'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?
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