay on top of it and make what could truly be considered a well informed decision.

With each week that passes, it feels like we're presented with another global challenge that's taking place. Conflict in the Middle East, the ongoing war in Ukraine, climate change, migrant crises in various parts of the world, terrorism, crime, systems and services that seem under strain and on the bring of collapse. All of these situations have nuances and details that would take each of us a huge amount of time and energy to fully digest and understand and that's assuming that we could get access to accurate, non-biased information. I consider myself to be fairly well read and I stay relatively up to date with current affairs, but I struggle to navigate most of these issues, and some of the conflicts in particular. Different news outlets like to simplify them and turn the participants into two-dimensional good-guy/bad-guy tropes, while seeking to discredit the validity of other news outlets. And all of this acts as a drain on our limited focus and energy.

And that's just the big, world-impacting issues. Within every household, every school, every workplace and every home there are dramas and challenges and issues to address and resolve that pop up every week. We have conflicts, frustrations, irritations, mistakes and problems that seem to demand our attention. Each has its own detail and nuance that can add to the burden of information that we need to access and hold and process, just to get through our daily lives.

Data is the order of the day. As well as being inundated with it, we are also told that our own data is the true currency that organisations crave and deal in. Every detail of our lives, particularly the ever-increasing parts we live out online are captured and analysed. It's estimated that 90% of all of the data that humans have ever produced, has been produced in the last two years! That is a terrifying statistic! The pace grows and the statistic get more stark. Scarcity and lack are not the issues we face, when making decisions - we don't need more data, we need access to the right data.

But what we also need, in order to make great decisions and ensure that we overcome our challenges while acting in alignment with our values and the things that really matter to us, distance. The pace of life and the abundance of data can make things feel claustrophobic, as though we are squashed in and lack the space to stop and think. There's rarely a moment in our lives when we are able to quiet the noise and step away. But that's precisely what we need to do.

When there's a situation at work that's causing you distress, perhaps a colleague who you're in some kind of conflict with (whether actively or passively, as is so often the case in organisations), it can be tempting to look outwards at the situation and gather more data. Feedback from others, reassurance, data on their performance that might validate how we feel. And while these things can be useful, they only go part of the way to helping us find the right path through the challenge. The thing that's often missing, is distance. Space. A gap.

The closer we are to a situation, either physically, in terms of the recency with which and incident took place or our closeness to the individual involved, the harder it can be to get perspective. Emotions can be heightened, feelings intensified and the feeling that the situation is bigger or more significant than it perhaps is, in reality. We can be so close to a situation that we lose sight of the bigger picture and fixate on the details within it. When that happens, lean out instead of leaning in. Step away. Create distance, perhaps physically, perhaps in terms of time. Take yourself out of the moment.

You know that feeling when someone does something that really annoys you, really rips your knitting, but you can't articulate exactly why it annoys you so much? When you have an intense, visceral reaction to something which, to others, seems trivial. And without creating space, you knee-jerk, instead of responding, and lash out with a reaction that seems unjustified or out of proportion with the incident which caused it? That's what I'm taking about here. Having so much information, such proximity, that you lose perspective and perhaps say or do something that you will later regret.

There's a concept in developmental psychology, called Psychological Distancing which gives us really useful clues here. In their paper Construal Levels and Psychological Distance: Effects on Representation, Prediction, Evaluation, and Behaviour, Trope, Liberman, and Wakslak give four examples of psychological distance which can be helpful; Time, Space, Social Distance and Hypotheticality.

  • Time is obvious; the longer that passes after an event, the less heightened our emotions are in relation to it

  • Space refers to physical space. Move away from the situation

  • Social distance describes the fact that we use more abstract qualities and descriptors when we describe people different to us, ie further away from us

  • Hypotheticality explains the comparative distance that exists between things which are likely to happen and things which are less likely to occur.

This gives us a useful set of steps that we can take to begin to create that distance:

  • Where possible, let some time pass. See if it feels as significant and as stinging as it did in the time. You can even do that as a thought experiment ('will this still seem important in five hours, five days, five weeks, five years?')

  • Get out of the moment. Excuse yourself. Explain, if necessary that you want to take some time away from the situation to reflect. Use this as a brake before you do or say something that might make the situation worse and perhaps be harder to unpick later, like attacking someone's character during an argument, rather than staying focussed on the merits of the positions within the argument themselves

  • Consider how you might behave in relation to the situation, if this was someone who you were closer to, or less close to, than the person involved. How would you want to respond if this was your mum? How would you want to respond if this was someone you'd never met before and would never see again? How can that perspective be useful here?

  • Consider the likelihood of the event occurring. I've lost count of the number of times I find myself talking with friends, family or clients who are getting themselves in a pickle about activities, events and outcomes which exist only within their heads!

Even when it comes to our own lived experiences, there's a danger that in the fast-paced world we're all living in, we get so close to the detail, we don't stop to think about how we feel, or even, think about them! Now this all feels a little bit like Inception, but bear with me for a moment! Metacognition, or 'thinking about thinking' is something which humans are blessed to be able to do. When a thought comes to us, or we experience an emotion, that's useful. But rather than jumping to action, distance allows us to think about that emotion, or reflect upon that thought. Why do we feel that way? What was it about the situation which generated that emotion? What is it about our thoughts that we find interesting? Where might they come from? Where might they be flawed? Which if our values do we feel is being impinged up on when we feel a reaction coming?

By creating space, of any of the kinds listed above, we can gain perspective, we can ensure that our response (not our reaction) is more proportionate to the event itself and we can create the opportunity to be more creative with how we handle things. We can also recognise priorities, sometimes realising that the thing we've been fixating on or scrambling to complete isn't as urgent as we'd let ourselves believe, or might not even be important at all, when we hold it up alongside our values and goals.

This is often why coaching is so effective. By taking yourself away from a situation, into a different physical location, spending time with someone who is there to listen, to question you and to reflect back, holding the space for you to unpack the situation, you're giving yourself a great opportunity to see things that you missed in the moment. I had a fantastic session this week with a client who, at the end of the session, realised that the expectations and deadlines which they'd attributed to others, pressing down upon them, were actually self-imposed. They were creating a feeling of overwhelm and stress and pressure but telling themselves that it was someone else doing it. Freed from the shackles of this, they were able to re-prioritise and move on.

Ask yourself, where do you need to create some distance, in order to be more effective in your work, life or relationships? If I can help, you know where to find me!

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