The Way Out Is Through The Door

A psychotherapist friend of mine, call him, ‘Max’, told me this story about a client he once helped.

The guy said he wanted to give up smoking cannabis. He’d seen a bunch of therapists who’d tried all kinds of reasonable-sounding manoeuvres including:

  • Education about the effects of cannabis on performance, and on the negative health consequences of the tobacco that accompanied the dope.
  • Work on his ‘lack of motivation.’
  • Challenges to his ‘limiting beliefs’ and their supposed historical causes.
  • Attempts to bolster his ‘self-image.’
  • Visualisation of the negative consequences for his relationships, job and wallet if he continued to be a pot-head, and of the wonderful future he could enjoy drug-free.

Nothing had worked.

After listening to this sorry story of failed good intentions, Max got up and announced that he had to open the door. Much to the client’s surprise, he started shoulder-barging the damn thing, which remained implacably shut. Max barged harder, even on one occasion taking a run up to develop more momentum, but to no avail.

The client couldn’t contain himself: “Stop! Just turn the handle.”

Max turned the handle and opened the door.

“Why didn’t you just do that in the first place?” asked the client.

“I was definitely planning to do that, but I always do it last, after doing all these other things, which I find I always make sure to do first,” said Max.

“But the door wouldn’t open until you turned the handle,” said the client.

Aha! Max had him!

“And in just the same way, you won’t stop smoking cannabis until you stop sticking one end of a joint in your mouth, lighting the other end and sucking in the smoke.”

The client finally got it! That was how to stop smoking cannabis. All the education, motivation, visualisation of positive and negative outcomes – it was all beside the point.

People go through all kinds of preparatory exercises prior to actually making consequential change. I call it “Planning to start to prepare to get ready to change.” In organizations, this might mean that everybody has to participate in endless data gathering, go to mandatory workshops (trainers call it ‘sheep dipping’), get certified as a ‘black belt’ and so on and on.

But how do we know that being sheep-dipped contributes to changes in performance? Change processes are stuffed full of superstitious rituals (e.g. “Six steps”) that seem plausible but may contribute nothing to the final effect.

Max’s parting shot to his patient was to quote Confucius: “The way out is through the door. Why is it that no one will use this method?”

Andy’s Advice: How much time is spent in your organization in ‘planning to start to prepare to get ready to change’? What would be your equivalent of just turning the handle and going through the door?

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