A Chinese doctor, a Cuban doctor and an Italian doctor walk into a bar. The barman says to the Chinese and Cuban doctors… “It’s really heart-warming that you’ve come to help us when you could have stayed at home”.
That may be the worst ‘joke’ you’ve heard today, and ok, it isn’t really a joke or even a time for jokes, but it does feel a time to recognise the good will and solidarity being shared around the world and within our communities. It’s easy to focus on what is terrifying, but I’m hopeful that another perspective is also available to us.
Design thinking asserts that constraints lead to better solutions. Many of us are right now faced with necessity as the mother of invention in our businesses and families, as we overnight become teachers to our children and pivot our work to remain relevant and useful.
It can nevertheless be hard to know what to do, not least as many of us are in some form of lock down and not able to do very much. I lived for seven years in Sierra Leone, and their Krio expression ‘aw fo do?’ feels really apt right now. Roughly translated as ‘what to do?’ it expresses both the real question of ‘what do we do?’ with the shrugging acceptance that nothing we do will feel enough.
Many of us feel a huge sense of responsibility to do something right now, but our brains are so full, they’re like laptops on go-slow, their little wheels spinning, overpowered by the simplest task. I hear this sentiment from almost all my clients and contacts right now. Mastering this sense of overwhelm, being compassionate to ourselves when we struggle and accepting that today’s best made plans will change frequently with the twists and turns that lie ahead… Perhaps this is what it means to lead in uncertainty?
The Climate Change Coaches team have been talking a lot about what we can usefully do, and coaching still feels like a really useful way to help. There are many parallels between the overwhelm and powerlessness we all feel about coronavirus, and the way that many of us feel about the climate crisis, and the accompanying behaviours those feelings generate. In our coaching we are supporting leaders who are up close and personal with what it means to manage people and organisations through deep uncertainty. Many are under pressure from all sides to provide stability while the ground is shaking, and to map a clear path ahead while staring into fog. While this is undoubtedly a good chance to practice skills that we will all need long into the future, it is a time of real scarcity and anxiety. So it is no surprise that we are hearing from the coaches that we’ve trained that they are using the skills we taught them on our circles with coachees about coronavirus. We’re doing the same.
Coaching isn’t the answer to everything – a vaccine would be better! – but when I consider how I am being in relation to coronavirus, I know that self-coaching is helping me, forcing me to get out into nature, limit my increasing addiction to social media, and to reframe the news into a bigger context. I know it can be hard. I am 6 months’ pregnant, with a 3 ½ year old daughter, to whom my husband and I are suddenly nursery school teachers as well as parents. I have 73 year old parents, one of whom had a minor heart attack during lock down, and who is fortunately now out of hospital. I run two businesses that I nurture as if they were also family members. I’m really concerned for the small, well-meaning businesses in my community who are struggling, and experience surges of righteous anger about how exposed already-vulnerable people are, when we’ve known for years that many were perilously close to the edge. I often find myself wanting to thump the super-villains who are abandoning their staff while protecting their fortunes. And all of this mingles with an equal desire to shut out the world; a current so strong it tugs me under into the quiet, peace of my home and inertia.
Most days I want to droop my shoulders and say: aw fo do?
But as coaches, we have always asked our clients not just what they want to do, but how they want to be.
We can all be something different in relation to this crisis, even while we feel that we can do little about it.
We get to choose whether we are aggressive and blaming, or anxious and avoidant, or quietly resentful and contemptuous. OR we can choose to move towards acceptance and perhaps even finding the good in a situation that we can all agree is anything but desirable.
This is what it means to be a climate change coach right now. It means changing mindsets so that we can be something different in relation to crisis as much as doing something different about it. How we show up right now really matters.
Let’s not forget that coaching is just a set of human skills that help us to be in better relationship with each other, even (and especially) when we disagree. It’s really easy to reach for blame and contempt, to take pot shots at our leaders, and adopt a ‘my family first’ style of self-preservation because it gives us a short term hit of something that feels like security, but none of that really empowers us.
It is solidarity that offers us the most solace.
Changing mindsets right now means recognising our own and others’ threat responses and choosing to put something different into our conversations and communities. It means being compassionate towards people’s fears without colluding with them. It means being purposeful and encouraging action, based not on extrinsic distrust of each other but on intrinsic values about community. It means noticing when scarcity has us by the throat and when our better selves are in charge. It surely means being kind and really listening to each other.
As we navigate a time of huge uncertainty there is the potential for the same unhelpful, threatened perspectives with coronavirus that we can see with climate change. However, wonderfully we ARE seeing people respond differently. We are seeing resourcefulness and community like never before. We are proving that first and foremost humans are collaborative creatures who know that isolation is bad for us and who are creating ingenious ways to be together even as we are kept apart.
We can be fearful and alone, or we can help each other adopt a mindset of calm resourcefulness
When we launched the Climate Change Coaches in 2018 it was because we wanted to help people to find a different way of being with climate change, and a different mindset with which to approach climate action. We saw that people felt incapable, ‘not enough’, overwhelmed by the complexity of the problem, grieving and anxious. We also saw that the existing system wasn’t set up to change without public demand and we knew that as coaches we had a tonne of psychological tools to apply to all this, to shift mindsets, process feelings and to help people get into action. We also know that action makes us feel more resilient, and that connection with both our sense of service and with others helps us to weather testing times. We wanted to give people the tools to connect better across viewpoints, and to inspire a sense of can-do. We wanted to teach everyone the skills to be a climate change coach.
Fundamentally, we wanted to call people into their best selves and out of their frightened selves. With all this in mind then, coaching skills have never been more relevant than now.
Again though, these are not mystical skills that some people have and others don’t. These are human skills that we were all born with, and that we’re all rediscovering at this time. The other day when she saw that I was anxious, my pre-school daughter put down her toy, slung her arm around me and told me she loved me. She didn’t collude with my fears or egg them on with disturbing headlines. She didn’t offer unwanted advice, to compound my sense of incapability. She offered care and togetherness, and reminded me of what’s really important. If a child of 3 can do that, so can the rest of us.
Rather than trying to control the uncontrollable, or predict an uncertain future, we can all instead trust in the more natural part of ourselves, the part that knows that the only way to be in this world is together. Even when we are held apart.
Charly Cox, Oxford, UK, 9th April 2020