If You Call Your Customers ‘Punters’, Do You Deserve to Have Any?

Picture: Crossed fingersThe meaning of words evolves. For years many people have complained about the use of ‘literally’ to mean ‘figuratively’, such as ‘I laughed so much I literally died’ or ‘I was literally glued to the TV set’. Thanks to its overuse (incorrectly), Webster’s dictionary has now included ‘literally’ to mean literally its opposite. Another word that is currently being overused (and incorrectly) by TV reporters (especially on BBC) is ‘punter’. I’m finding myself increasingly irritated by it’s routine use to mean ‘customer’ or ‘client’. Recently I have overhead business users using it too. In this post I argue that we should resist the casual shift of meaning from customer to punter.

Punters versus customers

‘Punters’ are people who gamble, make risky investments or place bets.The word became popular in the 1980s. It’s not clear why news outlets insist on using the word ‘punter’. Maybe the think its trendy. Clearly words do come in and out of fashion such as ‘iconic’. Everything these days is iconic according to news reporters, presenters and journalists. The issue is that ‘punters’ and ‘customers’ are two separate things. A customer wants assurances that goods or services will be delivered to an appropriate standard. ‘Punters’ flip a coin!

Although in time ‘punter’ will undoubtedly find its way into the dictionary with an alternative meaning (customer), but the implication will stay. What next? Think of a service you need to visit and ask yourself ‘Do I want to be a punter?’ Are you expecting to ‘just take your changes’? Do you want to be treated like the proverbial fool, easily parted with your money?

Attitudes, Values and Actions

Customer service is one thing that a business cannot afford to short-change its customers on. Customer loyalty is not built on a punt. It’s not just a turn of phrase; it whispers contempt. We are often told to treat people as we would want to be treated. Better still to find out how people want to be treated and treat them that way instead. Our words reveal our attitudes. Our attitudes communicate our values and, in turn, shape our actions. Actions build trust. With trust comes loyalty. Businesses who treat their customers as ‘punters’ can’t really expect any of that, and certainly don’t deserve it.

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About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Gary is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He also offers coaching worldwide through Skype. His clients have included BBC, Powergen, American Airlines, The Payments Council, first direct amongst others. Contact Gary Wood by email to see how his solution focused (life) coaching approach would benefit you or your organization. See: Testimonials from former clients.

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How to Guide Your Decision Making With Your Value System

Faced with innumerable decisions we need a system to filter out the ‘wheat from the chaff’. What’s most important to you and what can you let go? Fortunately, you already have such a system. It’s called your value system. Each of us live by a set of principles shaped by our society and culture but with our own particular spin. Our values help us to focus on the essentials. Life is a bit like a supermarket. There are the budget supermarkets that have just one of everything on the shelves and there are the major supermarkets that have ten of everything on the shelf? Do we really need to choose between ten brands of ketchup when the contents are pretty much the same? The Pareto Principle states that 20% of our efforts yield 80% of the results. If we focus on the core 20% we get more time to relax, provided of course you don’t agonize over the choices for a relaxing activity.

When I work with (life) coaching clients we focus on core values and how goals support these. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who knows me that curiosity and learning are amongst my top values. Equality and ethics are also important to me. That’s how I got to slim down my list of shopping brands. There are just some that I refuse to buy because of what I consider to be their company’s unethical practices. So take a while to consider what  are your top ten values, the guiding principles in your life. When you have made a list of ten, cross out the bottom five and concentrate on the top five. When faced with decisions and goals, ask yourself: ‘Will doing this support my values?’ Obviously there will be exceptions. Any system needs to be flexible. However it will give you a focus if you stick to these core values 80% of the time.

Another tool I use is the ‘Absolutely Yes or No Rule’. This will help to maintain your focus. If when faced with a choice if the answer is not ‘absolutely yes’ then it is automatically ‘no’. This is particularly useful if you find it hard to say ‘no’ to people. However make sure you don’t say ‘no’ just because you find the task a little daunting. Instead ask: ‘Is this a new experience?’ ‘Will I learn anything new from it?’ Again be flexible and stick to the rule a least 80% of the time.

If you sit quietly for a moment and bring your attention fully back into the room you will begin to notice sights, sounds and sensations that you routinely blank out. This is because we cannot possibly pay attention to every tiny bit of information that comes our way. Therefore our attention is selective. We focus on the important stuff and blank out the noise. Using our value system can help us to do that when faced with too many decisions and a limited amount of time. So what are your values in life and how will you let them lead your decision making?

(In conversation with Annie Othen, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, 4/1/13)

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End of the World or Second Chance?

According to some ‘popular’ interpretations of ancient Mayan prophecy, the world should have ended today. Alternatively this day has ushered in a new age of enlightenment. Many people are probably so sick of hearing about the end of the world that they wished it was, just so the ‘end-of-timers’ would just shut the ‘hell’ up.

In less than two weeks we may have set new year’s resolutions and already broken them. It seems we like to make grand gestures on significant dates. So, let’s work on the hypothesis that we are entering a new age of enlightenment, only we don’t have t wait for it to come to us. I’ve already been pondering what I can do differently in the coming year and the things I do well that I can do more of.

Use this ‘un-momentous’ occasion to review your strengths, values and goals including things you have been putting off, things that you have’always wanted to do’, but never seem to make the time. Part of my job as a programme co-ordinator on a psychology course meant that I had to interview prospective candidates. The question I found most useful was ‘What are you going to give up (sacrifice) to attend this course?’ It took most people by surprise as they had perhaps figured that they would squeeze it in amongst other commitments. The problem with that approach is that you ‘spread yourself too thinly’. Giving up stuff can be a positive thing. Many of the prospective candidates would be busy, mature-aged students. The one thing they had all given up was the attitude that they were not ‘student-material’. They had let go of something negative and entertained the possibility that they just might ‘do good’ second time around.

Working with these students proved inspirational and a turning point in my career. I recognized that I would need a few extra confidence building skills and that’s how I began coaching (life coaching). I went off and did some coaching training. I brought these skills back to the class room and ran extra-curricular personal development courses that formed the basis of my book, Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It. In order to attend these courses, the students sacrificed a few weekends but hopefully gained a lot more. To complete essays they probably had to sacrifice a few evening’s television, but the sense of achievement they gained was far greater.

So what can you give up in your life to make way for something you’ve always wanted to do? Have you longed to return to learning, or learn a new language or just get out more and reconnect with people? It’s often said that when staring death in the face we don’t regret the things we have done but the things we haven’t done.

So today, as we have all collectively faced up to the end of the world, what would have been your deepest regrets? More importantly, what are you going to start doing about it today? Start by sacrificing the attitude that you can’t do it or you haven’t got the time. Make way for new attitudes. Reaffirm your values in life, that which you stand for in life, and take action.

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10 Tips for How to Thrive Not Just Survive at Christmas

Christmas is supposed to be a celebration and a season of good will to all but often turns into a nightmare as expectations and the pressure of managing relationships mount. Many of us have an extensive to do list but rarely does ‘go easy on yourself’ make it on to the list. So what can we do, to take the pressure off and enjoy Christmas rather than just endure it. Here are my tips:

  1. Get some perspective – it’s only one day. Unrealistic expectations and trying to cram in too much on will spoil any day. So, focus on what is really important to you at Christmas and don’t get too sidetracked by the trappings and the trimmings. In my job as a ‘life coach’, I work with clients to assess their values. It’s a great strategy for dealing with Christmas. Think about the meaning rather than the gloss. Sometimes less is more. The Pareto Principle states that 20% of our efforts yield 80% of the results. Think about the 20% that will make it a special time. ‘Less is more’ applies at Christmas more than any other time. You could also follow the Quentin Crisp principle ‘Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses; drag them down to your level’.
  2. Take a lead from children – no matter how expensive the toys, the kids will end up playing with the box. You’re not really buying designer label clothes for children. If they are scared to get things dirty and can’t play, then it’s all about you.  Very young children enjoy the simpler pleasures in life. Follow their lead.
  3. Practise gratitude (and don’t criticise) – be thankful for what you do have rather than obsessing over what you don’t have. The list of things that make a ‘perfect’ Christmas seem endless but as you strip away the trappings you will be surprised that they are actually surprisingly few. Again, a very good way to approach life in general. If someone does something nice for you then say thank you. Don’t let the first thing to come out of your mouth be a criticism. Don’t be a food critic or an anything else critic. Before you open your mouth, ask if your ‘pearls of wisdom’ will add to the festive cheer. Ask if your ‘constructive criticism’ will make the recipient feel valued or deflated. If things are not perfect then focus on the gesture. So if your first thought is to moan about the sprouts, let it be followed quickly by the thought that you may just get to wear them!  In other words, don’t be a @£$£!!
  4. Count to Ten  – this is a useful strategy of dealing with ‘difficult’ family and friends. They may have different expectations. So if Uncle Percy complains about the sprouts, just count to ten before you react.You may think to yourself  ‘Yes, but they are better than the sprouts you’ll be getting when we put you in a home’. Cruel, but helpful if it helps to let the comment wash over you. Some people are just awkward, just accept it and let it wash over you.
  5. Breathe –  when we are stressed our breathing tends to be more shallow. So if anything starts to ‘get to you’ at Christmas, then take yourself away from the stressor and take a few long, slow deep breaths. This will help to interrupt the stress cycle.
  6. Go for a walk – Sitting in a confined space with lots of family and friends can be stressful, especially if you’re the one doing everything.  So wrap up warm and go for a walk. A bit of fresh air and a change of scenery can work wonders. The same applies for any working day during the year. Research has shown that a walk in nature can help to boost feelings of self-esteem and well-being.
  7. Give and take – it’s a tad simplistic to say that the whole world is divided into givers and takers, but Christmas tends to exaggerate everyday life patterns. So if you are a giver and feel you have to run around after everyone, take a deep breath and sit down and give other people the opportunity to give something to you. If someone offers to make you a cup of tea or do the washing up then have the good grace to let them. You’re not a bad host if a guest wants to get out the rubber gloves and the dish mop. Conversely, if you tend to take, take, take at Christmas, don’t just sit in the corner like a blancmange, get off your backside and offer to do something for someone else. A small gesture can be more valuable than a gift of underwear,  gloves, socks and deodorant! So let the takers give a little more and the givers take a little more.
  8. Gluttony and guilt – some people feel guilty over the sheer volume of food consumed over Christmas. Firstly it’s important to recognise that it’s the only feast in the UK calendar. All cultures have times of feasting. However, also don’t overdo it. Sometimes we fall into the trap of buying ‘Christmas’ foods that get wasted, such as boxes of dates. If you like dates, go ahead and buy them. If not, then don’t buy them on the off-chance that great Aunt Brenda might fancy one. If she likes them that much, she’ll bring her bloody own! Christmas food can be notoriously rich and fatty which can lead to acid indigestion. We have this idea that hedonism was all over indulgence. Hedonism was really about pleasure and that meant everything in moderation. Having a hangover or heartburn is not pleasurable. Hedonists didn’t get them because they didn’t over indulge. Again, sometimes less is more. Balance out the rich foods with fresh fruit and vegetables. You don’t have to cram everything into one day, so pace yourself. Also, make sure you stay hydrated and drink water. Being dehydrated can make you irritable and distort judgement and perceptions.
  9. Lonely this Christmas – many people spend Christmas alone which for some becomes unbearable. It’s important to remember that a lot of this has to do with attitude and perception. First ask yourself what you’d normally do on this day of the week, because it really is just one day.Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary Wood I know of people who just treat Christmas day as a break from routine and have actually spent the day de-cluttering your home. Catch up on your reading, get your foreign language CDs out, anything that you don’t normally have time to do. Be kind to yourself a have a few treats lined up. Just have a ‘you’ pamper day, free from people. It could be your own personal one day retreat. It’s all about thinking outside of the box. It could also be a personal development day, so you could spend the day setting your goals for the coming year. Alternatively, you could check out opportunities for volunteering at a homeless shelter for instance. Giving something to others can be give a real boost in self esteem and confidence. Christmas is also only one day and everything is pretty much back to normal the next day, so keep it in perspective.
  10. Look forward – if you have had a bereavement during that year, take a moment to celebrate the life of that person. However take it further and take time to reflect on what you will do with your life to honour that person and that relationship. Focus on what inspiration that person gave you that you can use to take your life forward. At Christmas I always think about my Nan and Granddad who gave me the happiest moments in childhood. I learned from both of them the importance of compassion and giving something to others. From my granddad, I gained the love of reading and learning. My PhD and three books have been dedicated to them. It’s tangible proof that their lives had a profound effect on me. Undoubtedly, the first Christmas after the death of a loved one is the most difficult, so put a moment aside to think about how you take your life forward from the influence and inspiration they brought.

So these are my top ten tips for thriving not just surviving Christmas. I wish you all the best for the coming year and invite you to check out my posts on goal setting and new year’s resolutions.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary Wood(In conversation with Caroline Martin, BBC WM, 19/12/2012)

Give someone the gift of confidence this Christmas/New Year with Gary’s book Unlock Your Confidence.

Buy: Amazon UK  /  Buy: Amazon USA

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Avoiding Negative People or Changing Your Attitude?

I saw a postcard circulating on the internet that read:

‘Avoid negative people for they are the great destroyers of self-confidence and self esteem. Surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you’.

I have no issue with the second statement but do take exception to the first.

Firstly, what exactly are negative people? Is this negativity a fixed state? If so, what a depressing view of humanity. It’s more accurate to refer to use the phrase ‘people holding negative attitudes’. It also offers the possibility that attitudes may change. However we can take this further. Using this absolutist mindset is not psychologically healthy in which we posit black and white categories of ‘positive people’ and ‘negative people’. In fact, in Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT),  the ‘black and white mindset’ is seen as something the needs to change. Many of the CBT techniques are aimed at ‘logically disputing’ the results of black and white thinking.

As a coach, many of my clients hold negative attitudes which are usually directed towards themselves. So, as a coach, should I avoid such people? Instead should I surround myself with ‘positive people’? Working with people with negative attitudes is one of the most rewarding aspects of my work as a coach and as a teacher. Such clients bring out the best in me and I can clearly see that I have made a difference in people’s lives.

Going back to the idea of all-pervading negativity, are there really people who are absolutely negative about absolutely everything, all of the time? Of course not. Admittedly, people can get into a negative cycle but I have yet to encounter people for whom this is all encompassing. My coaching practice is heavily influenced by solution-focused therapy skills. As with CBT, I work with clients to explore the exceptions. I will ‘look for what sparkles’ in someone’s life rather than consign them to the scrap heap. Admittedly this is not the easiest route but it is infinitely more rewarding. My coaching practice is also significantly informed by my psychological training. My PhD was in attitudes and ‘black and white thinking’. I very much view coaching as process to facilitate attitude change.

The assumption in the self-help quote above is that ‘negative people’ destroy self confidence and self esteem.  However, there is another saying offering a different perspective: ‘Difficult people are our teachers’. Many people tell stories of triumph over adversity and overcoming obstacles. Sometimes ‘difficult people’ test us. It’s not necessarily a reason to avoid them. Obstacles can strengthen our resolve. There is also the question of perception. Sometimes ‘negative people’ and ‘difficult people’ are those who don’t agree with us. Of course, it’s different when faced with bullies and those who seek to put us down. However is total avoidance necessarily the right strategy? Will avoidance preserve confidence and esteem? Surely habitually using avoidance over assertiveness could actually lead to lower confidence and esteem. Is it really a strategy to run off to people who always tell you what you want to hear? I can think of countless times in my life when ‘difficult people’ brought out the best in me. I’m not alone in that. There isn’t a success story ever written that does not contain an element of triumphing over adversity. Yours will be no different.

The problem with much that is written in self-help circles is that it is simply not thought-through. It bears little relationship to real life or evidence based psychology or models teaching and learning. Much of it is written in an over-generalized style (says he over-generalizing). Often self-help stuff reads like newspaper horoscopes. it’s easy to pick and choose and distort the message to get out of it what you want. Explanations of psychological types can often be used to prevent people from moving on, such as the myth of the addictive personality, the myth of significant gender differences or in this case the myth of toxic people. Surrounding ourselves by supportive people is one thing but what happens when one of those people starts telling you what you want to hear? Do they get labelled ‘toxic’ and are then avoided?

Often it’s not what happens in our lives that counts but how we perceive it and deal with it. The same applies to difficult people. These people may offer you an opportunity to let your positive attitudes shine. The call to avoid people with negative attitudes taps into an emotional-focused coping strategy in life. It’s easier to deal with the emotions than it is to get to the heart of the issues. To avoid ‘negative attitudes’ is a short-term fix. Managing our attitudes towards people with negative attitudes is a longer term solution. Otherwise, you may as well go and live on a desert island.

Often people displaying negative attitudes just want to be seen and heard. It’s better to be a people manager than operate a people-waste disposal system. Managing your perceptions, actions and reactions will help to build your own self-esteem. Avoiding opportunities never will. There are always going to be people that push us to the limit and we feel that if we don’t get away that they will drag us down. I admit that I have met a few people like that in my life. On the odd occasion I did opt for self-preservation but that process took years not at the first hint of ‘trouble’. Giving up on people should be the last resort not our default ‘speed-dial’. Inevitably you will give up on people but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try first. So before you reach for the ‘self-help short cut’, ask yourself if there is not a better lesson in there somewhere than that offered by the ‘inspirational’ self-help postcard approach.

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Psychological Hardiness, the Confidence to Embrace Change, and Coaching

When faced with change, how we cope depends on our psychological hardiness (similar to resilience). Rather than a personality characteristic it’s more of a personality style or way of viewing the world. Whereas personality characteristics appear fixed, views can be changed. A core part of the life coaching process (and a key theme in my book Unlock Your Confidence) is to consider alternative viewpoints and change attitudes.

Poster: Building psychological resilence

Building confidence and building psychological hardiness go ‘hand-in-hand’

The concept psychological hardiness was proposed by psychologists Suzanne Kobasa and Salvatore Maddi. It comprises three attitudes – the three Cs: commitment, control, and challenge. Individuals ‘high in hardiness’ are more likely to put stressful life events into perspective and tend to perceive them less of a threat and more of a challenge and as opportunities for personal development. As a consequence stressful events are less likely to impact negatively on a person’s health. The buffering effect of psychological hardiness on health and well-being has been well researched and has been demonstrated for a variety of occupational groups, from business executives to students including people working in highly stressful conditions such as fire-fighters and people in the military. Let’s consider the three Cs in turn:

  • Commitment is the attitude of taking a genuine interest in other people and having curiosity about the world and getting involved with people and activities. The opposite of commitment is alienation, which involves cutting yourself off and distancing yourself from other people.
  • Control is the tendency to hold the attitude that control is something that comes from the inside and act as if you can influence the events taking place around you by your own efforts. It is The opposite of control is powerlessness which includes the perception that your life is controlled by external forces (fate, government) and that you do not have the means or capabilities to achieve your goals. Our sense of control is often based on perception rather than objective facts.
  • Challenge is the attitude that change is the norm, as opposed to stability and that change offers opportunities for personal development rather than threats. The opposite of challenge is security, and the need for everything to stay the familiar and predictable, allowing you to remain in your comfort zone

Taken together the three components of psychological hardiness provide the motivation and confidence to look to the future to find meaning in life rather repeating the past. Often in coaching we find that small changes can have a big impact. This is one of the basic tenets of the type of solution-focused coaching that I practise.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodBuilding psychological hardiness need not be a mammoth task. It may involve simple ways in which we can reconnect with people or what some people call ‘getting yourself out of the house’. A few minutes engaged in a chat at the bus stop is a lot better than hours at home spent going over our problems. A small change can cause a dramatic shift in perspective.  Just by focusing on the small areas that we have control and exercising that control may lead to fresh insights. Just choosing to break a routine and do something slightly different or in another order can cause a shift. We can build on the smallest of shifts in coaching. The same applies to challenge. We all crave predictability in live but at the same time we appreciate the difference a bit of novelty brings. Again, a small ‘shake-up’ may be all that it takes to open up a new perspective.

Ask about coaching with Dr Gary WoodAdopting the three attitudes of hardiness (commitment, control, challenge) has been shown in research to enhance performance and health even in the face of stressful life changes. To choose the unfamiliar future over the familiar past also requires courage. Coaching provides the necessary support and strategy to help you to do just that.

What will you do today that demonstrates the attitudes of commitment, control and challenge?

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Out & About: Mapping LGBT Lives in Birmingham

Out & About: Mapping LGBT Lives in Birmingham  is a research project commissioned by Birmingham City Council to map the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans) community in the city. The data were collected over a five month period via an on-line survey by the charity Birmingham LGBT, and I analysed them. Essentially, the report aims to fill a gap in knowledge. Previously there were no data available to assess the needs of the LGBT community. The Equality Act 2010 has created the impetus to gather information to ensure equality of service provision.
The research comes at an exciting time for the city. Birmingham LGBT won a substantial grant from the Big Lottery Fund to establish an LGBT Health and Wellbeing Centre to act as a ‘one stop shop’ for the community and community groups, and will work with other service providers to address health inequalities within the LGBT Community.
Amongst the findings, Out and About indicated that one in five respondents had attempted suicide and more than one in five had self harmed. Both of these were more likely if the people had been victims of hate crimes. Cohort comparisons for experiences at school indicated that the younger cohort (under 35s) were more likely to have been ‘out’ at school than were the older cohort (35+) but also more likely to have been bullied. The general picture was of a paucity of information and resources at schools on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as a lack of active strategies in schools to tackle homophobia. The report calls for improvements in education provision to tackle homophobia and awareness raising.
Out & About also offers recommendations for improving the LGBT cultural appeal of Birmingham. The first step is simply that Birmingham needs to take a leaf out of the book of its festival of queer culture (now in its third year) and promote itself more effectively and *Shout! about what the city has to offer.
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Measuring Sexual Identity: Fundamentally Flawed, Practically Worthless, Irresponsible or Dangerous?

What’s wrong with ‘Measuring Sexual Identity: An Evaluation Report’ (2010) from the Office for National Statistics?

Well for starters, the authors admit that its methodology is fundamentally flawed by using a single measure and if they had they used a more appropriate measure then the figures for gay, lesbian and bisexual would most likely have been higher! The report misleads over refusal rates and does not adequate addresses the age, emplyment status, education, and ethnicity biases in its figures. In spite of evidence to the contrary the authors slap themselves on the back for a success’ whereas they should be slapping each other in the face for this unmitigated disaster.

Having taught statistics in several UK universities at all levels and  with a PhD in gender stereotypes and attitudes to sexuality (from an accredited university), I recognise, in this report,  many of  pitfalls I’ve taught undergraduate psychology students to avoid.  If it was an undergraduate report, I’d struggle to give it a ‘pass’. So let’s look at some of the main problems:

Attraction, Behaviour, Orientation, Identity
The report distinguishes between sexual attraction, sexual identity,  sexual orientation and sexual behaviour. So the expectation is that the report will take a multidimensional approach. However, it does not.  It states that whereas legislation focuses on sexual orientation, the report choses to look at sexual identity. It  also clearly states that behaviour may not form a basis for identity but goes on to argue:

‘Research during the development of the question also deemed sexual identity the most relevant dimension of sexual orientation to investigate given its relation to experiences of disadvantage and discrimination’ (p4).

Unfortunately, the research on which this conclusion is based is by the Office for National Statistics. It’s a classic example of groupthink. Much cutting edge research would dispute this assumption.  I certainly dispute it. It became clear very early on in my research that a single question to measure sexual identity or sexual orientation, at best would be misleading. So I didn’t.  It could be considered irresponsible to publish  research based on an imappropriate tool. In fact, the curremt report probably would not be published in any peer reviewed journal.

This report warns:

“[N}o single question would capture the full complexity of sexual orientation. A suite of questions would be necessary to collect data on the different dimensions of sexual orientation, and to examine consistency between them at the individual level (p4).”

The report goes ahead and uses a single question anyway! Whether or not a person labels their sexual orientation should not be the issue where ‘experiences of disadvantage and discrimination’ are concerned. Clearly, the reluctance to feel able to or be comfortable in declaring one’s sexuality is also a form of disadvantage and an aspect of discrimination. The current approach distorts the issue through over simplification.

So what’s the difference between attraction, behaviour, orientation and identity. Well, identity is how we describe ourselves or how others label us. Well people who are attracted to the same gender might not act upon it. People who act upon sexual attraction may do so in very specific circumstances. Orientation may be indicated by attraction, behaviour or a label with which a person identifies. I would argue that behaviour and attraction are more important than the label a person uses. For instance, in sexual health there is a recognised category of ‘men who have sex with men’ (MSM), who do not identify as gay. They see themselves as straight men who occasionally have sex with other men. The rest of the time they lead ‘straight’ lives. In sexual health services and health promotions, ‘men who have sex with men’ are at risk from sexual transmitted infections, and are targeted as a specific group.  However, assumptions made by this report concluded:

“Testing showed that respondents were not in favour of asking about sexual behaviour in a social survey context, nor would it be appropriate in general purpose government surveys (p4)”.

Again, this conclusion was based on reports from the Office for National Statistics.  In the present study, worryingly, the authors state:

‘As in the UK, deriving an individuals sexual orientation from a suite of questions results in higher LGB estimates in the US compared with using a single sexual identity question (p15)’

It is accepted in attitude measurement that single item responses are unsuitable.  Using a multiple response measure, properly administered would produce a more accurate figure. Furthermore, research suggests that this figure would have been higher.The figures cited in the report for more methodological sound research range from 5% to 9% ( Joloza, Evans and O’Brien, 2010, p15). The current report says 1.5%.

In a survey with such political impact, the decision to use a single item is ill-advised and  arguably reckless. Research convenience should not compromise validity. In this instance, it does.

Sensitivity of Measurement
Having abandoned the methodologically sound approach of using a ‘suite’ of questions, one might hope that at least the report would use a sensitive measure beyond crude, simplistic nominal categories. Actually no. In the 1940s, sex researcher Alfred Kinsey developed a more sensitive  ‘sliding scale’ of sexuality. Instead, the present researchers ignore this and opt for the bluntest of instruments: Straight, gay or bi. This report didn’t even bother to include transgender in its analysis.

Firstly, consider the approach of ‘measuring’ ethnicity based on a ‘Black, White or Mixed’ categorisation. How accurately would this categorisation produce a representation of ethnicity in the UK? Any reputable survey offers a whole range of options for ethnicity with quite subtle distinctions. Even then, people may declare ‘other’. I would argue that sexuality is more complex than ethnicity.  So why is measurement tool in the present report, measurably more simplistic? The answers is: ‘because the study has not been properly designed to fit the subject matter’. It has little or no ecological validity, that is, it means very little in the real world, except perhaps to fuel prejudice.

The Kinsey scale requires a respondent to use a zero to six scale. Where zero equals ‘exclusively heterosexual’ and six equals ‘exclusively gay’.  This gives varying degrees of bisexuality, that is, from one to five. Now clearly, these sensitive data can be collapsed into cruder categories if needs be. The problem with collecting crude data from the outset, is that we can do little else with it. It offers nothing very meaningful just the willingless of people to use a limited set of labels.

Now imagine, we take three measures of attraction, behaviour and identity all of the sliding ‘zero to six’ scale. Wouldn’t this be a far more accurate reflection of a person’s sexuality orientation? It’s just a pity they didn’t do it in their report for the Office of National Statistics. Would it produce a higher percentage of lesbian, gay and bisexual people? Well, Joloza, Evans and O’Brien (2010, p15) would probably say ‘yes’. So why didn’t they do it?

So what exactly does this study measure? Well it doesn’t measure sexual identity in the UK. It measures the percentage of people sampled  who are willing to declare a sexual identity label from a limited choice  in interviews, with or without others present, in a particular time frame (for a study with poor ecological validity).

But the problems don’t end there. The report also reveals questionable interpretation from by its authors.

Confidentially and the Willingness to Respond
One statistic almost jumps out of the page to indicate that there’s something wrong with this study:

[P]eople (aged 16 and over) who identified as LGB had a younger age distribution than heterosexuals – 64.9 per cent were aged under 45 compared with 48.6 per cent of people who identify as heterosexual (p16).

In other words, younger people are more likely to report a ‘non-heterosexual’ identity than are older people. With no evidence to support the notion that older people are less likely to be gay, it has to be an artifact of this research. That is, older people either don’t identify with a ‘gay, lesbian or bisexual’ so readily, or are not so predisposed to tell a stranger with a clipboard. As such, the one-shot sexual identity is not fit for purpose. It’s possible that older people are more likely to remember the days before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, and police entrapment strategies. It’s possible that they don’t use the word ‘gay’ and may prefer ‘homosexual’. It’s possible that they don’t like to divulge personal information to strangers unless absolutely necessary. There are definitely confounding variables at play and not just age.

According to this study gay, lesbian and bisexual have better jobs and are better educated. Again, the myth of the pink surfaces. Could it not be that young, well-educated, finnacially secure people are more likely to divulge their LGB sexual identity to a stranger? This means that less-empowered people more in need of support and services are not. Again the one-shot measure doesn’t appear to do its job.

The report makes a claim in the face of its own evidence that confidentiality basing this on the refusal rate:

There is no evidence of an adverse impact on response rates confirming the general acceptance of the question. Our analysis suggests response rates are broadly in line with earlier quantitative testing. Non response to the question was low with less than 4 per cent of eligible respondents refusing to answer, saying they did not know the answer or not providing a response  (p26).

Perhaps this  should read  ‘no adverse impact on response rates, except for older, less financially secure, not-so-well educated, non-professionals’.  For those in routine and manual occupations, the most frequent response to the sexual identity question was ‘other’ at 31.1%, more ‘popular’ than heterosexual at 29.4%. Almost a half (49.1%) of those who identified as gay and lesbian had managerial or professional occupations, compared to less than a third (30.6%) who identified as heterosexual/straight? Furthermore, 38.1% of Gay/Lesbian had a degree compared with only 21.9% of Heterosexual/Straight. Doesn’t all this seem odd? Yes! It suggests a significant bias in the sampling, the method and the results. In short, the flaws are evident but largely overlooked by the authors. Failure to do this in an undergraduate report would be severely penalised. But far more is at stake here. This report may inform social policy!

Looking at ethnicity, there’s a bias here too. For Heterosexual/Straight people 90.7% are White, whereas for Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual its 93.5%. However, for the ‘Other’ category for sexual identity, 14.1% are ‘other ethnic group’. For the ‘Don’t knows’, the figure for ‘other ethnic group’ is 18.2%. People from ‘Other ethnic groups’ were almost twice as likely to say ‘Don’t Know’ as say ‘Heterosexual’ (9.3%). They were almost three times more likely to say ‘Don’t Know’ as ‘Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual’ (6.5%). This suggests either a reluctance to declare sexuality or that they did not understand what the terms meant. Either way, it’s a shortcoming of this research.

It’s interesting to note that option one on the interviewers card (market research style) was ‘Heterosexual/Straight’ and option two was  the less formal ‘Gay or Lesbian’, with option three as ‘Bisexual’. It’s interesting that whereas ‘both terms in option one and three can be applied to either men or women. For option two, you can’t have a lesbian man!The options do not use comparable terminology. If different terminology had been used, would the results have been different? If the options had been re-ordered, would the results have been different?Why is heterosexual the first option? Did this slightly increase the heterosexual figure. Research into research and experimter bias suggests it might.  Had the survey not been carried out in a market research format would the results have been different?Did interviewer the tone of voice affect the way in which the questions were answered. I’s done endless market research interviewers on the street and most of the time I can work out what the researcher ‘wants’ me to say. Are you heterosexual <smiles with rising intonation? or gay <frowns, with falling intonation> or bisexual <spits>? It’s a slight exageration but it does happen.

Now let’s turn to the ‘less than four per cent refusal rate’ that caused the authors to discard the other evidence.

The authors state:

‘Prior to developing and testing work on the sexual identity question, the expectation was that the higher the number of adults in the household, the higher the proportion of item non response. This is be because some household members might be reluctant to disclose their sexual identity in the presence of others. However, the results from the IHS do not indicate this (p12).’

However they don’t make the connection between non-response rates and the willingness to declare a true label:

‘Another observation here is that the proportion of people reporting to be LGB in a household decreases as the number of adults in the household increases. There is currently no explanation why this is the case but this is something that could be considered for further investigation in future (p12)’.

One explanation might be that, the more people in the house the less likely people are to declare themselves to be ‘Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual’. They didn’t necessarily refuse they may have felt the need to protect their own privacy and lied or said ‘don’t know’.

So for people identifying as the as the number of people living in the house increases, the figure for ‘Heterosexual/Straight’ increases slightly. For Gay/Lesbian it falls from 1.3% in a single person household to only 0.3% in a four person plus household. The figures for Bisexual remain roughly the same. For ‘Don’t Know/Refusal’ the figures increase slightly as the number of people in the house increases.  This suggests that there is an element of self-censorship in responses.

Think about it logically. If you want to keep your sexual identity secret from other members of the house, do you ‘refuse’ and cause the other house members to ask why, or do you just lie?  Or if you live a ‘heterosexual’ life for 95% of the time and have recreational sex, exactly how do you respond to the stranger on the door step with the crude market research question?

What’s clear is that the current report has not adequately addressed the numerous problems it has generated with an inappropriate methodology for a complex subject. White, Black and Mixed would not be good enough for ethicoity, so why is it good enough here, for a subject arguable more sensitive and complex?

Improvements
It’s important to remember that the Kinsey Team in he 1940s put the gay and bisexual figure as high as 37%. Of course the sampling has been criticised over the years. It probably did lead to an overestimation. Nevertheless the measure on which the Kinsey team based their research was exemplary. A one-shot question does not work for something as complex as human sexuality. The Kinsey measurement was complex and fit for purpose. It is not good enough to side step the issue of instrument accuracy with protests of convenience and acceptability to researchers. Rather than go for the easy, convenient option, get better researchers and design a better study where appropriate measures can be used.  Otherwise all you get is conveniently produced meaningless results. Garbage in, garbage out.

Conclusion
So is this report, fundamentally flawed, practically worthless, irresponsible or dangerous? In my professional opinion, considering the plitical climate, I’d have to say that it’s all of those things. The ONS needs to stop engaging in groupthink and stop treating the complex notion of sexual orientation as some crass market research exercise.  Patting themselves on the back, the authors conclude:

‘The introduction of the sexual identity question. . .  in January 2009 followed rigorous testing and feasibility testing by ONS. The findings of this report suggest its implementation on the IHS in the first year has been a success (p26)’.

A success why what standards? Certainly not of academic rigour. We need high quality research data on which to make sense of our world and inform our social policy decisions. Sadly, this report fails to deliver and cannot be treated as anything other than a pilot study from which serious lessons need to be learned.  The simplistic method does not work evidenced by the reports own figures. It fails to meet the standards of an undergraduate report, on which one can only conclude ‘must do better next time’. Sadly, the decision not to consider the ethical ramifications of publishing a flawed report is inexcusable and sheds light on the ability of the ONS to produce high quality data. It’s argubale negligence. Researchers have a responsiblity to consider how their research will be used. The ONS has  failed to recognise its responsibility.

Maybe it does  not commit the sin of commission of homophobia but it does commit the sin of omission in that it justifies the heterosexist ideology of rendering invisible sexual diversity.

So if we add in the refusals and the don’t knows, if we adjust the figures for age, ethnicity, education, profession and number of people in the household, what exactly would the figue be for ‘non-heterosexuals’? Well, your guess is as good as mine.  It’s disappointing that this overblown, expensive pilot study has thrown up more questions than it answers, and we are back to simply ‘guessing’.

Links:

Measuring Sexual Identity: An Evaluation Report

Being Hung. . . up on X Factor Politics and Body Language Myths

Throughout the analysis to the run up to the 2010 UK General Election, the subject of ‘body language‘ or non-verbal communication has dominated. Faced with the first presidential style leaders’ debates, it’s often the simplest most televisual form of analysis. So, why discuss politics or policies when we can be discussing ties, smiles and hand gestures? The whole spectacle seems to have placed hair-line recession far higher on out list of priorities than global recession. So as the three leading men took to the stage and sound like the new cast of ‘The Last Of the Summer Wine’ it’s all became rather ‘X-Factored’.  When when faced with a buffet of mediocrity, the one with the nice smile gets the vote. It doesn’t matter that they have a voice that sounds like the wind whistling through an aardvark’s rectum. Better than the rest is not always that much of an endorsement when there’s not much on offer.

Part of the problem with the media’s obsession with body language is that it easily passes for ‘scientific’ analysis. Unfortunately this is at the expense of more serious, evidence-based analysis. It’s also partly due to fakesperts who have either not read or not understood the research available on non-verbal communication. What happens is that a misunderstanding is so routinely and frequently passed off as ‘fact’ that it has been accepted. I refer of course to the 7% myth.  I’ve blogged about this on several occasions and there’s not a week goes by tha some ‘expert’ repeats it on twitter, with all the originality of a bigot, who regurgitates, parrot-fashion, the old unfounded, unsupported myths of prejudice.

So let’s be clear.  Non-verbal communication does NOT account for just 7% of any communication. Just try watching a foreign language film without subtitles. Would you really understand 93% of the film? Non-verbals take precedent when we are forming a first impression. So for instance, in the first leaders’ debate, Nick Clegg’s non-verbal communication was probably more important than Brown’s or Cameron’s. This is mainly because he was the least known of the three due to lesser media coverage. It helps to explain why he did so well in the first debate. He’d made a really good first impression. In the following weeks, we’d already formed a first impression and so his words became more important, and the ‘nice bloke’ style wasn’t as impressive.

Non-verbal communication is also important when trying to decide whether someone is lying. If there’s a mismatch between words and gestures we suspect that someone is lying or trying to hide something. Now the cynical might argue that using body language to try to decide whether a politician is lying is a pretty redundant activity.

Non-verbal communication is also very context dependent. So for instance, we tend to behave quite differently with family and friends as we do with work colleagues or at an interview. Now put on the spot-light, turn on a few cameras, invite an audience and realise that you won’t be seeing natural non-verbal indicators of private thoughts or personality traits. Instead you will see the different levels of ability in media training. But coping well in front of the camera doesn’t necessarily make a good Prime Minister. However, it is a good skill for would be politicians. Far from helping us to see the truth, good media training can help to control and obscure it.

If you’ve ever seen those confessional chat shows you’ll notice that the guests are often placed centre stage on a chair without arms. So they are forced to do something with their hands. If they fold their arms to feel more comfortable, it doesn’t mean they are being defensive and lying. It may just mean that they feel at a loss what to do with their arms because there are no arms on the chairs. The fact that they are caught out lying has little to do with ‘reading the body language’. Of course someone on the stage is lying.  That’s the whole point orf the show. But let’s not pretend that the ‘expert’could tell from a producer-contrived defensive geature.  Now consider the leaders’ debates. All three stood at a podium and could grip the sides. This certainly helps control the upper body. So people who want to present themselves as truthful or calmer will make fewer and smaller upper body gestures. Too little moving of the arms and it comes across as disinterest. Too much waving of the arms and it looks like someone who needs to get a grip (on themselves, and on the podium). Analysing the three leaders and David Cameron was more controlled in his upper body, compared to when he is out on the streets in his shirt sleeves. Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg used bigger gestures so that their hands were visible in close-up shots. Cameron’s were not. Now how you read this depends on your politic beliefs since you interpret everything through the filters of your attitudes.

Smiling often increases likability but only if it’s a genuine smile. Gordon Brown’s smile looks forced or nervous. Or else it was  attempt to seem less dour and serious as he has been portrayed in the media. So we saw lots of Gordon Brown’s teeth. However, we barely got to peek inside David Cameron’s mouth. He was quite tight-lipped. Clearly smiling wasn’t so important in this case. So whereas Brown did more smiling or shaking his head when challenged, Cameron did more brow furrowing, which could mean he didn’t agree or he didn’t understand. Again the interpretations come down to your political persuasion.

Nick Clegg perhaps came across as the most ‘human’  and natural of the three. He was less evasive and did answer questions the most directly. However, none of that was by chance. There were lot’s of techniques involved designed to create that impression.  Although by the third debate there were shades of ‘game show host’ in his performance.  By contrast  Cameron throughout each  debate avoided answering direct questions put to him. Brown’s often resorted to  repeating facts and figures almost like as mantra. I suspect some people will never want to heat the phrase ‘tax credits’ ever again. A key strength of both Clegg and Cameron was that they both used simpler terminology whereas Brown was more wordy. For instance, Brown referred to ‘remuneration’ when they other two were more likely to refer to ‘pay’. In a fast paced debated, people often don’t listen, they scan for key words that match or conflict with existing attitudes.

Post-debate analysis  showed that those surveyed in the studio responded favourably when key words were mentioned. So for instance when Cameron mentioned ‘discipline in the classroom’, there was a peak in audience ratings.  In some ways it showed that people were voting with their attitudes.  If you ask someone to rate a like or dislike or something then an attitude is formed on limited information very quickly.  Key buzz words and phrases are far easier than statitistics  to process in the context of existing attitudes. Except when the figures were soundbyte simplifications such as ‘£700 back in your pocket’.

In the first debate Nick Clegg was very diligent in remembering names and making visual context with the audience. However after having established contact he made contact with the TV audience by looking into the camera. This made his approach appear more personal. Cameron followed this lead and adopted this approach more after the first debate although his demeanor was more formal than Clegg’s. By contrast Gordon Brown addressed the studio audience and his opponents on the stage, which although this would have been more personal for the studio audience it was less so for the TV audience. Simply put both Clegg and Cameron made more ‘eye contact’ with the TV audience.

Another interesting point that I have not seen discussed is the stage positions throughout the debates. Gordon Brown was the only leader not to occupy the centre stage. He appeared in the same place throughout the three debates. He also moved his upper body from side to side more that the other two. It’s possible that Brown did not move position from week to week because having his opponents on his right was better for him on account of his blindness in the left eye.  During the first debate, relative newcomer Clegg occupied centre stage which again may have contributed to his high ratings. Context is everything when interpreting non-verbal communication.

Finally, we need to consider the attitudes we held prior to the debates. This will have coloured our expectations and perceptions. It’s become a common phrase in everyday conversation that ‘we need a change’ and Clegg and Cameron in their opposition roles were better placed to work the word ‘change’ into their answers. Brown begun from a defensive position although he did ‘go on the offensive’ throughout the three debates. The problem is that he appealed to ‘finish the job’ and to some this may have been interpreted as ‘more of the same’. It was also notable during the post-debate analysis that those surveyed liked it least when the leaders ‘attacked’ each other. So Brown’s strategy didn’t resonate with the audience whereas Clegg’s ‘let’s work together’ did. Common perceptions of the House of Commons is of a bunch of school children fighting in the playground (and stealing from the tuck shop). Clegg’s appeal to work together to ‘sort out the mess we’re in’ struck a chord that things could be a real difference. However, ‘working together’ and ‘hung parliament’ have very different connotations following lots of media scaremongering.

So did the ‘Browny, Cammy, Cleggy’ show really  enlighten or inform or did it merely entertain? Was it all about the style and soundbyte substance? Although there were appeals to values during the debates, nothing was particularly well articulated instead relying on the old chestnut of ‘family values’. Anyone who actually belongs to a family will know that families aren’t all they are cracked up to be. It’s just a short-hand way of saying ‘wholesome and decent’ and often  a back-door to sneak in sexism and homophobia.

Values are important. They are certainly far  more important than body language debates. Out attitudes support our values and they in turn should inform our politics. Our opinion that they have the X Factor (or not) shouldn’t be the defining quality. We don’t even have to like them, we just have to chose the candidate that represents the party that most closely matches our vision of the world – our values. And if we happen to face a parliament that’s well hung, let’s not get too excited! And as for your vote, it’s not just having one that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts.

For quizzes to help you decide how to use your vote see:

For more on the 7% myth see:

Matching Your Values to Your Vote (UK General Election 2010)

One of the things I do as a personal development coach is to help people allign their values and goals. The same applies to casting a vote in an election. It’s an important decision and really needs to reflect your values and what you stand for. Sometimes when the issues are complex it’s difficult to come to a clean, unambigous conclusion. So here are three resouces designed to help you match your values and attitudes to your vote in the 2010 UK General Election:

  1. Quiz One: Who should I vote for?
  2. Quiz  Two: Who should I vote for?
  3. Quiz Three: Who should I vote for?

My field of expertise is attitudes and attitude measure so it was interesting to see that although all three quizzes take a slightly different approach, they all came to the same answer (for me a least).  So, take a few minutes and see if they work for you too.

p.s. Unfortunately quizzes 1 & 2  have a rather ‘mainsteam, three party bias’ although quizz 3 has on option to fous on each of the four UK countries.