Willow's master piece

Willow’s masterpiece

It’s almost Christmas and here in the UK the nation is busy getting yet another drink in at yet another do. Last Saturday I committed myself to this cultural and social chore wholeheartedly.
A good friend has established a tradition, where every year, just before Christmas, he invites all of his friends to his home, and makes an opulent traditional roast dinner.
As always the turkey was phenomenal, only this year a little guest also unwittingly taught me a lesson about human potential.

When I arrived, 8-year old Willow opened the door and with a soft but confident voice suggested where to leave my coat and scarf. She immediately retreated to one of the bedrooms where she went on to play with her mum’s Smartphone.
I briefly exchanged a few words with her and asked her why she didn’t join the party and she shrugged and said “It’s boring, I like it up here.”

An hour later, we were all busy talking, eating and drinking, Willow appeared and quietly sat down on the couch. Very quickly I noticed how different folks were interacting with her. There were a lot of warm smiles, people bending down, asking her what she wanted to eat and drink. There were also quite a few instructions like, ‘come here’, ‘don’t stand on the couch’, ‘why don’t you…’.

Karen in particular tried to get the girl away from the phone and involved in socialising. Eventually, Karen grabbed Willow by the hand, brought her towards me, announcing with a big smile ‘Ragnar is going to teach you how to dance Salsa now.’
Willow looked at me with big eyes, and slightly disoriented still holding on to Karen’s hand.
I looked at Willow and smiled.

Here is a question to you, dear reader: What would you have done in this situation (assuming you know some basic Salsa steps)?

Behind what I saw unfolding so innocently at this party was hiding the same kind of thinking that we all pay for dearly in our personal and professional relationships, socially and economically. And it reminded me of the very same dynamic that I regularly encounter when working with organisations.

The Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti once said that our thoughts are based on our knowledge and experience. But we can never know everything, nor can we ever have experienced everything hence our thoughts must be incomplete.

To us however, our subjective truth often appears quite irrefutably certain. Being disproportionally more aware of what we know than we are of what we don’t know it almost seems as if it couldn’t be any other way. It makes our own solutions often seem ingenius or obvious to ourselves but not necessarily to others.

This false sense of certainty goes in concert with a certain kind of conditioning that our parents, schools and society have well-meaningly instilled in us. Marshall Rosenberg calls it ‘wolf thinking’ – a thinking which claims to know what the world and someone else is, what’s right and what’s wrong and how things (and people) ought to be. In this world we use carrots and sticks to reward what we judge as ‘right’ and to punish what we judge as ‘wrong’.
Schools work this way, most organisations work this way – unfortunately (or fortunately) nature doesn’t – at least not when it comes to learning and performance.

The line in Jean Paul Sartre’s ‘Huis clos’ (No Exit) dramatises it nicely “L’enfer, c’est les autres,” (“Hell is other people.”)

Even though we all know this intuitively, in recent times neuro-science has finally given our deep intuition the appropriate scientific gravitas. Learning and performance are closely linked to our reward circuitry – according to neurologist Prof. Hüther lust and learning are neurologically interweaved in the brain of the new-born child. Young children can entertain themselves with a simple object for hours with great enthusiasm, they ask hundreds of questions, listen, look and touch curiously – all this is an expression of a learning mind facilitated by a healthy feel-good cocktail of neuro-chemicals.

But instead of helping our kids on their instinctual quest to explore and discover the world, instead of supporting them in becoming self-determined creators we instil layers of fear and pressure by trying to stick knowledge and rules into their minds, by judging them based on their performance of a narrow band of linguistic and reasoning skills so that (that’s our hope) they may flourish to become what we deem right. In reality it stops them from learning enthusiastically, deprives them of curiosity, creativity, human connection and self-assurance.

This doesn’t just apply to kids by the way. It equally applies to us adults as well.

This becomes apparent when this approach is used by leaders, colleagues and managers and becomes engrained in our organisational structures, performance reviews, incentive schemes as subtle and not so subtle forms of coercion. The outcome is an egocentric culture where on a never ending hunt for the carrot and in fear of the stick everyone looks after themselves first and second and often even third.

I believe that to flourish in a post-industrial society we need an attitudinal shift towards a wiser approach of learning (and being), not unlike a learning midwife who helps learning happening instead of enforcing it. To be successful (and satisfied) in our highly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous modern world we need to be able to take responsibility, to make decisions, to cooperate, to contribute, to create and we need to be able to listen and to inquire – but we certainly don’t need co-workers and leaders that are all about getting the carrot and avoiding the stick. Fortunately, more and more organisations are embracing this change as they see how it will benefit their commercial success.

So back to Willow and Salsa – what would you have done?

Here is what I did (you may have some optional ideas):
I asked her “Willow, here is an important question first – do you WANT me to teach you Salsa?” Willow guiltily looked up to Karen and mumbled “No, not really.” I replied “Ok, that’s fine. I don’t believe in big people telling small people what to do. So when you want to do some Salsa tell me and then I’m more than happy to show you, ok?”
Now she smiled. “Ok.”
After a brief pause she shouted “I want to draw’” and grabbed her Smartphone with this (rather impressive) drawing app.
“Can you draw me?” I asked.
“Yes!” her eyes started to shine.

So Willow drew a little portrait and added some personal interpretation to it. She seemed happy, content and relaxed. After her masterpiece was done something interesting happened.

She suddenly decided to start a pillow fight with me, others joined in too. Only an hour ago she had kept herself to herself and now we all had a blast together. As if by magic she started participating and interacting with others and became part of the party. Not because we told her to, but because she chose to.

So what’s the wider lesson here? For me this is about connection and choice.

My friend Karen’s intention was to get Willow to participate and to socialise. She thought that me teaching Willow Salsa as a fun way of doing this. But Willow didn’t want to salsa. If we had insisted she may have played along, maybe even liked it a little bit but she probably wouldn’t have felt like we were interested in really connecting to her. She would have become an object of our intervention rather than a cooperative participator (ironically). So we wouldn’t have just taught her a lesson about Salsa, but also a rather inconsistent lesson about participation (‘participation is when we tell you what to do and you do it’) and we would also have taught her that want she wants doesn’t really matter.

Instead, I tried to connect with her by asking what she actually wants. So she had the experience of being listened to and of being taken seriously. This created a sense of trust and we both enjoyed the process of her drawing a little portrait. Now that this connection was established she felt safe and appreciated enough to want to interact more broadly. Her starting the pillow fight and drawing in more people showed this nicely.

This also applies to a more general sense in terms of how we relate to each other in a professional context. Replace the ‘child’ with somebody further down the hierarchy, or somebody from a different department and very quickly you will find the very same dynamics. Independent of our age, cultural background and environment, we all carry within us a need to be acknowledged, a need to be connected and a need to be autonomous. When we violate these needs conflicts and suffering arise but when we value those needs we can create relationships that are supportive, enjoyable and effective. On a good day we may then add to Sartre’s “Hell is other people” ”…and heaven too”.

I’m proud to announce that I won the pillow-fight in a whitewash. Willow didn’t stand a chance. Can’t be too soft on these little buggers after all.

Merry Christmas!