The PA Series: Living the Life I Want

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I spoke at the Trailblazers Young People’s conference last Saturday (13th Oct), alongside two other excellent speakers – Lucy Watts and Fi Anderson. The topic was ‘living the life you want’ and making notes for my remarks made me realise – in the past year, I’ve really gone from living a life that I didn’t want to living the life I wanted. This blog will be in two parts, as I wanted to cover two key areas. The first, this blog, focuses on managing PAs, and the second on the freedom to make mistakes and to fail, and can be read here.

Central to me living the life I’ve built has been my carers – and the relationships I have with them. I call carers ‘Personal Assistants’ or ‘PAs’ – because their role is to assist me, not to care for me. There’s a subtle difference in dynamic between those two words/phrases – the word ‘carer’ symbolises something ‘nice’, ‘charity’, doing a good thing for someone. Calling them PAs instead means acknowledging that they are there to assist me and that the manner in which they assist me is up to me.

Having employed PAs now for somewhere in the region of 6-8 years I’ve learned a lot, and having the right team around me is central to me living the life I want. In order to hire and keep the right people around me, I have four key things to keep in mind:

  1. I’m their employer – I hate to think of it in such a managerial perspective, but in practice, I run a small business. It employs 6-8 people. The people I employ work for me, making a product. That product is my autonomous life. Therefore, if one of the PAs isn’t effective in the manufacture of that product, then I need to work out how to alter that situation – whether it’s training, or disciplinary, it’s something that needs changing. Thinking of things this way really helps me assess my PAs and whether I’m getting what I need from them.

  2. Be friendly not friends – I really get on with a lot of my PAs, and by the end of the day I think “wow, I’ve been really social today…” then I realise the only people I’ve socialised with have been literally paid to be there. That’s not a bad thing, but it means I need to make sure that I don’t let PAs substitute for friends. It’s really important that I go and make the effort to hang out with, or text, my friends. This also means knowing that I shouldn’t be providing high levels of emotional support for PAs. It means be friendly, listen to an extent, but if it’s impacting on my ability to live my life I need to shut it down – PAs are there to support me in living independently, and if supporting them is affecting my quality of life I need to direct them elsewhere. This feels harsh, but supporting someone who is really struggling can be very draining, and I need to focus my emotional energy on supporting friends in reciprocal relationships, not supporting PAs.

  3. Make your decisions – don’t let your PA tell you what to do. This one really matters to me, and overlaps with the freedom to make mistakes – you need to be the one making the decisions about your life. I’m always interested in advice from PAs – “which shirt should I buy? – what do you think fits better?” or “would the train or the bus be easier?” but I need to make the final decision myself. I really struggle when a PA tries to push one option on me after I’ve heard their advice. I’m trying to learn to say “I understand why you think we should get the bus, but I’ve decided to get the train” – when a PA pushes their preference I’m trying to learn to push back and be explicit about my decision. When the PA keeps saying “but the bus…” I’m trying to learn to say “I’ve decided to get the train – so let’s head to the station” and not let the PA talk me out of what I’ve decided, but this is really difficult and I’m still struggling with it.

  4. Structure – your PAs are people and they have personal lives as well. This means they need to know what’s expected of them. They need their rota with enough time to plan their private lives. They need to know what they’ll be paid and when, what happens if they’re absent, and what happens if they break the rules. Without that structure, people fall in and out of the job because they fundamentally lack the structure needed to help them keep the job. It’s such a waste to lose good PAs because they don’t know when they’ll be paid or they want more predictable hours, and it’s so avoidable. Putting the effort into structure pays back in ease of managing and keeping PAs

  5. Feedback – picture this: a PA is late. You say nothing. Next week they’re late a couple of times, and you mention in passing that you’d prefer them to be on time. A month down the line you’re really really hacked off, and you have a go at them. They walk out. They hadn’t had regular, clear feedback, your emotions built to breaking point because you felt like the PA wasn’t hearing you. The challenge here is how you communicate when there isn’t a problem, because that shapes how you’ll communicate when there is one. If you hold fortnightly or monthly meetings lasting a few minutes, at each meeting give them two compliments and one thing to work on, then revisit those at the next meeting, then the PA is used to feedback. They’re used to being given things to improve on, so when there’s a major issue they’re not surprised suddenly by you raising a problem. If you want to move towards dismissal, there are lots of complicated rules about disciplinary hearings,  but if you just want to document something, you can discuss it with the PA, or write it in a “letter of concern” or “informal warning” (obviously discuss with your insurance company before doing either of these).

Having these elements in place leads to a solid territory from which to work. It means that I am able to manage my PAs effectively and keep them (and me) happy. We all know what’s expected from each other, and the better we know that the more I can get on with my life, knowing my PAs will be there when I need them. This means focussing on living the life I want – whatever that means for me in any moment.

Now read part 2: the freedom to fail

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