Day after day, I see a plethora of articles, blogs and podcasts sharing ideas and suggestions for how to navigate the pandemic and its multiple consequences. In fact, I have also offered a few of my own. However, the question I am sitting with is: how could we possibly know what to do? We have never in living memory experienced anything of the scale, magnitude and impact of this pandemic. So how could we simply know?
In the absence of knowing, what do we do? In my ongoing quest to answer my own question, I have found myself exploring and coming back to three key concepts:
Being ok with not knowing
Buffering the shock waves
Building a different future
Socrates said: “The only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing”. Given that we are hard wired to solve problems and find solutions, this can be incredibly difficult to do. Being in a space of not knowing can be very uncomfortable and therefore something we often try to avoid or move away from. However, it’s also incredibly important. So many aspects of our growth and wellbeing on all levels (behavioural, emotional, psychological and spiritual) are now increasingly and clearly linked to our capacity to be with that discomfort, to even embrace it, and simply witness and be present to and for our experience. In a previous blog, I wrote about what Jim Collins calls the Stockdale Paradox. In a prisoner of war camp, Admiral Jim Stockdale experienced significant torture and trauma for what he thought could be an indefinite period with no guarantee or sign that he might ever be released. One lesson that he shared for how to survive this kind of challenge, he described as:
“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be”.
I recall a lesson shared during a psychology course I was attending several years ago whre the lecturer talked about the difference between being prepared and being ready. He described how some things we simply cannot prepare for, as they are so different and outside our scope of experience. The challenge is that our default position is to try to prepare anyway, when in fact, and according to his lesson, what we would do better to focus on is being ready. He advocated cultivating a state or mindset of readiness that, when preparation is not feasible, will enable us to “confront the most brutal facts” as described by Stockdale. If preparation has eluded or failed us, we may therefore feel very un-prepared and this places us in a vulnerable and uncomfortable place, depleting and undermining our skills and qualities. Conversely, if we cultivate our state of readiness, we may be able to face our challenges more effectively and thereby also tap into our potential and resourcefulness more readily. This helps us to meet the challenge, know that we don’t know, and yet keep take steps forward. This capacity for working with and in the unknown is also described within the ICF Core Competencies as part of Coaching Presence and the use internal and external coaches within your organisation is more valuable now than ever before, in order to support leaders and other employees tap into their own readiness and potential.
One thing I would like to make clear is that I don’t equate being ok with not knowing, with being ok with not doing! In some ways, this pandemic seems like an earthquake (of significant magnitude) that is sending shock waves through every social system, including healthcare, community care, education, organisational and family systems. We already know how the impact of those shock waves is creating fractures and breakdown in those much-needed systems that underpin our society and our lives. Just yesterday I heard on the news that 24% of the UK workforce has had some kind of bereavement in the last 12 months (Sue Ryder Bereavement charity) and that 50% of NHS staff working through the first wave of Covid last year are now experiencing PTSD, depression, excessive drinking, trauma or other stress and anxiety-related conditions. I am sure many other countries around the world could report similar statistics. It is vital to take consistent action to buffer the impact of these shock waves that are crashing through our world like the tidal waves of a tsunami. This means not only providing support for those directly impacted by the pandemic in a direct way, but also providing support to the supporters and so on. We must underpin the fabric of societal resilience by going deep into those systems, providing support from the inside-out, so that we can protect the foundations. Last year, I wrote about some insights from the World Economic Forum which warned that, just when we might find ourselves able and needed to go back to work to rebuild the economy, we could find ourselves facing another kind of pandemic. The surge of mental health challenges we might see surfacing, as a result of the erosion of resilience over these months, could be just as challenging as Covid itself. This surge is already very apparent and is on a steep upward trend. Part of our own work with our Coaching with Conscience initiative has been to provide coaching to charity workers who support people with mental health challenges in the community whose experience has been exacerbated during the pandemic. How can we mobilise our collective resources better so that together we can dig deeper into the layers of society to provide the support needed for resilience to be maintained and underpinned?
I have previously written about the “new normal” and find myself wanting to return to this topic. Whilst there has been a lot of talk about the new normal, what I notice in practice is still more of a mentality of waiting for things to “go back to normal”. A lot of the coping strategies I see still seem to indicate that they are focussed on creating a “holding space” to keep things afloat until the drama is over and we can return to normality. Whilst I fully appreciate that in some cases all of our best efforts are literally just about keeping things afloat amidst the barrage of adversity, are we also at risk of holding onto the memory or the dream of a world that might actually never be the same again? What if we could somehow, with our collective resources, not only address the immediacy of our situation, but also explore how we truly Build Back Better? For this, we may well need to further develop that capacity for being ok with not knowing, to have courage and a level of acceptance and letting go, which opens up the space for human creativity and innovation to create a veritable new world – a world that is better than the one we had created before the pandemic challenged its existence. Coaching is defined by the International Coaching Federation as being a partnership with clients in a thought provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. We could all do with some of that now, couldn’t we?