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How Many Roads…Before I Change Course?

Listening to a collection of Bob Dylan’s back catalogue recently, I was drawn to an idea that I have long spoken about during training sessions but haven’t really explored in writing.

Dylan famously sang about our apparent inability to see what’s “blowin, in the wind”, and our phenomenal capacity for ignoring the signs even when they are staring us in the face. And this is something I have observed in the learning environment. People appear to understand things at an intellectual level, but fail to grasp their significance at an emotional level and, therefore, don’t always apply their learning. To put it another way, we know what we should do, but don’t always do it.

That’s why the world is littered with self-help books. They provide a useful template that deals with the SHOULDS, but often fail to deliver any real change. People become addicted to them, seeing them as a quick-fix, delighted that at last someone seems to understand them: but then fail to change their habits.

Even when presented with stark choices, some people still continue to adopt the same behaviours and attitudes that they know will produce a negative result.

Yes, how many times must a man look up

Before he can see the sky?

Yes, how many ears must one man have

Before he can hear people cry?

Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows

That too many people have died?

Why are we so dogged in our blind attachment to certain behaviours? How many more examples do we need before we accept and embrace a new way of behaving?

I used to be great at coming up with spurious reasons why I needed to be on my feet and jumping about when running a training session. I convinced myself that I needed to inject energy and enthusiasm; that I had to have the group regularly in stitches; and that a quiet group was somehow a damning reflection on the event. So, I crawled out of workshops on my hands and knees, feeling utterly spent. But I also felt great, because I knew I gave it my all.

However, there is another way. After all, not every workshop is full of

extroverts who need this external energy-feed. So over time, I have learnt to temper my natural ebullience; to monitor more closely the needs of the group; to vary the pace and intensity; and to manage my own energy levels so that I can be ready and alert to changing demands. The result is that I’m a much better trainer and facilitator today than I was years ago.

For me, this was a natural and prolonged process of learning that continues to this day. I am constantly evaluating and reviewing my work with the purpose of improving year on year, month on month. The change didn’t arise because I suddenly got some terrible feedback, but for many people this is the only thing that stimulates the change.

Our intellects are sometimes our worst enemies. Our ability to rationalise experience, talk ourselves in and out of doing things, and justify why we should stick with the status quo means that real change is unlikely to occur unless the jolt is off the Richter scale.

Even the imminent prospect of death isn’t enough to convince some people to stop smoking; because they can cite statistical studies or anecdotal evidence that convinces them they’ll be OK. (“My Grandmother lived to be ninety-nine and she smoked 20 a day from the age of 2!”)If we look hard enough (and we often do) we can always find a statistical study or anecdote to excuse, condone or promote a certain action.

Our intellectual capabilities extend to uncovering obscure but sufficiently convincing research which calls into doubt oppositional viewpoints. The fact that certainty is often an unproven (and non-provable) concept means there’s always room for the enquiring mind to cast doubt.

This is a strength and a privilege of the human race, but one that can be abused.

So even though we might acknowledge the truth and wisdom of an idea, philosophy, or way of working, we are highly skilled at ignoring it or challenging it.

I’ve had the following responses to situations where I’ve rubbed up against an unpalatable truth:

  1. I’ve accepted the rightness of something but come up with reasons or excuses why  I’m personally exempt

  2. I’ve accepted the rightness of something but found it unattractive, so I’ve opted for the easier or more attractive option (knowing it to be fundamentally wrong)

  3. I’ve colluded in kidding myself (quite convincingly) that it doesn’t really matter if I adopt an oppositional approach even though I know that the alternative would be better

  4. I think I’m ultimately right and everyone else is wrong which, to be fair, can occasionally be the case!

  5. I choose to align myself with people who are like-minded and will back me up. Therefore I am excused by the safety-in-numbers (or justification-by-numbers) that group behaviour affords, even though it is against the received wisdom. It’s a form of herd instinct.

How Might We Begin To Overcome This?

Managing any transition is hard, even if it’s a change that you want. People who tell you otherwise are being disingenuous, even if their motives for doing so are compassionate.

So I’ve found it is important to recognise that it will take effort and that I might make a few mistakes along the way. If we accept this at the outset we might not feel so defeated when we hit the first obstacle. Expecting things to be plain sailing invites disappointment and can lead to giving up too soon.

I, like everyone else, am predisposed to see what I want to see, so my focus is more on what I like, want and am used to than the unfamiliar: unless I consciously change it. This, in itself, takes effort. I have to force myself to focus on something else.

But it also takes effort to dig our heels in. It’s like rowing against the tide, of running into the wind. The energy and effort I spend intellectualising, rationalising, digging up evidence to excuse myself, could be better spent on enacting positive change.

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