which side are you on?


We place fences everywhere.

Fences between our houses. Fences delineating our gardens. Fences alongside railway lines. Fences around yards, car parks and compounds. Fences to keep the animals in, fences to keep them out. Fences around parks and ponds. Fences marking out the route the country pathway takes. Fences shaping fields and grazing land. High fences around prisons. Low fences around vegetable plots. Fences between thrusting motorway carriageways and their speeding contents. Fences on bridges. Fences at the stadium. Fences at the racetrack. Fences at the top, or bottom, of the stairs. 

Some keep us out, some keep us in. Some are to indicate the way. Some to stop us meandering off the way. Some show possession.   Some deny access. Some deny exit. Some are aesthetic, some very functional.

Which side are you on?

And what about the fences of your mind?

The fences that determine choice. The fences that set out appropriate or inappropriate behaviour. The fences that inform us we can’t or we shouldn’t. The fences that motivate and drive action or tell us inappropriate or unachievable action. The internal fences that keep us safe. The internal fences that restrict our growth and learning. The fences that allow us to see potential, the fences that blind us to reality.

Invisible fences, but often just as effective.

Which side are you on?

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when losing is actually winning

noeyecontact

The other day I crossed the road, joining the opposite footpath at an elbow. A ninety degree corner in the road.

Coming towards me was a man.
He made a beeline for the apex of the corner.
That was my trajectory too.
We were on a collision course.
I looked at him, trying to read what his decision might be.
We can work this out, together, I urged.
No obvious signals.
No eye contact.
He stared steadfastly at the corner.
I looked straight at him.
Engage me, I said with my eyes.
Let’s work this through.
Nothing
A second had passed.
He stared at the corner.
No eye contact.
Collision seemed imminent.
Inevitable.
I broke my stride.
Created a gap in our flight paths.
He pushed on through.
I passed safely a pace behind him at the apex.
Disaster averted.
Still no eye contact.
No recognition of my existence.

Strange how eye contact allows the other person in. Denying it seems somehow to keep us safe. Protected. No need to feel any responsibility. Any connection. Any trust. Any shame. Any emotion at all.

The man got the corner.

I got more.

let’s draw a line

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It seems we like lines.

In organisations we draw them everywhere. This business, that division, this function, that department, this team, that group, my role, your role, this project, that programme.

Each time we draw a line it seems to both instill a sense of identity and belonging, whilst at the same time creating a barrier, an ‘us and them’.

The line tells me my place, I’m somehow safe, bounded by this imaginary line. I belong here. The interface between the parts, across the lines, generating a need to manage that boundary. We create roles to bridge the relationships, measures to show the performance of the parts, brands to show the difference… reasons to apportion and explain the blame.

But we like lines.

If the lines are removed, we seem uncertain about how to behave. Who is responsible? Who is accountable? Where are the hand-offs? Who am I? Who are you? How does it all fit together?

It’s like we become a jigsaw where the pieces haven’t been cut out, so we can’t see how they interconnect.

Lines, it seems, are everywhere though. Not just in large organisations.

I was speaking with someone the other day about their business. They work alone, as an associate delivering great creative stuff. They are pitching for a bit of work under their own brand and, in our conversation, seemed somehow uncertain – because of a line they had created for themselves. My business. Someone else’s business.

We create lines in families too. Blue household jobs and pink household jobs. His room, her room. My car, your car. My brother’s role, my sister’s role.

Lines.

Useful or a constraint?

run, hide, tell

hideandseek
I have just been signposted to the Government’s stay safe advice in the threat of armed terrorist attack.

In a nutshell, run, hide, tell.

Run away, if that option exists without risking further danger to yourself
Hide somewhere if you can’t run
Tell someone official where the threat is

I don’t seek to disparage what might be necessary advice to keep me and others safe, but I was immediately transported back to the age of six.

I was in a field at the back of my house playing hide and seek with some friends. As the seeker I held my hands over my eyes whilst my playmates ran to their hastily identified hiding place. Like most six year olds, I peeked through my fingers. Only peeked mind, because if they could see my eyes they would know I was looking. My friends ran, randomly. No plan of where to hide, just run away from the seeker as quickly as possible and then, once a safe distance away, look for somewhere safe to hide. As seeker we would prowl the area, hastily darting between the same places they hid last time and the time before. Always looking for a shoddily concealed arm, or a careless toe, peeking out from the impromptu hiding place. Then we would tell. Shout out where they were, or run back ‘home’ to declare them found.

I was struck by the transportation of those skills the child in us takes into adulthood.

Running. Running from difficulty. From inner truths. From facing ourselves. Running from others. From uncomfortable situations. Running from feelings. From inner voices. From fears.

Hiding. Assuming that if I don’t look at you, you can’t see me. We do this all the time. Not literally. Not peeking through slitted fingers. But not showing our true selves, for fear of being truly seen.

Telling. Seeing a part of someone, like the carelessly exposed arm or toe from the child’s game, but as adults seeing one action, one behaviour, one socio-economic or cultural badge, one gender or sexual preference and ‘telling’ others who that person is or where they are hiding. Judging. Exposing them.

Run, Hide, Tell.

Childlike simplicity.
Safety in the face of terrorism.
Safety in the very humanness of our humanity.

 

get out of my shoes now

 

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Empathy is the new black.

Schools are teaching empathy to children. Leaders are encouraged to display EQ as much as IQ. Many books explore building empathy. It’s a core coaching skill. Developmental psychiatrists and psychologists are exploring the roots of empathy in animals and the deep nature of its place in our humanity. True empathy is good. Deeply human.

To be clear empathy, as opposed to sympathy, could be described as feeling with someone, rather than feeling for someone. “I feel your anguish” as opposed to “I am sorry you’re hurting”.

It is standing in their shoes to experience their emotions.

But empathy requires thoughts as well as feelings. It is also a two person activity. So to be truly empathetic we need to balance thought and emotion as well as balance self and other. Recognising and sharing in someone else’s complex emotional state is in itself a complex inner experience, and it requires considerable self awareness and control to walk that line, be useful, be safe, keep them safe.

Otherwise empathy becomes a trap.

We can feel we are being held hostage by the other person’s feelings. Imprisoned in our own thought / feeling response. Balance requires us to have the self awareness and the dexterity and subtlety to pay attention to another’s needs whilst not sacrificing our own needs. We need to be able to recognise what is our stuff and what belongs to the person we are empathising with. Also what emerges in the soup of the empathetic interaction. What needs to stay in the soup, neither theirs nor ours.

Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes is something the receiver can find deeply rewarding. Addictive even. That puts the onus on us to know when to extract ourselves from their shoes. And how.

Equally, overly empathic people may lose the ability to know what they want or need. They may have a diminished ability to make decisions in their own best interest, experience physical and psychological exhaustion from deflecting their own feelings.

We need to be able to stand in our own shoes too.

 

the emergency kit

emergency kit of life
Travelling on the train the other day, I noticed a little green handle, secreted behind a glass pane, set into a grey nondescript panel. The panel was adjacent to the toilet. Next to the little glass pane was a sticker describing how to access and turn said handle after breaking the glass.

Further exploration, via a set of miniature icons next to the text instruction, showed the contents, presumably stowed behind the panel, to be the emergency kit. This kit apparently comprised a ladder, a rope, a crowbar and a saw.

Having briefly visited the notion, admittedly with some alacrity, that a secret game of Cluedo might be underway, wherein the murderer carried out the deadly act with the saw in First Class or with the crowbar in the luggage rack, I was curious about the selected equipment.

If the train was in difficulty, had broken down or worse become derailed or crashed, I struggled to understand how I, or anyone, might be minded to locate the toilet and its neighbourly panel, break the glass, turn the handle and access a saw and a rope … to what end I wondered?

My thoughts then strayed to the whole idea of an emergency kit. What might my emergency kit for life be?

My first thought was chocolate, but then I embraced the question with more serious intent. I would want a hug to be in my emergency kit – a reassuring squeeze. I would want a reminder of my sense of purpose; something to draw me back to the ‘for whom or for what’ I am here – a re-grounding in something bigger than myself. I would want a companion; someone to confide in, to share with. I would want a way to distract myself, to lose myself in my own imagination; maybe some music?

What would be in your emergency kit, behind the innocuous panel?