It was dark, at night, in heavy traffic. I could only just make out the shocking scene in front of me. I flipped up my visor and there, in the headlights, I saw a man beating another man badly. Without thinking, I pulled up on my motorcycle and quickly ran over to the assailant, arms outstretched and said, ‘Are you OK?’ He looked at me, puzzled, got back in his car and drove away. The other man, face covered in blood, thanked me…’You just saved my life.’
I felt puzzled too. I was astonished that I had approached the attacker with compassion and yet also noticed how it had diffused rather than inflamed the situation. DeBono calls this ‘lateral thinking’ – to do the counter-intuitive as a way of creating shift. It felt to me like God’s surprising wisdom. It was an important learning moment for me too. What can our actions inadvertently evoke in others? How far do we actually create what we experience?
Then I’m in Germany. I had been an anti-Nazi activist since I was 15 and here I was in the midst of a Christian social work project that aimed to influence neo-Nazi youth by reaching out to them. It ran against everything I felt and believed. Surely – we must oppose these people vehemently rather than open our arms to them?! And yet, over time, I learned important things about their psychology. Attacking would have stiffened their resolve and reinforced their beliefs.
Now to 9-11. Appalling scenes on TV and people crying out for revenge. I remember my first words: ‘We need to think very carefully before we respond. What reaction is Al Qaeda trying to provoke and what will that achieve for them?’ It was a complex situation and a controversial stance and yet, years later, the Middle East is in flames, Islamist extremism is spreading, the West lives in fear of terror and refugees are pouring across borders at unprecedented levels.
I think Gestalt psychology can offer critical insight here. Figure and ground: figure is what holds our attention, ground is the backdrop that provides the context yet lays out of awareness. So here we are in the EU with problems of rising nationalism. The far right parties hold our attention, provide a focus for our fear and scorn, yet the conditions that fuel their support, that drive people towards them, lay unexamined, out of consciousness, out of the spotlight.
Like a magician that tricks by misdirection, we can find our attention drawn to the person, the issue that lays immediately in front of our eyes and miss the vital background. It’s so tempting to go for it. We can feel justified in our actions, feel better about ourselves, yet how often do we compound the issue by what we do? How far are we creating the monsters that keep us awake at night? How can we spot the sleight of hand that deceives us so convincingly?
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.