The Best Choice is Not Always Obvious
'The Tea and the Stick'
This is a story told by Jay Carter, in his excellent book ‘Nasty People’.
A learned Guru invites the pupil to tea. The Guru offers the cup of tea to the pupil, but in doing so says this:
"If you take the tea, I will beat you with this stick. If you don’t take the tea I offer, I will beat you with this stick... Now, would you like some tea?”
What would you do, if you were that pupil?
Most people take the tea, which means they will get hit by the stick.
Their reasoning is – if you are going to get hit either way, you might as well have the tea…
A slightly smaller group refuse to make a decision – which the Guru interprets as saying no, and hits them with the stick...
Jay’s answer is: take away the stick.
Both options – take the tea or don’t take the tea – are only problematic because they come with the stick. If there is no stick, then either option is fine. His main suggestion for ‘taking away the stick’ is to leave the room. (This is also the answer the Guru wants).
This is of course a powerful metaphor for how some unhealthy relationships develop for some people, best summarised as “damned if I do, damned if I don’t”. Whatever choice person A makes, person B will find a stick to beat you with. The only positive and healthy way forward is to deny the other person their stick – that is, refuse to be browbeaten or intimidated or in other ways belittled through the choices you make.
The only positive and healthy way forward is to deny the other person their stick
There are a number of takeaways from this story:
- Thinking outside the box
- Challenge the default
- Where does the power lie?
- Convert threat into opportunity
Thinking outside the box
Most people reading the story make the same assumption that the novice makes: there is punishment either way. But all that is conditional on the limited options made available. So think outside the box: what other options might be available?
Challenge the default
The default here is that the guru is in charge, as in making the decisions, and holding the stick. The idea of ‘challenging the default’ is to question everything that exists as the default. So often in life we simply accept the way things are – because that’s the way they’ve always been. We rarely have the time or inclination – or confidence – to question these defaults. So the default challenges that could be made here might include:
• Why is the guru in charge?
• Does he have the right to make these rules?
• Does he have to have a stick?
• Does he have to own the stick?
• Does he have to use it in this way?
• Could we get rid of the stick?
• What if I had the stick or took it off him?
• What if I just walk out, and refuse to accept ‘the default’?
Any of the above might shift the situation, open up alternatives, and therefore perhaps change the default, and therefore perhaps the eventual outcome: take away the stick…
Where does the power lie?
In the default of this story, the power lies in two places: firstly, with the guru; his title, his prestige and status, his physical position at the far end of the room; all give him at least inferred power, and of course as head of the monastery, he is likey to have formal power too, The second location of power is in the stick, or more accurately, whoever has or owns the stick. And the guru makes it abundantly clear that the stick is the instrument of his power. So anything that takes power away from these two places will in itself ‘challenge the default’. Saddam Hussein had enormous formal power, supported by his control of the apparatus of state. When he was eventually found, in a pit in a field, all those trappings of power had disappeared. They were no longer present, no longer relevant. And the second location of power – the stick – could, perhaps easily, be in the pupil’s hands; then it would be up to the pupil what he did with this instrument of power. Perhaps that was the real outcome wanted by the guru…?
Convert threat into opportunity
This really follows from all the above. Thinking outside the box is one way of converting threat to opportunity. Challenging the default is another. Taking away the stick is another. The key point here is to be able to reframe the situation – from one of probable threat to possible opportunity. As a trainer, I used to feel quite threatened if it was clear that most participants for that workshop were conscripts, and didn’t want to be there. It was quite intimidating. But I learned to reframe such a situation as n opportunity to ‘get through’, and would hopefully rise to the challenge, and quite often succeed, in creating a turnaround of attitude and engagement. The greater the challenge, the greater the satisfaction from any success….
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