Jim Bishop: Learning the ropes of cooperative communication

Column by Jim Bishop

It seems obvious, yet so hard to implement.

Many problems associated with the human condition, whether experienced in the workplace, at home or in settings where we’d rather not have others find us, can be addressed – and often resolved – by basic, eyeball-to-eyeball conversation.

Homer J. Simpson might say, “It was like that when I got there,” but that doesn’t unravel many knotty issues at hand. Addressing difficult tasks, doing problem-solving and beginning the journey towards a workable solution requires much hard work, periods of (awkward) silence, considering others’ points of view.

That, need I point out, just doesn’t automatically happen.
Members of the division I’m part of recently held a day-long planning retreat in a setting far removed from our workplace. A large portion of the day was spent on what was labeled a “challenge course.” Cell phones were out of service there, a wireless connection for laptops was out of the question, leaving little choice but to give our full attention to the instructors.

They got our attention early on.

We formed a large circle; the instructors put four beach balls in the air and timed us as we attempted to keep all four aloft. In about 3.5 seconds, balls started hitting the ground.

Hey, someone soon said, this effort can be improved by dividing into smaller groups.

Duh, rather obvious, wouldn’t you think, but it took several more attempts before a rhythm was established that helped keep the balls in the air.

We then hiked into a wooded area; all were blindfolded, formed a line, placed one hand on the shoulder of the next person and walked gingerly through the woods. Comments I made about wading through poison ivy, stepping on a snake and crossing over Rt. 259 brought diffident responses from others.

Along with stressing the importance of building trust among colleagues, the exercise also served as a reminder of what people with impaired vision or who are legally blind must deal with daily while the rest of us take good eyesight for granted.

While still blindfolded, the instructors lined us up on another set of ropes and told us to keep one hand on a rope at all times while searching for a key.

I spent most of the time groveling around on the wooded floor in search of the elusive key and wondering if I’d know whether I found it.

Oh, as part of the ground rules, we were told we could raise our hand and ask for help.

My search continued, fruitless. I smacked into a tree, reached up the trunk, thinking a key might be hanging from a branch. “Seven people have found their key,” a voice called out. I wasn’t one of them.

It came down to about three persons, including myself, still looking for the mysterious key when time was called. Blindfolds were removed, and the revelation came: Asking for help was the “key.” No wonder I never found mine – asking for assistance or directions is not in my portfolio. But, the importance of requesting assistance instead of wandering aimlessly and eventually stepping into the quicksand of despair was precisely the point.

“You were fun to watch,” one of the instructors told me later; small consolation for me.

I most enjoyed the opening activity in which the total group formed a circle, an instructor tossed a hacky sack and whoever caught it told something about him/herself that no one else in the group knew.

I was inclined to say that I’ve never bought a single container of bottled water in my life, but instead volunteered that I got my start in writing by creating homemade comic books while still in grade school and continuing through junior high featuring the adventures of a character named Hamey Humbug and his gang.
Things really heated up with the final challenge. The group stood on a small raised platform on a “volcanic mountain” that had erupted. We were given two planks, neither one of adequate length to span a chasm of lava flow, and assigned the task of moving from the first small platform to another and then to a third to reach safety.

It took considerable time, debate and experimentation to devise a viable system (in real life, the boards probably would have gone up in smoke), but in time we devised a successful game plan. A period of debriefing then followed.

If your workplace, congregation or service organization ever offers a series of exercises like these, my advice is, go for it. It takes some openness, concerted effort and thinking outside prescribed ways of doing things in finding creative ways to work together, asking for help along the way.

Open communication, discerning and making realistic choices when there seem to be several options, good listening – all are foundational to building teamwork, perhaps discovering that the best solution to a difficult problem might be found in the “leader” who emerges from that cubicle next to yours – so near, yet often so far away.

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