Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Moving Out of the Comfort Zone: Making Something Happen
In a previous life I refereed football (the round ball type that some anarchists call soccer) after a very undistinguished playing career. Some would say that this lack of ability extended to refereeing but this is beyond the scope of this little piece. A friend of mine, who umpired baseball, would sometimes appear at games to watch. I suspect he has a very high tolerance for boredom. After one very uneventful, tame premier division football game in Lismore Bill and I were having a beer. Having a rather quirky sense of humour he asked me why I didn't liven the game up a bit and make it more exciting for spectators and players alike.
I was a bit dumbfounded. My role, so I rather naively thought, was to adjudicate in an unbiased way and to stop a bunch of people high on testosterone from hurting each other. Well, silly me! He told me that in baseball the umpires would commonly make a controversial call when a game was stagnating, becoming a bit of a yawn. This, naturally, would get spectators and players a bit excited-naturally. So, if nothing was happening in a game, as Bill explained it, umpires would make something happen. Maybe it wasn’t all umpires and maybe it was just Bill being mischievous.
Apart from the obvious humour in this conversation, I have found it immensely useful in the work that I do/did as a psychologist, therapist and organisational consultant/change agent. Humans have an interesting habit of getting into what I call merry dances. They are merry because everyone is happy. It is a dance because the parties, and there can be anything from two to several people involved (as in line dancing, for example) who fall into a predictable pattern of movement together. A shift from the pattern, as in false step, creates havoc, chaos and embarrassment as the participants cope with confusion. Some effort has to be made in getting back into the rhythm of the dance, to recreate the sublime sense of order.
This, of course, can be very functional. Routines are helpful and we are creatures of habit. We like certainty and habits mean that we can conserve energy by doing things without much thought. If you think of stressful days where you’ve had to do things that are new or different, where routines no longer work, you’ll recall how tiring they can be.
But dances can also be dysfunctional. Conspiracies of silence are the archetype of this sort of dance. Instead of dealing with a problem, negative behaviours, poor performance or, perhaps, the inaction and frustration that occurs when we can’t find a solution, we ignore, avoid and dance. Another example is the ‘elephant in the room’, a variation on the conspiracy of silence. Everyone dances around the fact that someone is a bully, ineffective or behaving badly: an unhappy, but convenient waltz. Inaction and boredom are their own dances that serve some sort of purpose but are inherently dysfunctional.
These dances can occur in all sorts of settings. In classrooms where there are minimal expectations of performance and in return the teacher is not bothered or in training settings where incompetence is ignored for a similarly quiet life and the required fee. In workplaces in which consultants sanitise reports and research so that it doesn’t create too much angst and, therefore, continued work: experienced consultants know exactly how to do this. In coaching and counselling where there is no progress but the client is seen to be making the effort and the coach/counsellor is the support act. In all sorts of situations where the brief is some sort of change needed but the dance is substituted rather than deal with unpleasant truths or hard work.
So, when nothing is happening or the merry dance is being played out, why not make something happen? The reason why we mostly don’t do this is that it is going to be uncomfortable for both the dance breaker and the dancers. Humans are not big on being uncomfortable. Even more importantly, what will others think of me. After all I want to be liked. And, of course, as mum always told us: be nice.
Sometimes, when we need or want to create change we need to do something to interrupt the dance. Psychotherapists understand this very well and are prepared to use very innovative and seemingly outrageous, at times, methods to make change happen. Hypnotherapy works a lot like this: it catches people unawares and changes the dance steps.
As managers, educators and even family members, do something out of the ordinary. It doesn’t have to be outrageous but when you get brave enough and imaginative enough it might be. Maybe just pointing out the elephant is enough. Perhaps it is a funny story. An activity, maybe. Changing the environment. Moving the chess pieces around the board. Alter the rules. Create a little, not too much, uncertainty.
Change the routine, the habit, the dance and watch what happens. Magic.