• Paul Rutherford


Updated: Jun 10

"I'd like to talk about the tree between our houses."

J - a coachee on a development program - was open about the problem with his neighbour: "The tree might be on his side of the fence, but the branches are equally on my side. It blanks out light, even on sunny days."

I asked how long it had been a problem for him.

"Years. Maybe ten."

So why haven't you spoken about it?

"Because we're both good neighbours. We have a good relationship, and I don't want to be the person who puts it at risk."

His fellow coachees looked askance. How could someone so senior and so accomplished spend so much time avoiding an uncomfortable truth?

J's story was a clear example of how not to deal with a conflict. Avoidance is a common strategy; once it has been walked passed, it becomes increasingly difficult to go back and deal with the problem - physical, intellectual or emotional.

In the workshop we role-played how a conversation with the neighbour might go; how J might assert his point of view, how he might listen to his neighbour; how they might co-create a solution.

* * *

This coaching incident was forgotten until I read about an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London this week, part of the Finnish 100 years of independence celebration.

The display shows 150 works of Tove Jansson, best known for her Moomins, the cartoon illustrations of a hippo-like family.

Like so much Nordic literature for children, the Moomin stories carry weighty, grown-up themes - fears, dreams, hopes and adventures.

While Jansson's books reached a global audience (there's a Moomim Shop in Covent Garden!) and the Gallery is running child-centric events, the retrospective also carries much of her 'serious' art.

One painting stands out.

Appropriately called 'Family', painted in 1942, there are two sons in the foreground, with grandmother, mother and father behind. What's noticeable is the complete absence of interaction between the five figures. Even with a chess set front and centre, there is no feeling of 'play'.

No eye contact, no intimacy, no emotion. The implied behaviour is avoidance.

This might reflect an underlying truth of Jansson's upbringing. It might be a signal of the then-Finnish society (middle of WW2, only twenty four years after Finland's civil war).

Or it might be a reference to something universal.

The gaps and the silences that emerge in any organization - from family to corporation - when a discomfort or disagreement has not been addressed.

One-to-one, team-to-team, HQ-to-regional office. Someone at sometime needs to start the ball rolling.

* * *

A couple of weeks after the workshop, J called me to debrief.

"I had the conversation with my neighbour. I was so surprised; he was as relieved as me. He had always thought that I liked the tree - I must have mentioned it a long time ago - and he had been avoiding it too.

"We've agreed to split the cost of employing a tree surgeon to cut it right back. And we'll share the timber for our fires this coming winter."

Sounds like it's made a difference to the relationship.

"Neither of us are particulalry demonstrative, but recently he invited me in for a drink. We joked about the tree, and then and then he gave me detailsof a problem he has with his boss.

"We work in different industries so couldn't give him any advice. I just think he wanted someone to talk to."

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#trust #work #people #arts

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