'Look before you leap.' (John Heywood, 1546)
The wind grew cold as the sun set yesterday evening. Pete and I sat on a bench beside the river warming ourselves with bags of hot chips. Pete noticed a man nearby stepping onto railings and behaving oddly. I didn’t see him as he was behind me and then, apparently, the man walked away. Some minutes later, we heard a strange splash in the water. Now feeling concerned, we went quickly to investigate. Leaning over the railings and peering into the murky water below, we couldn’t see anything. We called out. No response. Called out again. Silence. Had it just been a swan?
Straining over the railings now, I saw what looked like a pair of training shoes just below the surface. ‘There’s someone in there’. Pete called the Police while I climbed over the railings to get a better view. There was a man below floating in the water. ‘Are you OK?’ No response. I could see he was breathing. Confused at what he was doing, I grabbed a life buoy ring and lowered it, by rope, down the vertical pier into the water beside him. ‘You’re OK, mate. Help is on its way. You can grab hold of the float if you need it.’ Still no response. He lay there, eyes closed and completely motionless.
Within moments, a Police officer ran up to us and immediately started shouting at the person in the water to get hold of the ring. His voice seemed to jolt a response and, for a moment, the man instinctively took a loose hold of it. ‘I can’t swim’, said the Police officer to us, quietly. I felt an instant dilemma. Do I jump in and risk 2 of us becoming trapped (or worse) in the cold water, or do I wait until further help arrives? I decided that, if the man turned over or started to sink, I would brace myself and leap in. I was surprised at my own hesitation. Was it fear, indifference…or a learned response?
Within minutes, more emergency service professionals arrived and the man’s life was saved. As I drove home, I reflected on what had happened. As a younger man, I would have dived straight into the water in rescue mode. Moreover, it would have felt like the right and courageous thing to do. What has changed? Through years of work in coaching and OD in humanitarian organisations, I have learned to pause, weigh up options and choose a response. To jump in is a judgement call with wider implications. When do you 'jump in' and when do you hold back? What drives your response?
It was very hot that day. I sat on a bench at the roadside to drink a cool Pepsi. Girls walked back and forth along the roadside hoping to attract the attention of a wealthy foreigner. Some Indian business men sat down beside me and opened a conversation. ‘Are you here with work or for a holiday?’, and ‘Aren’t these Thai girls beautiful?’ They went on to explain that this was one of their main reasons for coming to Thailand, a recreational dimension – as they saw it – to their otherwise busy work life.
Curious, I asked, ‘What do you know about these girls – their lives, I mean?’ The man beside me looked puzzled: ‘What do you mean?’ I explained I was working in Thailand with a Christian NGO and that, from what I had heard, many of these girls were desperately poor and trying to eek out a living by street walking. ‘Yes, they are very beautiful’, I said, ‘Yet to pay them for sex would feel, to me, like taking advantage of their vulnerability.’ He looked stunned, thoughtful, and went very quiet.
‘I’d never thought about that before,’ he confessed. ‘I’d never really thought about the girls as real people with real lives.’ And then, with a half-grin, ‘…and now you have ruined my holiday!’ At that moment, one of the girls sat down beside me, linked her arm through mine and gazed up at me with deep, dark eyes. ‘Is this your first time in Thailand?’, she asked. ‘Are you here for work or on holiday?’, ‘Which hotel are you staying at?’, ‘Would you like to take me to your hotel room?’
I thanked her for her offer and explained that, although I would be happy to sit and chat with her, I would not take her to my hotel room. ‘Why not?’, she asked with the cheekiest smile, ‘I could make you very happy!’ She persisted with a now pretending-to-be-hurt look on her face, ‘Aren’t I attractive enough for you?’ I responded that I’m a follower of Jesus, I was married and I was there with an NGO. ‘I want to honour God, my wife, the organisation I represent…and you’, I replied.
She looked genuinely surprised. ‘Most men come here and sleep with us with no care for their wives. They don’t appreciate what they have got.’ She went on to tell me that she was a single parent. Her 2 sons lived with her mother in a shack in the countryside while she worked in the city to support them. Her husband had been an alcoholic and had left them destitute. ‘Would you like to see a picture of my sons?’, she asked proudly. ‘Yes indeed’, I said as she revealed them on her phone.
She went on to tell me about her life and work in unabashedly graphic detail. Curious, I asked, ‘Aren’t you afraid to go to a hotel with a stranger? After all, he could be a violent man.’ She replied that if she felt scared, she would take a friend with her to wait outside of the room in case she needed help. ‘And do you ever worry about contracting serious diseases?’ Yes, she replied, ‘so I only have sex with men who look respectable.’ I winced inside at her naivety and risks she was taking.
I didn’t want to ask too many questions in case that too felt like an abuse, so now she asked me a question: ‘What are you thinking?’ I replied I was wondering what it might feel to sleep with so many strangers, and how I might handle that within myself. She explained starkly that it’s not love, it’s only physical, and that the girls never reveal their real names. They always use a pseudonym to protect their real identity and, psychologically, to separate their true selves off from what they are doing.
I was astonished and humbled by her willingness to share so openly like this with me, just another stranger. I asked if it would be OK to ask her one more question, without her feeling any pressure to answer. ‘Yes, of course’, she replied. Taking a deep breath, ‘What’s your deepest hope for your life?’, I asked. She responded thoughtfully: ‘Simply to meet a man who would love me and my children so that we could be a family together. I don’t care how poor we are, just that we love one-another.’
I stood up, took her hands gently and said, ‘Thank you so much for spending this time with me and for sharing so honestly. I need to leave now because it’s getting late, but I will pray for you that God will give you what you dream of.’ She looked tearful. ‘Thank you for listening to me’, she said, and then quietly, ‘My real name is…X’ I almost cried. I felt so privileged to have spent this time with her. Please - never call a girl a prostitute, as if that’s all she is. Every girl is a person, and she has a name.
'Education is not the filling of a pail, but the kindling of a fire.' (Socrates)
Questions that make you think hard. Socrates, a Greek philosopher who specialised in ethics, created a revolutionary method of education based on posing questions rather than prescribing answers. His rigorous and structured approach is still commonly used today to: ‘explore complex ideas; get to the truth of things; open up issues and problems; uncover assumptions; analyse concepts; distinguish what we know from what we do not know; or follow out logical consequences of thought.’ (Paul & Elder).
As such, the Socratic method can be an immensely powerful tool in leadership, coaching, mentoring, training and facilitation (e.g. in action learning). It can elicit profound discoveries and learning and, by doing so, create significant shifts in thinking, feeling and behaviour. It is widely used in psychology-based fields including cognitive behavioural therapy. We see parallels too in domains including Jesus’ teaching approach in the New Testament (see: Conrad Gempf, Jesus Asked, 2003).
Richard Paul and Linda Elder (see: Thinkers’ Guide to Socratic Questioning, 2016) identified 6 different types of Socratic questions that can be posed in sequence to help an individual or a group think through an issue. The 6 types focus on: clarifications; assumptions; rationales; perspectives; implications; meta questions. (James Bowman offers a very useful sample template with examples of related questions here: The Six Types of Socratic Questions).
If you’re interested to read more about cognitive-behavioural approaches to coaching, learning and leadership that draw on Socratic questioning methods, have a glance at: Cognitive Behavioural Coaching; Fresh Thinking; Gestalt Meets Cognitive Behavioural Coaching. If you would like to learn more about eliciting and posing questions more broadly as a learning approach, see: Art of Discovery; In the Question; Good Question; Behind the Question; The Silent Way.
When have you used Socratic questioning at work? How did you do it? What impacts did it have?
Two monks were travelling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As they were preparing to cross, they saw a very beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The woman asked if they could help her cross to the other side. Without a word, the older monk picked her up, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side and carried on his journey.
The younger monk was speechless and, after some hours of walking together in complete silence, he couldn’t contain himself any longer. ‘As monks, we are not permitted to touch a woman. How could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?’ The older monk looked at him and replied, ‘Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river. Why are you still carrying her?’ (Zen Koan)
Who, or what, are you carrying that you need to put down? What do you need to find release?
Compassion has a human face.
It was that first day at school feeling, all over again. Except now I was 27. I stepped into the London School of Theology dining hall, confronted by a deafening sound of voices and clanking plates and an overwhelming sea of faces.
I was dressed in black leathers and motorcycle gear with my crash helmet in hand, but the child within felt tiny, lost and intimidated. I glanced around, searching for anyone familiar, a spare seat next to someone I vaguely recognised. Nothing – and no-one.
And then, surprisingly, my eyes settled on a young woman walking towards me, smiling, a striking look of care and kindness on her face. Jo reached out and asked me if I would like to join her and her friends at her table.
She was a stranger showing compassion to a stranger. I felt rescued and relieved. A sense of being invited, welcomed, the beginnings of belonging. It felt good, warm, strengthening, sacred. And I have never forgotten it.
This Jo came to mind afresh this Easter. It’s so easy to reduce our humanity, and our spirituality where we hold it, to abstract principles. But Jo’s example speaks to me of something different – to reach out with kindness and show compassion.
Last week felt like a perfect storm, an unexpected convergence of pressures from all directions that left me reeling. Betsy Kolkea describes it as like having the tail shot off a plane in mid-flight; a sudden loss of control that sets us spinning downward at terrifying speed. I’m reminded me of the dramatic plane-falling-from-the-sky scene in the film Knight & Day, where Cameron Diaz asks Tom Cruise anxiously, ‘Are we going down?’, to which he replies with a grin, ‘It’s just a rapid descent.’
In that satirical moment, the character played by Cruise actually models an important principle in a sudden crisis: create a pause, no matter how brief, to breathe, reflect, weigh up options (and, for me, pray) – then decide and act. I heard a similar idea in a video this week, about how to survive a parachute jump if the parachute doesn’t open. The most important thing is not to panic (yeah right!) and to use the moments available, no matter how brief, to breathe, focus, scan options and choose.
This skill may indeed, of course, come a lot easier and more instinctively if we’ve had opportunity to practise and gain experience beforehand. There’s something about having already been through a challenge and survived, having been tested repeatedly under fire, that can develop a resilience and psychological adaptivity akin to muscle memory. It makes an auto-response possible in the midst of unexpected and extraordinary circumstances and, thereby, creates a vital moment-space to think.
When have you gone into a tailspin? What have you done to recover from a surprise nosedive, a crisis that came from nowhere and hit you out of left field? What can you do to help others caught in free fall?
Dissonance: a deep feeling of tension, disquiet or discomfort if we find ourselves conflicted. It’s most common if there’s a significant gap between what we tell ourselves we believe and what we actually do; or if we feel caught between competing alternatives; or if we have invested significant effort, time and resources into something that now feels wasted.
Here are some examples to illustrate this phenomenon: ‘My boss insists I work long hours if I want to keep my job, yet I believe spending time with my family is most important’; ‘I can see the relative pros and cons of two different job offers, yet I can’t decide which to choose’; ‘I’ve spent the last 5 years working very hard in my job, yet it hasn’t done anything to advance my career.’
If the dissonance feels strong enough, we will usually try to find ways to reduce, resolve or reconcile ourselves to it. We may do this, in the first example, by trying to change something in the situation itself, e.g. by seeking to negotiate a different number or pattern of hours or, if this isn’t possible, by justifying it, e.g. by reassuring ourselves that the long hours of work will benefit the family.
In the second example, we may try to reach a decision by shifting the balance, e.g. by seeking to emphasise, to ourselves, the attractive qualities of one alternative and minimise its downsides or, correspondingly, to focus on the costs of the other option and underplay its benefits. It’s a subconscious mental manoeuvre that aims to tip the scales and break the deadlock.
In the third example, which concerns a past decision and actions that cannot now be changed, we may find ways to post-rationalise it, e.g. by seeking to redefine the outcome as having in some way benefitted our career after all, or by reframing the experience and focusing on other benefits that, although not directly career-advancing, nevertheless make the investment feel worthwhile.
These types of psychological strategies can bring positive mental health benefits such as peace of mind, especially in situations that feel stressful and unresolvable. At the same time, they run risks of avoidance of personal responsibility; diminished sense of agency; defensive behaviour; or failure to pursue more radical options that could create a better, more life-giving and sustainable future.
When have you seen or experienced dissonance, and how do you address it?
‘If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not your values.’ (Jon Stewart)
We sometimes discover what our values are when someone behaves, or something happens, that cuts sharply across them. It can be like a glass filled with liquid that gets knocked. We find out what’s inside when we see what spills out. At times, we’re surprised to find that our true values are quite different to those we espouse or identify with rationally. We don’t just think values. We feel them. Gut level, heart-wrenching feeling. If you don’t feel it when challenged or experiencing a clash, it doesn’t matter enough to you. If in doubt, shake the tree, see what falls and feel it land. Impact.
I was sitting in an awkward circle during a coaching workshop. It was one of those activities where a group is placed in a room with no instructions and no guidance, to see what emerges. I felt curious as a conversation gradually unfolded… until, that is, a forceful-sounding man assumed the role of leader and put down a shy-looking woman sitting opposite me. Without thinking, I leapt straight to her defence and challenged the power figure, as if the woman needed saving. The group remarked later on my response – and that’s when I became aware of Stephen Karpman’s Drama Triangle.
It wasn’t a rationale that had triggered me but a behaviour that crossed a deeply-held value. That was some years ago now and, although I no longer default to rescue mode, it helps in part to explain why so much of my life and career have been dedicated to international development, advocacy and relief work. I’m a follower of Jesus, I hate that the poor are so vulnerable and I want my life to make a difference. What gets you up in the morning or keeps you awake at night? What are your true values, and how do you know? If push comes to shove, what are the lines that you will not cross?
My daughter is a guinea pig. This afternoon in the bright sunshine, I invited her to take part in an experiment. First, we stepped out into the street and, gesturing to a line of cars parked at the roadside, I asked, “If you were to buy a car, what colour would you choose, or definitely not choose?” She answered, “I’d love a white car.” “OK,” I replied, “let’s go for a walk into town and back. Your task is to count every white car that we pass. If you have the same number as me when we get back here, I will give you £10. How does that sound?” She grinned and willingly agreed.
An hour later, we stopped back where we had started and I asked her, “So, how many red cars did you see?” She looked at me blankly. “I didn’t see any red cars. I counted 206 white cars.” In fact, we had passed 93 red cars, yet she had been so focused on the white cars that she hadn’t seen a single one. This simple experiment illustrates an important psychological phenomenon known as selective attention: “The ability to pay attention to a limited array of all available sensory information…a filter that helps us prioritize information according to its importance.” (Bertram Ploog, 2013).
Gestalt psychotherapist Geoff Pelham comments that, in any given relationship or situation, we notice who or what matters most to us (The Coaching Relationship in Practice, 2015). This idea of who or what matters most reflects beliefs, values and emotions. In this exercise, my daughter was influenced and motivated by her beliefs (that this experiment would serve some useful purpose), values (the prospect of a £10 reward) and emotion (her choice of a colour she likes). These factors combined to ensure concentration on a task (counting white cars) that required selective attention.
Why is this insight significant in our work with people? The principle extends beyond literal-visual perception to deeper psychological processes too. Our beliefs, values and emotions subconsciously influence our focus and act as filters. We construe personal-shared narratives based on what we perceive. Such narratives appear to us as-if reality, as-if totality, and often without any awareness of who or what we have excluded. As such, narratives always point to and reveal, implicitly, who and what matters most to a person, group or culture, rather than to a definitive account of reality per se.
A key question is, therefore: who or what are we, and others, not-noticing? If we can enable a shift in perception, a re-shaping of a narrative, what then becomes possible?
Interested to do further reading in this area? See: The Art of Looking: Eleven Ways of Viewing the Multiple Realities of our Everyday Wonderland.
‘Should I stay or should I go?’ (The Clash)
Buridan’s Ass: a paradox in which a hungry donkey finds itself standing precisely midway between two identical stacks of hay. Vacillating with indecision because there are no grounds for choosing a preferred option, the poor donkey starves to death. Whilst often used in philosophy to debate issues of free will vs determinism, this allegory also serves as a graphic illustration of ambivalence.
‘Ambivalence is simultaneously wanting and not wanting something, or wanting both of two incompatible things…Take a step in one direction and the other starts looking better. The closer you get to one alternative, the more its disadvantages become apparent while nostalgia for the other beckons.’ (Miller, W. & Rollnick, S., Motivational Interviewing: Helping People to Change, 2013).
We may experience this tug-of-war viscerally when faced with important and equally-compelling choices between X and Y in, say, relationships, careers or other significant life decisions. We may, likewise, experience a paralysis of analysis, a type of over-thinking if multiple options are available to us yet with no unequivocally-convincing reason to choose one course of action over another.
Ambivalence can leave a person procrastinating, ineffective, drained and frustrated. It’s as if relative pros and cons balance out and leave us stuck. So how to break the deadlock and enable a change? Here are some ideas. 1. Enable a person to step back from the immediate decision to see a bigger picture. ‘What’s more important here: to make a choice, or to choose one option over another?’
2. Ask the person: ‘What’s your intuition or gut instinct telling you, irrespective of whether or not you can see a rationale for it?’ 3. Help the person to explore different and broader perspectives: ‘Which option would e.g. God, your CEO, your team, your family or yourself 5 years from now, prefer you to take?’ 4. Support and challenge the person to take a decision and to stick with it.
How do you deal with ambivalence? Do you feel stuck? Get in touch!
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