From mastering small talk to bagging a free airline upgrade, it's the little victories that make life a lot more enjoyable. Here, Meadhbh McGrath talks to the experts who have the inside track on better living…
Most of us will go to great lengths to avoid an argument, yet sometimes there's no getting around it. But there is a more effective way to do it. Instead of overwhelming your opponent with information, keep it short and to the point. "Be direct: I need access to this, I need to be involved in this, I want more information," says confidence coach Maria Lynch (confidencebuilding.ie). "Then you're in a solution-focused mindset, rather than a conflict-oriented one. It's not those long-winded exclamations that will win you the argument, it's being clear about what you want." It isn't enough to dwell on your own points: anticipate and interrogate what the other side might say. "You need to listen, and stay grounded," Maria explains. "You can't be defensive. Uncross your legs, with feet solid on the floor. Have your hands on the table or in a notebook, so your hands aren't shaking. You have to have eye contact - you're not staring at the other person, but you're not shying away from it." And be cautious of your tone. "If our bodies are uptight and aggravated, that's the tone that will come out. If your body is grounded, your tone will be much more clear and direct." If you find yourself overthinking the situation, concentrate on your breath. "The moment you feel the pang of anxiety, it's better not to say anything and focus on your breathing rather than say the wrong thing."
Everyone wants more money, so you need to present your employer with a good reason to give you one. Careers specialist Peter Cosgrove says the starting point is to know what you're worth. "People often couch it in the wrong terms, 'I've just got married' or 'I've got a new mortgage' - that's not your company's problem. If you say, 'I've looked at four different salary guides, the average for my role is €48,000 and I'm being paid €37,000, so I'm trying to understand why', that's a much stronger argument." Make sure you have measurable data that can be referred to, such as a sales target. "Ask, 'What will let you know I'm doing a good job?' If they're saying, 'It's working hard and being a good person', you know that in a year's time you have no way to prove that." The conversation shouldn't come as a surprise, so send an email in advance with details about your salary and data on average salaries. And consider options outside of the figure on your pay cheque, too: "People look at their salary in terms of their base pay, and that's crazy, because there are so many other things: health care, insurance, training days, a course abroad, parking spaces, broadband, all of these and many more. Companies don't think of this as money in the same way as salary, so it's a lot easier to get." Do a practice run with a tough friend and be careful how you negotiate. "It's very dangerous to say you'll leave, if you're not going to leave. It can be a very powerful card to play, but if they call your bluff, you'll probably never get a pay rise because you've shown a lack of loyalty."
Irish people typically don't like confrontation, so having to make a complaint can be one of our worst nightmares. "Most of the time, they don't fully understand an entitlement and they particularly don't like arguing face-to-face with people," says Dermott Jewell of the Consumers' Association of Ireland (thecai.ie). He recommends, where possible, a face-to-face complaint, as it is quickest and most direct, but adds that phone complaints can suit consumers better as it allows you to read from notes. If you're getting frustrated by an automated phone system or being on hold, email is faster and more efficient. In complaints about products, you'll often find the information you need about reporting an issue on the receipt, but don't delay, as timeframes can be limited. If you're complaining about a service, such as an energy provider or an airline, you can find a step-by-step guide related to just about every type of service on the dedicated regulator's website. "If you've got to get in touch with the service provider, try not to be goaded into being aggressive," Dermott advises. "I know many people get upset - we can see in our minds that there's a resolution to this, but you're speaking to somebody who may not have the capacity to complete the resolution or who needs to hear all of the detail to be able to help you."
Being faced with a room full of strangers can be daunting, but resist the temptation to pull out your phone and scroll. "The person that you speak to might be the person or might know the person who has the answer to a problem that's been trapping you for a long time," says success coach and motivational speaker Judymay Murphy (judymay.tv). How to break the ice? Simple questions, such as 'Who do you know here?', tend to work best. "Often we put pressure on ourselves to be brilliant straight out of the gate. Just letting someone know that you see them, you acknowledge them, perhaps even acknowledging the awkwardness of the situation can be enough in those first moments," says Judymay. "You'll find that it naturally opens up when you listen well." Don't be afraid of pauses. Count to 10 internally before jumping in. "Don't panic, and don't feel like you have to be the one to fill it." If you find that an hour later, you're still doing all the heavy lifting, it may be time to move on. "You can say, 'Listen, it was lovely to talk to you'," Judymay advises. "You don't owe anybody your time or your energy, and you certainly don't owe them your discomfort."
"Every seat in business or first class has the potential to reap huge money for an airline, so blagging a free upgrade is a rarity. But it is not impossible," says Samantha Murray, Skyscanner's senior growth manager (skyscanner.ie). She recommends signing up for the airline's loyalty scheme and entering your frequent flyer number whenever you make a reservation. "Even if it's the lowest level, you are more likely to get rewarded first." You also stand a better chance if you fly on bank holidays or times of the year, such as August, when business travellers are less likely to fly. Make yourself stand out by arriving early, being kind to airline crew, and dressing appropriately. "Dress as if you've just been browsing the business section of the 'Irish Independent' in the executive lounge." Most importantly, never ask outright for an upgrade. "They always say no!"
The Irish aren't great at receiving compliments. Our first instinct, typically, is to brush it off by putting ourselves down. "We don't like to look conceited in any way," says Orla Brosnan, director of the Etiquette School of Ireland (etiquetteschoolofireland.com). "We're very self-effacing, which I feel is endearing in a lot of ways, but it can come across as having a lack of self-esteem." How should you accept a compliment gracefully? "It takes practice. Being given a compliment is a nice thing, and if you give someone a compliment and have it thrown back at you, you feel awkward. The best thing to do is to simply say thank you. Your body language will be important: don't be crouched up with folded arms and closed posture." Orla adds: "Don't feel obliged to return the compliment - if someone says, 'You've a nice jacket,' don't say, 'Your jacket is lovely too'. It has to come across sincere and honest."
Anyone who has left the hair salon with a chop different to what they imagined knows that communication with your stylist is key. Hair grows back, but it's simpler if you and the stylist understand each other. "Pictures speak a thousand words," says Katherine Sweeney, creative director of Preen (preendublin.ie). And steer clear of hairdresser lingo. "If a client says to me, 'I want a choppy fringe', my first question is, 'What do you mean by a choppy fringe?'" says Katherine. "If you show me a picture, I can say, 'That's actually quite a blunt fringe, but we can create that no problem.'" Trust the experts: if the stylist tells you a certain style won't suit your hair texture or will require a lot of maintenance, heed their advice. "Someone will show you a picture and will think it's much longer than it would be on them. I'll show them a clear indication, and they'll often say, 'Oh no, I don't want that much off!' So we do a slightly longer version. No hairdresser ever wants to hear: 'Oh my god, you've cut my hair too short.'"
You meet a group of people, they reel off their names, and moments later you're struggling to recall a single one of them. Dr Sabina Brennan, TCD neuroscientist and author of '100 Days to a Younger Brain' (sabinabrennan.ie), explains why we struggle with names: "They don't tell us anything concrete about the person. In essence, they are meaningless." In order to make a name memorable, make it meaningful. "Pay attention to the name by actively listening to it when you first hear it. Next, look, really look at the person's face, taking a moment to observe and pick out some memorable feature. Finally, connect the name and the face to some other piece of information that you can associate them with, like their occupation, their dress sense or their personality: dapper Dave the dimpled DJ, or boring Betty with the bob and the bad breath. The alliteration gives my memory an extra boost." Immediately after meeting someone, convince your brain that you're interested in storing their name. "Repeat the name out loud after hearing it or ask the person to spell the name aloud for you. Recall the name to yourself after a few minutes and use it in conversation." But take your time - Sabina notes, "Your brain will need at least 10 seconds to fully soak up a new name."
Putting an order in when the bar is three people deep can be a trying process. You may feel the urge to wave your cash or call out to try to get the bartender’s attention, but Michael Ryan, manager of Limerick’s Pharmacia, advises holding your tongue. “Never wave in the bartender’s face, click your fingers, whistle or wave money at them. You may be ignored or given out to. How would you like if I came into where you work on a day when you’re up the walls and start clicking my fingers at you? I’m not your dog!” Bartenders typically work on one section of the bar, and in a certain order, from left to right or vice versa. “If you leave the bartender a nice tip, when you return to the bar you’ll more than likely get priority treatment,” says Michael. “Know what you want when you’re queuing, as it can be frustrating for a bartender to have to wait for you to ask the group what each of them wants. The bartender will more than likely move on to the next customer. And know how to place an order. If it’s a big order, ask for Guinness and cocktails first as they’ll take the longest to make. If you ask for them at the end, the bartender is not going to be happy.”
The best thing to do, according to John Healy of RTÉ’s The Restaurant and maître d’ of Dublin’s Suesey Street (sueseystreet.ie), is book in advance. There are occasionally last-minute cancellations, but you’re unlikely to get a Saturday table for four at 8.30pm. You’ll have better luck at a quieter time, such as the 6pm seating or a weekday meal. “You have to be very flexible,” he advises. It doesn’t hurt to charm the maître d’, either. “Tip well — not just to the service staff but the person who can get you that table. It’s an old-fashioned way in restaurants and it works: look after them, with a little €20 or €50, and they’ll look after you.” And be careful of how you treat the service staff. “A little bit of personality goes a long way, and I always remember people who make a connection with me. People make mistakes, and how the customer handles it is very, very important.” The number one ‘don’t’, he notes, is trying to blag your way in. “People used to come in and say, brazenly, ‘I did make a reservation’. That kind of thing doesn’t work anymore, because it’s all computer-based, we can trace the name and the number in the diary. You can tell when people are lying.”