Managing people and problems

Clergy, accountants, teachers, business managers, social workers, parents – that’s just the beginning of a long list of vocations whose job involves solving problems face to face. You would think that much of their training would be focussed on how to do this best. But various studies have suggested that this is often not the case. Their intellectual training has prepared them with all the professional knowledge they require but has rarely taught them the skills for actually helping their clients.

When I was first trained as a marriage counsellor the emphasis was on a psychoanalytic approach, but I was fortunate in encountering Gerry Egan’s Skilled Helper which enabled me, I believe, to become much more effective. I found that his methodology was universal, and I was able to incorporate it into my managerial work. Later, I was able to write my own book which focussed on it as a managerial skill.

The essence of the approach was that helper and client worked as a team, and, in doing so, they followed some simple stages necessary to achieve the desired result. I devised the mnemonic: LEGUP. This stood for listening, exploring, goal-setting, underpinning and pursuit. Your first reaction may be that this is naïve. How can the same stages suit a penitent with a moral problem in the confessional and your 10 year old son who won’t do his homework? Let’s see.

Listening means that the helper should hear the client – both the facts and the feelings. These must be reflected so that the client knows he or she has been understood. This is a difficult skill for those whose habitual reaction is to comment on what is being said. Instead, the helper’s brain should be whirring away taking in the full picture from the client’s viewpoint. Throughout the whole process listening must continue.

Exploration is a dialogue in which the helper draws attention to aspects of what has been said. For example there may appear to be patterns of behaviour which need to be explored. The helper, tentatively of course, will identify these and suggest their possible relevance. But if they are significant it is the client who must recognise this if anything is to change. There may well be contradictions or inconsistencies which the client must think through, and perhaps extend their understanding of the situation. There may be aspects of the account which have a stronger emotional effect than others. Again, these must be illuminated so that their contribution can be gauged.

There is no ideal timescale for these two stages. They may take five minutes or be spread out over five days. The objective is that by the end both helper and client have discovered what has been going on and what has to be changed to achieve improvement. So the third stage is Goal-setting. There is no place for vague objectives such as “I’ll try to do better at this or that.” They must be concrete, realistic, observable and worthwhile. I feel another mnemonic coming on: CROW. If there are several objectives it usually helps to start with easy ones to give confidence.

Support refers to any action needed to make the objectives possible. For instance the client may need training, or new information, and administrative changes may be required. But we know how good intentions fail, so this is where Pursuit comes in. Helper and client should arrange further occasions where the client will report on the success of objectives. Scheduling such reports is strongly motivating, but it also provides opportunities to modify objectives. Difficulties experienced can be ironed out, and new insights derived from new experiences can be considered.

You will have noticed from my account that I emphasise the importance of the client recognising what has to change and approving the objectives which will achieve success. The helper is primarily acting as coach, using the skills of problem solving to help the client to find the best way to succeed. Instructions are few: gentle questions which help clients to reach the undertakings and the decisions for themselves are many. This will still apply even when the dialogue is disciplinary. Imposed instructions are less effective than voluntary acceptance.

You may think that the five elements I have described are over the top in many minor cases – which might be dealt with in five minutes. You may test this by considering how likely it is that change will happen when the client does not feel understood, or has not thought about the causes of the problem, or has nothing more than hopeful resolutions, or is without the facilities to put the change into action, or is without an opportunity to report back for approval and further help. Even in the simplest problems — when some stages of LEGUP take only seconds – the same process applies. Once that is second nature a helper will wonder how success could have been achieved without it.

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Who wants to get married?

Times are changing. I have just done some family calculations. I have fourteen grandchildren of whom twelve are in their twenties. Of those twelve, three are married (two have children and the third is expecting). The unmarried nine, boys and girls, are all in stable relationships. None of them are engaged, none of them speak specifically of marriage in the offing. I do not of course ask awkward questions about how they conduct their relationships, although this is obvious for those who are living together. I need hardly say that all of them have, so far, chosen excellent partners by my judgment, and they are all close to me. In a week I get more hugs from beautiful young women than most do in a month of Sundays. I am a happy man. But a concerned one.

The situation is novel to me. I got engaged quite early on in my first serious relationship and, although National Service was a delay, we got married as soon as possible afterwards. It was, for the record, the day that Nasser took over the Suez Canal, so the Sunday Express next morning had Nasser at the top and my wife at the bottom. She was the better looking.

Being a grandfather, and so without direct responsibilities, we are free to talk easily about serious questions, and so our conversations do turn to marriage – at least at a theoretical level. I try to get across the fundamental difference between a sworn, committed relationship and one which is held together by just the feeling of love, and perhaps an ambition for the future – which may not be identical in both cases. There seems to be no point at which each partner has to decide whether the relationship is for keeps. The message which comes across to me is: why commit when you don’t need to? There’s time enough to wait until you start a family for that. But I have a sense of people sliding, incident by incident, into marriage – without stopping to think. The statistics which show that this is a dangerous course do not apply to them. Their situation is always different.

But I have every reason to hope that all these existing relationships will end in happy marriages, lots of great grandchildren – and a future as blessed as mine has been in the past. And so, I pray.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 24 Comments

The chill of dusk

Last Sunday evening my daughter gave an outdoor party for her family. It was a rewarding occasion. Her three children were there, with their boyfriends and girlfriends. All highly educated, all in good jobs – and an atmosphere of shared love, which allowed for argument, humour and teasing. It was a boon for an old man who likes to think that the meaning of his life is best expressed in the quality of his descendants.

The weather was perfect, but the evening wore on and the chill of dusk gradually replaced the sun. And then, because I let my mind wander, I remembered the scenes from photographs or reconstructions of, say, 1912. Then, it would seem, the sun always shone, the women were always beautiful – and the great British Empire gave us riches and absolute security. But they did not watch the sun; they were not ready for the darkness.

The first World War seems to have started by a series of chances triggered by an assassination in a far off country. Over a brief period old jealousies, old enmities and old fears led to increasing confrontations which led step by step to the utter darkness of 28th of July 1914. And in the cocoon of that war lay the egg of a second war a generation or so ahead. And, after this war, armaments were developed which could destroy whole countries in just a few hours. We chose the temporary safety of bluff at the risk of almost inconceivable calamity. Perhaps we didn’t choose, it happened because we did not know how to stop it happening.

We all read the news. We see an insoluble Middle East, largely born from our greedy mistakes, we see great nations – who, working together, could repair the world – uneasy, suspicious and raising the stakes. We see a minor Far Eastern nation threatening us with the weapons we invented. We see globalisation turning into dog in the manger. The tensions between the bourgeoisie and the hard left show that we have not yet learned the painful lesson of Marxism or the injustices which made it possible..

“The past is another country, they do things differently there.” No they don’t. They do exactly the same, while thinking that the outcome will be different. You will not be surprised that as the sun went down over that gay party of young people, I was frightened of the night to come.

Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.

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Summertime and the living’s not easy

A week or two back the clocks went forward with the approach of Summer. I regard the loss of an hour as the price we pay for warmer weather. But this time I entirely forgot. As a result I missed my favoured 8:15 Mass. This is a quiet affair with a mature congregation, and where by constant habit we have our accepted seats. Even the homily is usually comprehensible, although not inevitably inspirational. I had to choose another Mass and I picked the 5 pm which was likely to be reasonably brief.

But I was wrong. It turned out to be very full, and with a large proportion of young people – even if some of these were cavalier about time-keeping – continuous shuffling for latecomers was required. But my spirits were already dampened by spotting a little musical band and an adolescent choir in front of a board displaying several hymn numbers. I have no objection to singing in church; I do so quietly because, strangely to me, I am told that I cannot sing in tune.

It took something over half an hour to get as far as the Offertory. Even then many numbers, relating to the two large hymn books which had been provided, were still to come. I read them because the choir were not trained in the art of comprehensible singing. That was something of a shock. I had no idea how appallingly pedestrian Catholic hymns can be. Yes, I have written a little poetry, perhaps without much merit, but I would have been ashamed to have produced anything quite so puerile.

But I was glad to see the Offertory arrive, even though the words were stifled by more singing. But I had been fearful that the essential elements of the Mass would be omitted altogether. It was a relief to hear from the bell that they had not omitted the Consecration to fit in yet another hymn. I have to admit to getting out of the church as quickly as was consistent with my Sunday obligation. I needed to – in order to escape an occasion of sin..

An occasion of sin? Yes, I knew these were good people. I am sure they are sincere. More importantly perhaps, one of the largest churches in the London suburbs was filled to the gunwales with young people with and without their parents. And this is in a parish where there are eight Sunday Masses from which to choose. My bad temper was inexcusable. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.

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The wisest of them all

When Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, spoke to his fellow bishops on the subject of conscience and law he referred to Socrates, the pagan, as being, in a certain respect, ‘the prophet of Jesus Christ’. So perhaps we should think about the part which Socrates played in the history of human thought. He is not easy to pin down for tradition tells us that he wrote nothing; we only know him through writers like Xenophon and Plato; and Plato, his student, undoubtedly extended his master’s teaching to fortify his own philosophy.

Charitably assuming that Socrates was not illiterate, this in itself is significant. He held that to write things down was to close the argument. But he taught that knowledge was a dynamic process: we can never claim to know the truth and the best we can do is to recognise our ignorance. In that way, we beat down the barriers to knowledge. The Oracle at Delphi had declared that there was no man wiser than him. He was ready to challenge even the Oracle and set about quizzing statesmen, poets and craftsmen to establish their wisdom. He found that they shared a common error: they all believed that they knew things which they did not know. His superior wisdom, he concluded, was that he knew the extent of his own ignorance.

So his first contribution is the reminder that we know very little of reality. Our own understanding of our Christian faith is dynamic: we are all required – whether in dogma or morals – to continue to develop our understanding. We must question, challenge and explore. And we may make the better progress if, in humility, we accept how little we know. If we cannot always reach the truth we can, at least, reduce our errors. Our need to use metaphor to express things of the spirit reminds us of our limitations.

Until then, Greek philosophy had been primarily concerned with the nature of the cosmos: the material world. Socrates’ pioneering contribution was his declaration that our real objective was to seek the truth of human life and human affairs. Knowing who we were, and recognising what we should be, were the only important questions. His claim that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ has rung in our ears since his trial before his fellow citizens. And the solution was knowledge: in particular the knowledge of the good and, by default, knowledge of the evil. Both he and Ratzinger would agree that it is our failure to reflect deeply on our human condition which leads to error and evil.

Socrates was not popular. Going around pointing out people’s errors is not a recipe for popularity. Indeed even his friends could find him aggravating as he picked holes in their common sense ideas. And he did so simply by asking questions, which obliged his victim to discover his errors for himself. Ratzinger uses the word ‘maieutic’ for this approach; it appropriately relates to midwifery.

His great enemies were the sophists. These were the pseudo intellectuals who went around Athens, selling their false truths. We have plenty of these nowadays on our media. And he could be easily made a figure of fun. Aristophanes’ comedy The Clouds was, and remains, popular. The general, public view was that Socrates was a comic old idiot, subject to mysterious superstitions and capable of ‘making the weaker argument defeat the stronger’. That view is a familiar experience for us in an agnostic society.

More serious was the attitude of the authorities. In a volatile society fragmented by the Spartan wars, Socrates’ pupils were often the young aristocrats – who were seen as potential enemies of the state. Amongst them, unfortunately, was Alcibiades who was to desert Athens for Sparta. Socrates was accused of corrupting youth, and it was this which led to his trial and execution. He might have escaped execution through bribery but, arguing with his friend Crito, he provides a classic apologia for the implicit contract between the citizen and the state, to which he must defer. He is true to his principles and he drinks his hemlock.

If you have a spare lifetime you might consider one problem he leaves with us: Does God love the good because the good is lovable? Or is the good lovable because God loves it? Put another way, does the good exist independently of God? Or does God define the good arbitrarily? If you can answer that, you will have outplayed the myriad philosophers who have attempted to solve it over two millennia.

Throughout history we have associated great developments in human understanding with heroic individuals. Historians will often quarrel with such simplification, perhaps rightly. But we like our heroes, and recognising Socrates as the prophet of moral virtue to be consummated in Christ, is an indulgence I am happy to grant myself.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Philosophy | Tagged , , | 14 Comments

The future is already on its way

I have, on occasion, noted in my Secondsight column in the Catholic Herald that decreases in our birthrate promise problems in the future. Last week there was a strongly written article by Dennis Sewell. If you get a chance to read it, take it. (Issue 17/3)

The fact of the matter is that our fertility rate has dropped from 2.7 in 1960 to 1.8 in 2014. The rate required to reproduce the population is 2.1. This means that working taxpayers will be supporting a larger and larger proportion of golden oldies. And that’s before we take into account increased longevity and the possible prospect of cures from cancers and other conditions.

It is not just us. The fertility rate across the EU is worse at 1.5. The Japanese have suffered economically from this problem for several years; they were introduced to widespread contraception following WWII by the Americans. The Chinese face a more serious problem from their ‘one child only’ policy. Although the policy has been changed I understand that their culture is so habituated to tiny families that they now prefer it.

We may assume that the availability of convenient contraception was necessary for this to occur. (Though we may remember that abortion also plays its part.) But with it come other factors. I discuss this from time to time with my grandchildren and I find that they regard a small family as an ideal. Their concern is whether to have it early in their careers or later when they are better established. I note also that they favour partners who will play a bigger, perhaps equal, domestic rôle when this is needed. They are good and thoughtful people, but it’s gender equality nowadays. I just moan because I only have three great grandchildren so far. An email I received today tells me that a fourth is on the way. (Hallelujah!)

We are told that Mrs Merkel looked to improving the German situation by encouraging large numbers of immigrants. The theory was fine because immigrants tend to be hardworking, and to have slightly larger families, but look what happened to her. We need immigrants too. Of course we should be able to monitor the rate and the timing but I wonder how easy that would be in a democracy whose workforce dislike competition for their jobs and their houses.

So what are the solutions? I write this somewhat smugly, having 22 descendants so far. At great family parties I feel I have done my bit. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

(A little post scriptum) “Professor Savage (of the BMA) told the Mail on Sunday that forcing women to give birth to a child of a sex they do not want to have “is not going to be good for the eventual child, and it’s not going to be good for (the mother’s) mental health.” She advocates free choice at any stage in the pregnancy. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/sex-selective-abortions-any-stage-pro-choice-bma-ethics-wendy-savage-british-medical-association-a7638901.html )

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Pope Francis | Tagged | 22 Comments

Worry worry worry

Why worry? A change in my household circumstances has led to my undertaking many activities with which I am not familiar. Many people, particularly housewives, would regard these tasks as routine and usually unproblematic. But to the novice they may be quite demanding. And sometimes, worrying.

There seems to be little relationship between a level of worry and the significance of a task. Were I to be in a death cell with execution due in the morning, some degree of worrying would be natural. But I suspect that my worry would be limited because the outcome is certain. Uncertainty seems to be at the heart of worry. Whether this or that important letter arrives in the next post might worry me more.

Worry is irrational. It is obvious that faced by a task we should think constructively about what steps we should take and then put them into action. Worrying may lead to exaggerating a task or putting it off as long as possible. So the effect is negative – we have only made matters worse. Realising that it’s negative does not take it away. In fact we can add to the problem the worry about how much we worry.

What is the source of worry? I imagine that, like so many of our instincts, evolution has played its part. We are always faced by problems and worry came about because we needed to be triggered to prepare for possible solutions. But when we are faced by uncertainty this can be difficult. I remember, as a young man, the occasions when my boss would ask me to meet him the next day – without mentioning why. From that point, overnight and the next day, there would be a little worry nibbling away inside. What might I have done wrong? In fact I cannot remember any meeting which turned out to be unpleasant. All that worry wasted!

Now you, reader, may have worries from time to time. But you have perhaps learned how to reduce these to a minimal level. In which case tell us how you managed that. Were the changes practical ones or did you change your internal attitudes? If nothing else you may find that you’re not alone.

Posted in Quentin queries | 10 Comments