Stimulus and Response – The Love Affair

‘I love you, I really do’. He slides up beside her, his hands reaching out to take her face gently into the palm of his hands. His lips touch lightly onto hers and his eyes twinkle in delight.

‘I can’t live without you Stim, I really can’t’ His hands slide to the back of her head and gently move through the glossy blonde hair. Then strangely, he feels her hand on his chest as she gently pushes him away, before running her fingers through her hair to organise herself. She looks at him, her eyebrows dipping slightly.

‘You know I love you Res I really do, but I need to be honest with you…..’ He senses the rebuff and moves slightly away from her, but still holds her hand so she cannot move too far away. They are getting ready for a party, all old friends coming  together. It is a regular, relaxed, fun time with people they’ve known for years. She had been standing at the mirror, choosing ear rings when he came up and kissed her, his aftershave mixing with her perfume as they came close.

His face crumbles at her words. She has been a little bit off over the last few days, certainly not her usual loving, close, caring self. He tries to listen, but his heart rate has risen and he senses the  blood surging through his veins. Their love was beautiful, everyone said so – a whirlwind romance, wonderful to watch, a classic love at first sight, a match made in heaven. And now, living together after all these years, it had seemed perfect to him. Yet here in the bedroom, he feels a sense of fear and concern. He doesn’t want to say anything, doesn’t want to speak, but he has to.

‘What’s the matter Stim’? The words come out slowly, quietly, tentatively. It seems wrong to even ask.

‘Look Res’ her voice is confident, sure, straight. She takes him over to the bed and pulls him down to sit on the edge, their legs touching. ‘I love you, just as I did when we first met. You are very special, we’re meant to be together for ever and ever I’m sure. I don’t want to be without you,  I really don’t, but …….’. The air seems to shift between them. Stim sighs deeply and squeezes Res’s hand. They’re both silent.

‘I just need a bit more space that’s all. Just a bit, not too much just a bit. I need to be my own person. I think you need to be too’. She can see he is trying to hear, but he seems close to tears as he looks at her.

‘I just want to do what is right for you, give you what you need, be there for you. I love you Stim I really do’. His voice is quiet, hesitant. He squeezes up tight to her, only to find her moving away again slightly, creating more space again between them. It feels wrong.  All of it is wrong and he wants to move to her. Yet no matter how he hates it, he stays where he is, because that’s what she wants, but he feels very uncomfortable.

‘Look’ Stim tries again. ‘We can continue on how how we are, but it will be the same and then, more of the same’. Res looks confused. ‘You know…. I do something, you respond in the way you always do. We know the routine and everyone around us does too. It feels like the same old, same old’.

‘But isn’t that good, you know predicable, comfortable….’? Res looks at her, his voice rising slightly as he replies. There is a fine line of sweat across his top lip and red patches are beginning to appear on his neck above his shirt collar. ‘Isn’t that how couples work, you know like in tandem’? He senses her irritation and stops, watching as she pushes herself up off the bed and moves away.

‘Okay, okay, what do you want’? He drops his head into his hands, so the words are muffled and indistinct. Inside he’s expecting disaster –  a break up, news of another man, divorce looming.

‘Just to try some things differently. So, there is space for something else to happen, rather than just the usual, what we always do. Something different’ Stim responds. Then she smiles. ’How about we practice tonight? You know, I do something and you respond differently, check yourself before doing what you might always do’. She winks at him, which is most disconcerting, because she has never in all their time together winked at him. It is  such a simple thing and he wants to react straightaway, or to say something to tell her that it’s just plain weird. He can’t stop the automatic reaction, his eyelid beginning to twitch. Instead though, he takes a deep breath and counts to ten. Which seems to take an age, but during that time he thinks. There is just the tick of the bedside clock filling the silence. He really wants to wink back, get them both in sync again, but he doesn’t. Instead, as ten clicks through his head, he pushes out his tongue and rolls his eyes. She bursts into laughter.

‘Okay let’s do this Ms Stimulus. Let’s go courting again, do some things differently at the party. See what happens to us and maybe to others tonight too’. He slips on his jacket and takes her respectfully by the hand. She is smiling now.

‘Thank you Mr Response, that would be lovely, very lovely. And we can count in the gap together. Ready to give it another go’? Her eyes sparkle at him. They both hold their breath, heads rocking to and fro as they go through the count. Then before Stimulus can stop him, Response is heading out of the door, taking the stairs two at a time, whooping and cheering.

Grahame Pitts – December 2020


This story comes out of a number of leadership conversations about habitual reactions. Sometimes simple everyday situations, sometimes tougher emotional loaded moments. Unless we check ourselves we can often respond in a certain way and in a way which we know is pretty predictable. This can be beneficial, we all know what to expect  from each other, but this habit can also limit us. So, a particular stimulus – perhaps a situation, a person, an emotion – can immediately invoke a particular response. Stimulus and response are powerful and almost symbiotically linked. Yet in all this, we may be missing larger, more interesting, opportunities.

How do we change our responses? By being aware of what is going on right in the moment. Then by creating a gap between the stimulus and the response. Actively working at stopping a habitual response – watching out for instance for those ‘yes buts’, ‘no that won’t work’ type of comments – by creating more space before responding. Perhaps, as in the story, using a count of  ten, taking a long deep breath. Maybe, just checking in with your heart and mind or sensing the reaction occurring in your body. Most importantly, doing something which stops you immediately reacting.

Enjoy pausing!

Some possible reflection questions:

  1. Where do you get into unhelpful stimulus response situations? At home, at work? Do you know what triggers them? Are these specific situations, or is there a reoccurring theme?
  2. Sometimes, can you give yourself a gap before responding? What method would work for you, giving you more time to respond with a different choice?
  3. Where can you experiment right now? What one place can you try this out in the next few days?
  4. And turning the model on its head – what new stimulus do you need in the coming months to create opportunities for new and different reactions?

Something’s Moving in The Garden

‘Daddy, daddy there’s something in the flower pot, come look, please come and look’. Her face radiates up towards me, the blond curls spilling out from under her bright red bobble hat. Her gloves dangle by their strings out of her coat and I see her muddy hands, just a second before she grabs my trouser leg to get me out of my chair.
‘Woo, steady, I’m coming’. I fold up my newspaper, try to forget the quiet ten minutes I was having and head out through the patio doors into the cold winter air, realizing immediately I should have put a coat on. My wife is down the garden digging away, throwing weeds behind her. I resist the desire to call out and remind her this is my time and we’d agreed she and Lucy would garden together.   
‘Come on daddy, hurry up, this way’ and Lucy, our smart, insistent daughter trots ahead of me. I feel a glow of pride at watching her young confidence and remember the nativity play at school the week before. She is an angel and a junior one at that, with just three words to speak ‘peace and joy’. The hot stuffy hall, full of cameras and phones flashing. A confusing Christmas story full of sharks, zebras, a London post box, six kings and our daughter. There she is….. I see her vividly in her angel dress, her lines delivered slowly with loud perfection, each word which we’d practiced every night before bed after story time. My heart swells at the memory. I know she’ll be on the stage one day.
‘Look here, look’ and I peer into an extra large plastic flowerpot sitting on the floor of our small greenhouse, amongst the dry dusty bean canes. It’s the pot I had every intention of putting the Christmas tree in later, once I’d finished the sports pages. A strange animal looks up at me. A long snout, two large nostrils, a crinkled broad back and an even bigger tail, which swishes and cracks against the pot sides making the whole thing jump and vibrate. The eyes dare me to come forward and I am tempted to put my hands in, then change my mind.
‘Isn’t it sweet Daddy, can we keep it, please Daddy please’. Lucy jumps up and down on the spot, hopping from one leg to the other with excitement. Then her voice changes.
‘There, there calm down little one’ I hear Lucy recite her mothers words with the same intonation and softness and the thing settles, curling up, no longer banging the pot across the greenhouse floor. Before I can stop her, Lucy puts her grubby fingers in and rubs the top of its nose, calming it even more. There is a strange purring sort of noise.
‘I wouldn’t do that Lucy, just in case you know. Well it might have teeth’ and I tug at her coat and pull her away.
‘No, no Daddy he likes being picked up and cuddled. Look’ and she scoops the alligator looking reptile up in her arms. It flops over her shoulder like a rag doll and his snout hangs down her back, steam puffing out of the nostrils into the cold garden air. ‘He’s a bit too heavy though, can you take him’?
I carefully pick him off Lucy, unpeeling his claws which are sticking in her wooly coat. My hands just pass round the rough scaly body and I gently but firmly put him back in the pot. Except he doesn’t fit anymore and now drapes half in and half out.
‘Wow he’s grown’ Sue dumps a load of weeds on the compost and joins us in the greenhouse, watching it settle down, tail and rear end in the pot, the rest slumped over on the ground. First one eye closes then another. The  purring changes to a gentle snore.
‘Lucy showed me earlier, it looked like a lizard then, now I’m not so sure. Maybe its escaped from a pet shop or something’. That had been exactly my thought but there isn’t one near us, so my mind goes to the beatnik guy who lives three doors down. He had a snake once, but that was before we had Lucy. Then when he settled down with that new girlfriend, the posh one, I’m pretty sure he got a dog instead.
‘I could ask that snake guy at number twenty, or maybe we just phone the RSPCA’. Lucy looks up at me and I explain about the charity that helps sick and lost animals. She nods wisely.
‘But we will be able to keep him won’t we?’ and her head tilts upwards. ‘It would be the bestest Christmas present ever’.  Sue and I look at each other. 
‘Tell you what let’s have lunch, a boiled egg with soldiers and we’ll decide after. How about that’? I lift her up, swing her onto my shoulders and stride up the garden path, away from what seems like a complicated problem.

‘Right mate, what you got then, a baby crocodile the call said. Seems unlikely but we get all sorts of thing to deal with you know’. He’s standing on the door step, his RSPCA uniform not quite fitting, like he’s outgrown it. A beer belly hangs over his belt. He looks competent though, if a bit rough round the edges.
‘Okay I’ve got a cat travel cage here and if it’s bigger, this noose will hold it while we deal with it. This sorts out wild dogs, so it should do the job’. I look at the cage then the pole with a circle of rope and decide to not engage in a conversation. I’m not sure either will do, but its getting dark, so I show him through the house into the garden. Two pinpricks of light come from the greenhouse and the purring has turned to a low rumble.
“Right let’s be having you’ and flicking on his torch the man strides forward across the lawn. The blast of heat and flame shocks us all. Two small jets, like a pair of blowtorches arc towards us, smacking against his boots, charring the laces.
“Fireworks mummy’ shrieks Lucy with joy, wriggling to get away from her mum’s hand which is holding her tightly. No one can believe it, but it doesn’t matter because now the greenhouse begins to shake. One by one, with a bang, each pane shatters, sending slivers spinning away. Then the frame begins to twist and buckle, then crashing out of one end is a head and at the other a tail, flicking and crashing against the fence. With one last pop the frame disintegrates, aluminum pings everywhere and there standing in front of us is…
‘A dragon Daddy, a dragon, just like those pictures in the book.  Mummy, mummy Father Christmas has brought us a dragon, a real dragon’. Lucy is jumping up and down. My mouth is open. Sue is backing away and the RSPCA drops his alligator noose and runs. The dragon sits back on his haunches and with a soft thud settles down on top of the vegetable patch, his tail moving back and forth. Then it seems to wink at us.
‘My brussels, my brussels, my Christmas spuds, the turnips’ is all I can think about, as he then slumps forward, his head crashing down on the patio. He looks lovingly up at us. Warm air from his nose blows across our legs and with a contented sigh he drops off to sleep again.
‘I don’t know what to do, stop asking’. We’ve been round the subject endless times as we watch the dragon through the steamed up glass door.
‘Well he doesn’t seem to have grown overnight anyway, that’s a relief. And are you sure it’s a he, it maybe a she. In fact I’m sure it is a she’. Sue looks at me over her coffee cup as we watch Lucy, outside, leaning against the Dragon and patting his skin gently.
‘This is either very dangerous, in which case I should rescue my daughter, or I am in the middle of a very strange dream. Perhaps I’ll wake up soon’? I shake my head but nothing changes. Inside, I have an amazing sense of calm, which is crazy given the situation.
‘Don’t grab …..’ Too late, Lucy is gently pulling at his eye lashes, intrigued by their length and colour. The dragon doesn’t seem put out at all and closes both eyes, to let her run fingers through and across the black coarse fibres, like running fingers across a piano key board.   
‘Now we’re late, got to dash, I’m sure you’ll sort this out before we’re back’ and with a peck on the cheek I grab up my bag and head out.
‘Come on Lucy, time to go. Remember it’s dad’s and daughters day, then the party later’. We have this wonderful tradition where on the last day before Christmas, children are invited into the office and we finish with a kids party at lunch time. This is the first year for Lucy. She gives the dragon a kiss and skips over to me.

There’s a thud as I clip Lucy into her seat, the car rocks slightly then I feel a breath on my shoulder.

‘No, no, get out you beast’, but it’s too late, the Dragon is squashed in the back his head resting between the front seats and immediately the temperature rises and we’re in tropical heat. The frozen windscreen clears instantly and the rubber seal around the edge begins to overheat and smell. I am about to complain, then notice the curling lip and a large set of white sharp teeth emerging. And above, a slow lazy wink of an eye. I carefully and apologetically push the snout to one side, find the gear stick under the folds of rough skin and set off.

‘Morning you must be Lucy and you’ve brought your dinosaur too. Well done, just sign here’. I lift and hold her as she slowly writes her name across the visitors pad in large capital letters.
‘Its amazing what they can do now isn’t it, looks just like the real thing too’. The security man stares at the dragon.
‘And it even smells. What’ll they think of next hey. Look it winks, now that’s smart. Pricey I imagine. Do they do a smaller version at all? Sold out probably by now. Toy of the year is it? Maybe I can get one in the sales in January’? He chatters on, he always does, I mostly nod my head in the mornings, it nearly always seems too early for chatty conversation. Lucy hands him the pen and the security man looks at her name covering twenty of the official visitor signature boxes on the form.
‘Right oh guys let’s go and the three of us squash into the lift. I can’t help smiling as we step in. We practice counting the numbers on the panel, with dragon thumping a tail in the floor when Lucy hits ten. The lift is still bouncing up and down as the door slides open at my floor.     
Some people look, others don’t even seem to notice, as we walk through the open plan office. At my desk Lucy points at the family photos sitting beside my over flowing in tray, able to name each person, touching her fingers to the glass. Dragon comes close and examines each one, seeming to nod approval. At the same time as he moves, he is inadvertently knocking files and expense reports onto the floor and then swishing them into a muddle with his feet and tail.
‘CEO needs you in the Board room now, some sort of emergency’. Jane floats into the room, all competence and smartness. She is organised to the hilt, keeps all the executive team on track, the best assistant I have worked with.
‘Hi Lucy, why don’t you come with me for a few minutes? I’ve heard all about you, Daddy has a meeting to go to’. She doesn’t even seem to notice Dragon who begins to hiss as Lucy bursts into tears and hides behind my legs. I watch her stride back to desk, as I tell her ‘I will deal with this and that, sorry Lucy is not good with strangers’.

‘Are you sure, oh all right’ the CEO is muttering, unsure how to handle a child in the boardroom, but Lucy is quietly sitting on my lap tucked in to the table playing with the paper clips on the files in front of us, smiling sweetly. ‘Good old Luc’ I think, ‘come on let’s get old grouch ready for Christmas. Who needs a meeting today of all days’. No one noticed dragon slip under the large mahogany table and the whole room seems to not hear the rumble and notice movements by our feet. I am a bit disconcerted to have hot breath on my thigh as Lucy digs through the sweet jar she’s been given, dropping jelly babies into an open mouth. Each one disappearing with a satisfied smacking noise.       
I am sweating, this is a huge mistake, I am under attack. The CEO persists in his interrogation. Others in the team are slipping down in their seats, keeping out of the argument, one or two have tried to help me, but there is no stopping him. It was coming, of course it was. 
‘I gave you the chance, gave you resources, listened to your proposals, accepted your part of the business might be different, but look at the results’. He slaps the financial report on the table and his face gets redder and redder as his anger rises. It had been coming, he hates my challenge and now he’s picked up on my emails which he normally ignores. He knows we need to change but meanwhile his shares are losing value and we all know he wanted to cash out and retire this year.
I need to fight back, but not with Lucy here and she is looking worried, peering up into my face and holding tightly to my small finger with her left hand. As she reaches into the sweet jar with her other hand, it tips. Before I can reach out, it starts to roll down the length of the table, coloured jelly babies tipping out, red, black, yellow, green. Everyone watches transfixed as it drops off the edge, just as the finance director makes a snatch at the disappearing jar. He leans over to pick up the container, then pulls back fear all over his face.
First smoke, then the nose, then the teeth, the eyes, the flashing scales. The front feet haul up onto the Chippendale table, leaving deep scratches in the surface. His body, as he stretches, fills that end of the huge boardroom. His head crashes into the ornate plastered ceiling and his tail knocks the coffee cups off the side cabinet. With a roar of anger the flames and smoke spurt from his nostrils. The heat scorches down the table incinerating reports, note pads, wrecking laptops and phones. The flames destroy the smart organised file in front of the CEO and then with a flick, the last heat blackens his hair and softens his smart royal blue designer glasses, making them droop and distort on his nose.
No one moves. The CEO sits there stunned. The left lens on his glasses drops out into the ashes of his papers. Around the table hands go to faces and there are stifled giggles amongst the ‘oh dears’ and ‘that was unfortunate’. I don’t wait, I push back my seat and with Lucy trotting next me and Dragon behind, leave the smouldering room.
‘Happy Christmas everyone’ I call over my shoulder. ‘Catch up on all this in the New Year.  Or in case I’m not here, enjoy all that new business coming soon’. In the car park I consider matters.
‘Hey Dragon, any chance of a lift home? I think maybe we’ll leave the company car here’ and he bends his head to allow Lucy and I to slip onto his back. We lift off, waving to the warehouse staff as we glide up into the cold clear blue sky.  

Post Script

This story came from a conversation with a client recently, about running a small ‘different’ business within a much larger organisation. We chatted about a metaphor when a strange mystical creature appears in a regular well organised, efficient vegetable or flower garden.

And below, just a couple of possible reflective questions for you …….particularly for  those of you who ask  for practical applications, to land this fluffy fable stuff!

– What happens when change arrives and is different from the norm or what was planned or expected – for you yourself or for your business?

– Do you take on a particular approach, attitude, or behaviour when someone is in your vegetable patch, or you are stepping on someone’s prize flower bed?

– Can you see an aspect of yourself in the story? Do you sense a connection with one of the characters? Any messages for you?

The Crucible

John adjusted his heat reflective goggles, pulled on his steel capped boots and slipped on his worn blackened asbestos gloves. He smiled to himself as he walked into the workshop, past the racks of new raw material, the cooling stand, on past the roaring gas fire reaching up over six feet vertically. The noise boomed around the room. Above the flame and just touching it, sat a huge metal dish. John was reminded of his chemistry lessons at school, with the bunsen burner and the small evaporating bowl that often stood above it. The same principle here he thought, just a much bigger version. He glanced upwards to see the curving slope moving up and away from him, with the safety bar around the outer edge, just in view high up above. Arriving at the steps, he looked over to the doorway. Coming reluctantly into the room were three people, walking awkwardly in their own heat suits. They too began ascending their own set of stairs.John took each step with energy and arrived under a metal shelf supporting the safety bar. Putting one hand out, almost at a full arms length, he curled his fingers around the edge. Remembering all his old  rock climbing skills, with confident ease he swung his leg upwards in a wide arc and his foot hooked over the safety bar. By a graceful pull with his other hand, he flipped himself up and over and found himself in a  wide circular dipping dish, almost the width of a tennis court. At the centre he could see the heat of the fire, fueled by the huge burner underneath, already turning the metal a blue black colour as the crucible heated. Standing near the edge his feet felt warm and cozy, although later he knew they would be almost unbearably hot.Across the dish, he saw the three visitors struggle over the edge themselves. They managed this by pushing, pulling and doing their very best to help each other. One dropped a glove and watched it slide down the curve of the crucible and arriving at the centre, shrivel and burn in the intense heat located there. Trying not to look shocked, he pulled his face into a stoic, confident stare across to John, who in return waved a hand in a warm response. “Hi there, welcome to the crucible, first time hey?” he called across the space. Three heads nodded back, all with a similar smile, unsure, yet confident and determined.

“Take care, stay near the outer edge until you are can gauge the heat. As you can see the centre is very hot. Best avoided, but we may end up there let’s see”. The one handed glove man took a step backwards and went to grip the edge of the crucible. He touched the metal with his bare hand, felt the heat and quickly pulled it away again. “As I said, take care, this is a strange place for new comers, but settle in, get a sense of how everything works and you’ll be fine”.

With that John sat down, using the lip of the dish as a handy seat and pulled his gloves further up his arms. He watched the three of them, slowly orientate themselves. Just standing was difficult, not the heat at this stage, more the angle, dipping both into the centre and off round the curve of the outside edge. This  meant you had to bend one leg to remain upright. He watched as they practiced the gangling walk. It reminded John again of his climbing trips, where the sheep neatly traversed the steep mountain slopes nimble and sure, although four legs seem much easier than two.

“Okay ready for a conversation” called John as he paced confidently down toward the centre, where the red metal was steadily glowing against the remaining black surface. “I’m John, you?.

“I’m Karl” said the one glove man, turning slightly  “and this is Paul and Judy who work for me”.  John raised his hand in welcome to them and pointed at his goggles. “Don’t take them off unless you have too, the heat dries your eyes out real fast and does terrible things to your eye lashes. Seen some people lose the lot and even their eyebrows here!” Paul, looking decidedly alarmed, nodded rapidly, his head bouncing up and down, which made the heat at the  centre of the crucible reflect in his glasses, creating an interesting flashing rainbow effect. Judy just smiled and looked comfortable. She’s been in a crucible or two before thought John, she’ll handle this well.

“So we’re here to talk about change in your unit, your department.  It’s been slow, or non existent and that is why we’ve ended up here. So, time for a different conversation”.

“It’s been fine as far as I’m concerned” retorted Karl. “Good enough, or as good as the rest across the company. We’re all just off budget, have been for 18 months now. If only the guys at head office would get their act together we might get somewhere”.  His face shaped itself into a smug ‘I’ve been here before’ look.  Paul opened his mouth to add something, took a glare and a nudge in the ribs from Karl and bit his lip instead. Judy moved a yard to one side, as she watched John reach into his tunic pocket. In the flash of an eye, the hammer in his hand struck the crucible, sending a ripple of vibration through the whole metal dish. Karl & Paul bouncing forward and slid a metre in towards the centre, Judy who intuitively was ready, stayed braced in the same position.

John  swung the hammer again ready to strike again. “Whooh man, whooh” called Karl now looking distinctly worried, his right boot now just touching the outer ring of the red circle of heat. The sweat dripping from his forehead and nose, landing with a hiss on the metal plate.

There were no more smiles from John, he had a determined look and they all watched as he spoke into a small radio clipped to his lapel. They noticed the roar as the heater beneath their feet rose to another level and they watched the metal in front of them as it went from red to white. John crossed his arms and looked at Karl, who was already back peddling up the slope.

“Sorry Karl, but we need some change, fast change and as team leader it needs to come from you, not Paul or Judy, they follow your example as you know”. Karl looked at his boots gently smoking, the end of one lace already black and grizzled where it had made contact with the metal. Judy reached over to Paul and gently pulled him away up the slope, leaving John & Karl eyeing each other across the swirling heat.

“Okay ready” said John softly and leaning across the white heat pulled Karl towards him. They meet in the centre of the crucible, noses almost touching, an intense conversation taking place as the steam and smoke arose around them, billowing and quickly enveloping them almost completely.

Judy & Paul now back at the lip of the dish, looked down and just  saw the two heads close together, neither now had their goggles on, both only intent on the words being spoken, both ignoring the flames licking around them. Paul now shaking and perspiring gripped Judy’s hand, which she thought very strange, even peculiar, because mostly at work he either ignored her or made irritating stupid or sarcastic comments. Judy took his hand off hers, rather like removing an unwelcome insect and placed it on the crucible lip. He fastened one then two hands tightly on to it and then slid down in an ungainly heap, putting his face on top of his leather gloves. His body heaved and shook and he seemed to diminish in front of her. Judy realized just how pitiful he really seemed, with his smart suits, slick words, strutting style now gone. A part of him had been left in the crucible too.

She patted him on the head “Okay Paul, let’s get down those stairs and get out of these stupid suits. I think Karl may need a stiff drink when he gets out of here. Or maybe, a very long cool glass of water when he we see him next, assuming he does come back of course.”. She smiled at this and without looking back, hopped over the crucible edge and disappeared down the stairs. She’d got things to get done back at the office and customers to call. And change, yes there would be change.

Grahame Pitts – December 2012

This story, or fable, comes out of conversations with leaders in many different organisations. We have often talked together and prepared for a different type of discussion, where a significant shift is required, when the current dialogue is not working. Being willing to be in a crucible seems to be at the centre of this. A place of intense heat where things melt and reform, often emerging differently. In a leadership sense, this may be a change, a movement when things perhaps didn’t seem possible before. The crucible though is not always an easy place to be, as it often gets hot there, particularly in the face of the other person’s strong emotion or indeed our own emotion. We need solid personal & leadership anchor points within us if we are to take ourselves and others into this heat.

The old maxim of ‘change the business one conversation at a time’….. perhaps ought to be “change the business one crucible conversation at a time”!

Purple Armour

The packaging lay strewn on the floor, cardboard, string, tissue paper  thrown to one side. Carol did a little spin in her office and chuckled to herself.  A good fit, made to her measurements of course, super light weight too, so not heavy at all, some new fangled material but the colour was a faint purple, her favourite. Looking over her shoulder to check the door was shut, she turned around doing another little twirl before dipping back into the box and pulling out the matching boots and gloves.  A warm glow seeped through her as she pulled on each one.

A tap at the door pulled her back. Joanne, her PA, head round the door,  was reminding her of her next meeting,  one of the last before the Christmas break. Carol took one last item from the box and, sliding it under her arm, grabbed her notes and headed out into the corridor. The whole thing made her giggle, but all she showed as she walked along was a relaxed smile.  Then a wave of concern swept over her, she shouldn’t feel like this, today was the executive meeting and normally, no matter how much preparation she did, she felt uneasy. Not that she was alone in this, but no one talked about it, no one dared. George her boss was tough, very tough and as the sales slipped, almost a bully. He wouldn’t describe it as that, ‘demanding’ he called it, but Carol had felt his wrath on more than one occasion and it wasn’t pleasant or necessary. Worse, it had now begun to eat at her self-confidence so that she exposed her normal, sharp, incisive approach less and less nowadays.

Five minutes early for the meeting, Carol took a moment to slip into the toilets  next to the board room. So, here is the big test, she thought as she made final adjustments to her outfit and pulled on the headgear.  The helmet fitted snugly to her head and immediately she felt the warm lining, purple coloured of course, softly against her skin. She raised her hands and pulled the visor down and it clicked softly shut. The world disappeared, she straight away felt protected  and yet she could hear well, much sharper than normal, even the sounds of people chatting next door as they arrived for the meeting.  Carol picked up her folder from the top of the wash basin and glanced at herself in the mirror. A fully uniformed knight looked back, complete with magnificent armour, glowing in the low bathroom light. She nodded, he nodded back mirroring her movements. The light glinted on his suit filling the whole room with a powerful light. Could it be her? Surely not, this was a six foot plus, broad chested person, resplendent in his strength and confidence, a battle strong confident warrior.   They appraised each other over the washbasin, then with a final nod they set off.

Carol walked into the board room and took her usual place beside the company secretary, one of the good guys. Nothing was different. Certainly grumpy George was grumpy, worse really as he’d just had sight of this week’s sales figures and was taking this out on John the operations director. Not a good start. Others were shuffling their papers, looking away, avoiding the obvious conflict at the head of the table. Carol inside her suit felt calm and relaxed, sliding into an observer role, certainly none of the pain spewing out from the gap between George and John affected her. What a relief the armour works she thought, settling comfortably in her chair, enjoying her filter coffee.

John turned his head down the table, a look of desperation on his red strained face, beads of sweat were running down his checks. All eyes were on papers, coffee cups, blackberries, lap tops and not one met his eye in return. Carol didn’t want to either. It was 8.30, the armour was untested, and she didn’t have the strength to take George on, thought she never would now. She felt her hands on her visor, yes it was shut, yes she was safe, she could ride out the storm her feelings protected.

John’s head dropped as no support came from the team. Inside Carol and inside her purple suit of armour a different feeling began to rise, a feeling of anger, indignant anger and a sense of love and care for others in the team and for the business. She tried to push these down, knowing the result would be conflict. Growing up, her mother had always said she had strong views and strong values even as a young kid and said these would both bring her endless joy and plenty of heart ache. Oh dear, her heart was certainly aching here. It wasn’t her battle she tried to say, stay out, John’s a tough cookie he’ll handle it. Even as she thought it she stood up and her armour began to glow and sparkle. Eyes turned to her, a look of surprise from many. She pushed back her chair and with one nimble leap, jumped onto the old boardroom table. Her helmet smashed against the hanging chandelier wafting years of dust out from the light across the room.

The knight towered above the men and women in the room. Cyril, her mate the company secretary, looked across the table and smiled. What he saw was a beautiful pair of crafted steel boots, planted there amongst the coffee cups, glasses and water bottles. He glanced up further to the intricate panels and details of the armour, right up to the helmet gently tapping against the still swinging chandelier. His eyes ran back down and stopped at the sword, not drawn yet but a gloved hand on the hilt, ready for action. With a touch of a affection, he reached out and placed his hand on the metal foot. The boot responded with a slight up turn of the pointed toe and then a tap back down.

George in full flight now saw none of this, his tongue lashing on full volume at John, but he did notice the tremor of the table as Carol walked down it towards him. Team members pulled their papers and coffees hastily out of the way. Geoff from logistics, was a little slow and accidently Carol stood on his phone sending bits flying across the surface. George did though notice the dust and later he would vaguely wonder about where it came from, but what he really noticed and felt there and then, was the large steel, pointy purple boot which placed itself against his chest from belly button to throat, pressing him back and downwards into his fine black leather chair.

The knight stood in front of George looking down, one foot placed squarely on the Minutes of the last meeting, the other planted firmly on the CEO’s chest. George’s eyes grew wider and then even wider, as he watched the jewel encrusted sword being removed from its scabbard. His throat was now dry and not from the two cups of early morning coffee, but from the fear welling up inside of him. He tried to summon up the spittle to speak. He couldn’t, his lips moved, they formed the words yet nothing appeared. Instead it was his turn to sweat and he did. Rivers of it ran down his face, pouring through his hair and soaking down into his collar and creating a tide line across his shirt.

Carol inside her armour looked at him through her visor. The sword slid back into its scabbard. She felt powerful, strong and yet strangely humble, the knight had delivered his message. No more was needed. She turned and walked back down the table, dropped gently to the floor, strode from the room, leaving the door open. Everyone observed her down the length of the executive corridor as she strode toward the lift.  She waved to the office staff, who watched wide eyed and grabbed on to each other, or their desks, in both fear and delight.

The festive holiday for Cyril was a time for smiling and remembering old adventures, both defeats and victories. John mostly slept but came back in January refreshed. George had some nightmares, reflected a great deal, got confused about the dust, but was gentle and loving with his children and grandchildren on Christmas day. For Carol, the world was simply a brighter place, full of new opportunity and promise, waiting to be lived to her own values. And in her wardrobe hung a beautiful purple suit of armour, shimmering in the half light, ready and waiting.