Of Big Sticks And Small Streams
It’s a fair analogy that our lives are like streams in a field. Our experiences and those who influence us cut the paths. Sometimes wide and deep, sometimes meandering and shallow. Perhaps intact, perhaps breaking into many tributaries. Our paths are also guided, or dug, by those who most influence us, starting with our parents, our teachers, our peers, our bosses. Knowing that whenever the water level ebbs it will like resume the same course when the waters again flow or rage. Occasionally cutting some new paths but mostly following the river’s flow that we have become entrenched in.
Forgive the torturing of the analogy. My first reader of this concept made me assure him we weren’t talking about anything urologic or prostate related! No…it has to do with predicting and trying to change behaviors. The closer the relationship, whether personal or professional, the more likely we are to try and help ones we care about to find the better path. We want to share our experiences and pass on our lessons hoping to allow them to bypass the troubles we may have found on our journey. Or more challenging, let them know you know better, by whatever means that knowledge arose.
When a particularly destructive path is recognized in another, reacting in a way that causes some kind of repeating problem, we are especially motivated to help them re-direct their stream. Our logic tells us they should respect our experience, our opinion or our knowledge and our frustrations mount when they continue to meander down wasteful paths when we can clearly point out a bee line to a better outcome.
This is often the case with a spouse who feels there’s a battle against prior forces, like parents or an ex. (Extreme sensitivity needs to be taken if that path arose from trauma.) One wonders why there is a constant return to a destructive way when it’s been pointed out numerous times and likely even conceded. The argument loses any form of logic and emotions push the perspectives aside. This is where the analogy of the sticks come in. A parent may have conditioned a child like someone digging a stream. Over and over they pass with their stick to forge the path making it deeper and wider with each pass.
As a boss, co-worker, or spouse trying to influence a path it’s like we have a small branch and we etch out the path we believe to be better. Unfortunately, a stick making a few surface passes won’t compete with the long bulldozed trench. People get stuck in their ways not always because they choose to but because when it rains the water naturally flows first to the most familiar and deepest dug path. Streams can’t compete with rivers, at least not usually in one pass. Our brains and neurons act very similarly.
To influence new productive passes there are two requisites, first comes an acknowledgement that the reflex path doesn’t always serve the best interest. Like addiction, habitual behavior or perceptions become ingrained and aren’t likely to change unless there is a recognition, an admission of a problem and a true desire to have a different process for better outcomes. That comes with the knowledge the deeper the past path the more difficult to re-route to a new one.
The second key in this influence is to empathize with the person you are trying to aid. Recognize they can’t just follow your stream even if they trust it is a surer way. The rushing force of past paths carries great momentum. You need to express compassion for their learned direction and agree on small departures that yield positive results to be retried and re-dug over time. A few trickles off the stream can build and take hold and that needs to be recognized as progress for the change rather than scolded for how much remains.
Even the mightiest river can have major course changes over time. Sometimes big events like floods force a new path but that usually comes with some destruction to deal with. Over time small changes add up to realize better options. Water wants to find the path of least resistance. If you are trying to redirect someone else’s stream recognize the depth and breadth of the old path and build the new one patiently.
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