My Working Day – or – You can take a horse to water but you canny make it drink…

A slow day today. Home-working, preparing paperwork for submission, examining and assessing evidence, deciding on final strategies and tactical moves.

The reason I am good at what I do? (she said, modestly). Because, above all else, above and before all that adherence to process, I manage the client’s expectations. Calmly. Placatingly. Sensibly and reasonably. So it is that, even as I sometimes feel like shaking them physically, I am smiling and nodding, exuding reassurance and validation, whilst gently probbing their inevitably warped reasoning and beginning the process which will bring them back to themselves.

Cynical? No. Realistic? Yes.

The first rule of my client management is: Let Them Blow. That first meeting, let them do a Vesuvius. Let them exhaust themselves. Let them consume all energies, pouring their bile and their acid; their tears and their snotters; their months of frustration and pain into the calm space of my presence.

Some will come with bulging files of paper: printed emails evidencing workplace slights; perceived bullying treatment; suspect ‘tone’ and discriminatory treatment. For a few, the files will represent several years of a life  which has become invested in sustaining a deep wrath and personal unhappiness. These are the clients who hug their files to themselves – files become life jackets. These are the clients who have annotated the margins of printed-out emails with red inked exclamation marks and row upon repeated row of question marks. The clients whose eyes begin to bulge with the pressing need that you believe them.

Inevitably, all have become attached to their grievance or their disciplinary or their dignity case. It has become the filter through which they experience the world. It defines where and who they are emotionally. It colours every action they take and will be the measure against which they assess their life and the working lifes of others. These are people who are on a mission: to convince me of The Truth.

Ironically, and ‘in truth’, it generally matters not what I believe. The Truth is a subjective mistress who is all things to all people. One man’s bullying is another woman’s performance management. Perception is all. And unless it’s a case about who punched who, or who shagged the 16 year old pupil – in other words, a case about empirically verifiable FACTS – then it is forever a case of ‘he says; she says; he says’. It is Personal Perception.

So, I listen to the noise of their pain and frustration; their repeated calls for ‘justice’ (calls that very often really mean ‘revenge’); I hold their hands through the cataract of anguish and anger – and when they are exhausted, I begin the process of cutting the tumourous mass of filing from them. Delicately avoiding a mass blood-letting. Because what I am really doing for many, is questioning the very basis upon which they have built their recent lives. And that often requires a surgical precision, a delicacy of touch, a keen sense of time and place.

Mind you, for some, there is no tool like the blunt tool. A bald undisguised order that they stop communicating with their employer after I become involved – backed by threat: or else I will withdraw from acting. Or a dismissal of the missive they have drafted with a: It is wholly inappropriate. Now, let us return to our agreed plan.

Some people want the sun and the earth and the moon and the stars. They have lost perspective – and need time to understand that the law does not have a remedy which will heal broken relationships with colleagues nor deliver what they deserve. Nor that stamping their feet in a toddler dance of defiance will achieve anything more than reducing their stock possibly further.

As for me, I cannot afford to become affected by their emotional battles. I cannot be blinded by their views. I must be detached. Objective. Must be able to highlight the unreasonability of their expectations. Always ready to substitute their desires with ‘what the law and legal precedent would indicate is reasonably possible in this case’. Or I do them a great disservice.

What has often struck me, as I do a job like this, is just how many people become trapped in jobs to which they are entirely unsuited – but I also know that it is a dangerous thing to suggest they may be in the wrong job… It often bewilders me how many people make demands of their employers that they wouldn’t dream of making of their partners or families or friends (aka I want a transfer now and it must be within this area or similar) or how many people simply cannot hear that they may have to change their lifetime’s practice or to learn new skills (aka but I have always done it this way).

Of course, I am also aware that my experiences are mediated via the minority of the deeply unhappy; that the vast majority go through their working lives without needing my services; and that work can and does make some people very ill.

Today I prepare the case for a client who cannot accept that he has any professional short-comings. He does not need ‘professional development’. Or at least, he has rejected every management identification of his need for improvement, as ‘motivated by spite and a bullying culture’. Tomorrow I will begin the process of challenge…

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