In The Moment
Several years ago I was jetlagged and frazzled, in a Bangkok bar. It was past midnight and I was huddled with eight emergency planning experts. It was the night before a three-day meeting to develop and implement a new system for managing natural disasters for an international aid agency.
As a team we’d already gone through a slew of anxious conversations about all the pitfalls you might expect from a conference of one hundred people from multiple cultures, many of whom would be using English as a second language. As facilitator for this event, I was the one most responsible for somehow seeing it through.
Eventually we acknowledged we’d done our best and there was nothing more we could do now. We all needed some sleep. The lead client, who I knew as a friend, turned to me and said, apologetically, “I’m sorry, we’ve made this impossible for you.”
I was cycling home from the cinema on a winter’s evening in Cambridge when two men staggered into the street in front of me. They were clearly several pints the wrong side of sober.
I rang my bell to let them know I was coming. A couple of seconds passed as they stared at me, wobbled to one side, and hurled loud, angry words my way.
I found myself yelling back, some foolish, defensive words like, “I was only trying to let you know I was there.” But the pitch was wrong, and I think they received this as, “get out of my way, you silly fools.”
Which is probably what the bell had seemed to say to them too.
I expect you know the feeling. The one you get when you realise you’re escalating a situation that doesn’t need escalation. Part of me knew I should shut up, keep riding and get out of there. Instead, and partly in deference to a red traffic light, I stopped.
One of the men stumbled towards me, got right up close and yelled at me, and my bell.
But it wasn’t my bell I suspected he was itching to punch.
I realised things could get nasty, quickly.
Anyone who skims LinkedIn for five minutes will know there are lots of articles with seven steps or three golden rules for any of the challenging problems of this world.
So we come under pressure to make plans for meetings with well-timed activities designed to safely steer people through the difficulties towards a solution by 5pm.
This is all based, however, on a problem-solution mindset. As if the difficulty we face is like a crossword puzzle - there’s one right solution and we just need to work our way to it, one step at a time.
But real life doesn’t come in such neat order. It comes in fragments that may seem random and disconnected at first. It takes time and patience to see deeper patterns.
I found myself replying, “That’s ok, if it wasn’t impossible, I wouldn’t be able to do it.”
The conference got under way. I forget the details of the processes we used, but they were simple and conversational, aiming to get people acquainted with each other, and introducing the complexities of the problems we were discussing. As it was the first of three days, many of the anxieties of the night before were somewhat in check; we had the luxury of time to work things out. Much of the work for me was to maintain an appearance of good cheer, keeping things conversational, and not letting anyone dominate too much.
But by the second day, the collective sense of anxiety and confusion was starting to rise. I could feel it in my bones and I could sense it in the room. I can’t completely explain what happens but sometimes I just sense something is brewing and I just let it brew, without trying to take control. I guess I’ve had a lot of practice at sitting with this kind of discomfort and not rushing to stop it.
I started to feel the pressure from organisers, sometimes just in a certain quality of eye contact, to do something. And I conjured up a willingness to feel that pressure but not act on it. I sometimes call it, “occupying a position of leadership and then deliberately failing to lead.”
So I stayed there, looking as though I should be in charge but not doing anything very dramatic. Allowing the strong possibility that they might think I was useless.
I stared at the drunk, as he stared at me. I realised that I shouldn’t have let things get this far. And yet here I was. I had to come up with something that worked or I might end up reeling on the ground with my bike on top of me.
There were a lot of clever things I could have said.
But what I did, more or less on instinct, was to meet his gaze full on and found myself saying, calmly, “I’m sorry”.
There was a brief pause. You could sense that he wasn’t sure what to make of this.
Life’s difficult challenges are wicked problems, elaborately enmeshed in a whole slew of often irresolvable and unknown factors and events. We can try to bring our favourite processes to these problems, and pretend to find solutions, but we’re probably only going to achieve superficial success.
If you’re a facilitator, as I am, you feel even more pressure to know the answer, deal with the tension, resolve the paradox and make everyone feel great about it. Whilst being smooth,charming and unruffled. Most people think that facilitation is about making things easy. After all, that’s the etymology of the word isn’t it? Look up facilis in a Latin dictionary and it comes back with “easy, easy to do, without difficulty, ready, quick, good natured, courteous”
During a tea break on that second day in Bangkok, I found myself watching a stand off. It was between two quite senior leaders who had quite different responsibilities and personal agendas for this whole process.
One of them made a statement about emergency management and how it needed to work. You could tell from the way he said it that this was, for him, a mundane statement of the obvious that almost didn’t need saying. But the other guy reacted with shock.
And the first guy was shocked at the shock. There was a momentary pause as they realised they’d been operating on completely different assumptions about the whole purpose of their work and of this meeting.
They fell into an incredibly animated conversation. I remember the dynamic - it was like a fire dance, a series of short bursts of conversational movement and looks of surprise. From a distance, it would be hard to tell if they are were angry or happy. They were certainly excited.
I can’t recall any of the detail they talked about. Indeed I didn’t try to listen to that. But gradually they slowed down and seemed to get in sync, as if something had been figured out. I had a hunch right then that this conversation might be the most important one to happen in the whole three days.
Somehow after that, the whole event seemed to shift gear and people started reporting progress.
At the end, many people were in a funny state. They were sort of satisfied with the process, but they couldn’t exactly say why. They knew they hadn’t cracked the problem but they also knew they couldn’t have.
After that pause, the Cambridge drunkard stuck his hand out,
And then he said, “I’m sorry.”
Neither of us said what we were sorry for, that didn’t matter.
I shook his hand, and we both laughed. I said something about it being good to enjoy a Friday night. The traffic light changed to green and I pedalled off. He called after me to wish me happy bell-ringing.
We probably all have these odd moments in life when everything suddenly feels very real, and time stops. You sense, in these moments, that anything could happen and it could have a big impact.
These occasional epiphanies are a reminder that nothing is as fixed or certain as it seems, and tiny choices made in the moment may have far more impact on our lives than the grand stories we make up about our past and our future.
I suspect that life is actually a continuous stream of such moments. We miss most of them because we’re distracted by the idea that we are, or should be, on top of all this. If we become more patient when the stories aren’t in straight lines, when things feel fragmented and confused, then maybe we are opening the space where something a bit magical can happen.