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It was a weird experience buying myself out of custody …

Thursday, December 31st, 2015

The first indication that our Mexican driving experience would be different from others was when we collected the rental car. The welcome was friendly, yet business like, but very clear – any damage, however minor, and we would be charged. They went over this point in great detail and they (helpfully?) advised us to video the vehicle in its current state. I turned and saw another family who it appeared had been through this experience before; the whole family – two adults and two children – were checking each panel of the vehicle, one by one, and then photographing each one. It was a message we picked up throughout our travels – the majority of Mexicans don’t have very much, so they need to look after what they have.

Having left the airport, we soon encountered the three omnipresent hazards of which there was generally no warning – speed humps, holes in the road and dogs.

The Mexican speed humps (topes) come in various shapes and sizes, ranging from harsh to downright violent. There is little smoothness or finesse to them – they are semi-circular and often not dissimilar to a piece of rail track in shape or effect. Sometimes there is signpost indicating the driver’s imminent arrival, but often there is not. In addition to the fixed ones, locals also put thick rope across the road when they want you to slow down to buy their wares.

The speed humps are generally in and around towns, a little like the dogs. Packs of dogs are everywhere and presumably due to the heat they like to sleep during the day – on the road. What makes it particularly problematic is that – understandably – they like the shade which makes them difficult to see when there is sunlight all around the rest of the area.

The holes in the road, however, can be anywhere. These range from gaping holes across the whole of a motorway, as occurred a few hours before we were driving on it, and large holes which locals have placed crates in to ease one’s passage, through to roads that are peppered with all sorts of size holes across long distances. I was relieved I had opted for a Jeep on several occasions.

Whilst watching out for all these obstacles, being new to the country, we needed to map read our way around. Many signs weren’t signposted, GPS didn’t work in the more remote areas, many roads weren’t on the maps, and the maps were in Spanish when the places had their place names in Mayan – the names being completely different from the Spanish names.

At least the army and police checkpoints were well signposted. We must have been through about 30 or 40 of these. They are set up to monitor the alleged drug smuggling, arms smuggling and other criminal activity. Once we were identified as tourists, we were usually waved through without much ado, but larger vehicles in particular were usually given closer inspection.

The weather also had its say. Heavy rain and little or no drainage led to significant water on the road. In Merida, the area’s largest city and where the pictures were taken, the water had fallen for the previous 12 hours. It meant that in the Monday morning commute, driving was difficult particularly as all the holes in the road were hidden. The trick was to follow a local – and make the assumption that if they suddenly made a move to the left or right, they were avoiding an underwater obstacle. In a city where probably only 10% of the population had cars, it meant that people were trudging through water covered pavements and getting splashed by cars. They seemed both resigned and used to it.

All of the obstacles and challenges I have identified so far could be managed, avoided or negotiated without too much trouble. There was one challenge though that was more problematic – the dishonest police officer.

We were in the town of Felipe Carillo Puerto, a hundred miles or so south of Cancun. As we pulled up outside the tourist office, a police officer on a motor cycle drew level with us and demanded my driving licence. I handed it over (apparently, if I had been Mexican-savvy I would have taken a photocopy with me and handed that over), he put in the carrier on his motor cycle and he told us to follow him. He stopped about half a mile away at a spot where there were few other people and explained that I had been driving above the speed limit (which I hadn’t).  He offered me “no ticket” and the opportunity to pay him 4,000 Mexican Pesos (M$) – “no ticket” was the only English he could speak, he used a small notebook to communicate the cash required. I asked for a ticket, but that apparently wasn’t available. I said I wanted to go to the police station to deal with the matter, but he wasn’t having it – the only way I could have my licence back was to pay him M$4,000. There was a stand-off. I knew not to get angry – my reading had told me that in this situation that is the number 1 rule – but I also knew from a police acquaintance that recent intelligence indicated that sometimes travellers were taken hostage or suffered physical abuse – such as losing fingers – in such encounters with the officers purporting to be from the police or army. Eventually – about 5 minutes later – he crossed out the “M$4,000” in his small notebook and wrote “M$2,000”. Having in the back of my mind the potential worst case consequences of failing to reach a settlement, I offered M$1,000 and he accepted. He took it, I got my licence back and he told us to get out of town. He wouldn’t tell us his name – perhaps he realised it wasn’t through a desire to be friends on Facebook.

A good bit of work for him – the equivalent of a week’s pay in about 10 minutes. We were easy pickings with Thrifty Car Hire having their logo on our licence plates. For us, a scary, uncomfortable and disturbing encounter, and one which left a bad taste for the rest of the holiday. It was a great holiday – Mexico is a wonderful country to visit – but as we left the hire car centre to return to the airport I sighed. In some ways I was pleased and relieved to have handed back the car (in the condition we received it) and to have concluded the driving.

This incident occurred several months ago. I wrote to both the Mexican authorities and the British Embassy in Mexico at the time and I did not receive a response from either. It seems that my encounter with the officer is accepted practice – indeed the officer’s approach in the middle of a town indicates that he sees it as acceptable practice. And that is what, at the time, was most unacceptable about it all.

Perhaps the independent traveller has to accept this when visiting developing countries. Perhaps I should be pleased with the negotiations I undertook bearing in mind the possible consequences. On reflection, perhaps I need to accept the different culture and not try and overlay mine on theirs. Sometimes we just have to accept what appears on the face of it to be unacceptable. Perhaps I should be pleased I didn’t lose a finger or get kidnapped …


Breathe’s YouTube channel goes live!

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

Very excited to launch our YouTube channel! I have had so much (yes, so much!) fun in creating my first half a dozen vlogs, and learned so much too. The first few are spoilt slightly due to the sound quality (the Colorado River caused the problem), but I am learning – and have purchased an additional microphone! Two vlogs available at the moment, the others to be released gradually and two more currently in production – one using Lego which has been particularly fun! If you choose to watch any – thank you – and any feedback welcome to help me in

Communication Breakdown

Friday, November 9th, 2012

“It’s well under 23”, I said as I put the first of our checked bags on the scales at the very beautiful Orlando Airport. He looked up at me  – perhaps quizzically – as  he moved it to the centre of the scales.  The scales showed ‘47.0’. “That can’t be right”, I said.

“Sure is”, he replied, “when I picked it up, I knew it was well over 23”. I was astounded.

“But I only checked it an hour ago”, I retorted.

“Not a problem though”, he added, “It’s under the 50 pounds, and that’s all that matters for me”.  Ah, pounds!  I was using kilogrammes. We laughed about our different ‘languages’.

Just another of those communication breakdowns that happen every day, probably every hour. A simple misunderstanding due to the way we make assumptions, don’t listen or don’t explain ourselves.

But some misunderstandings are more complicated. Earlier in the holiday we had been staying at a relatively cheap, but very well equipped and maintained Best Western hotel. In the bathroom was the notice pictured above, which said “Take it home!  If you enjoyed your stay as much as we think you did, you shouldn’t have to leave those memories behind.  Many items in this room such as towels, pillows and sheets are for sale. Please contact the front desk at check-out for pricing. Thanks for staying with us!”

Before you read any further, think about what you are being told. What information is it seeking to give? What message do you take from it?

I had read it a couple of times when we first arrived. Later I went back to it. It was preoccupying me. I didn’t understand it. The towels were just white towels – nothing special. They didn’t have any emblems on them or fancy stitching. Why would people want to buy them as “memories” of their stay? I was stuck – I decided to involve someone else. “Peta, why would someone want to buy these towels as souvenirs?”.  She quickly replied, “I don’t think that’s what it means”.  I was intrigued.

She went on to explain that she had read it a couple of times herself and had decided that the actual message was not the message I was taking from the notice.  She thought that the message was to anybody who was thinking of stealing any of the items, telling them that they shouldn’t. Blimey! I read it again and could vaguely see her point of view.

But if that’s the case, why not just say, “Please do not take the towels”, etc. If that is the intended message – and I’m still not sure it is – I wonder how many readers understand it. Have the creators of the message spent so much time attempting to make the message ‘positive’, they have completely lost the focus of the actual message – and so nobody knows what is really meant.

How often do we verbally do this in our daily lives? Often I would suggest. And it is perhaps a more ‘underhand’ breakdown in communication than the baggage example. What does it do for relationships and rapport?


Skills for Growth

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

I got on the train at Harrogate. I sat behind a man who got up soon after we had pulled out of the station – he went to the toilet. The train pulled into the next station which is only about a mile from Harrogate Station, and he suddenly left the toilet and got off the train. He hadn’t left himself much time, I thought. Then he looked back into the train from the platform – he seemed to be looking at his seat. Why did he go to the toilet directly before the station he was getting off at? Why was he rushing? Why did he look back at his seat? I had so many questions.

Some of us sit happily in the ‘Reviewing the Experience’ stage of Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle (ELC) or are shown to be strong Reflectors having undertaken Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles questionnaire. For others, this reviewing or reflecting is not a strength, not something that comes easily or naturally. As you can probably tell from the first paragraph, it sits very comfortably with me … or should that be too comfortably?

What is this process? Rowntree (1988) says reflection is, “… studying one’s own study methods as seriously as one studies the subject and thinking about a learning task after you have done it”. Unless you do this, he says, the task – as a learning experience – will almost certainly be wasted. In any learning situation, he adds, you should prepare for it beforehand, participate actively during it, and reflect on it afterwards.

Donald Schon (1983) suggested that to reflect “on action” so as to engage in a process of continuous learning is one of the defining characteristics of professional practice. He argued that the model of professional training which loads students up with knowledge in training schools so that they can then discharge it when they enter the world of practice has never been a particularly good description of how professionals “think in action”, and is quite inappropriate to practice in a fast-changing world.

The cultivation of the capacity to reflect “on action” (after you have done it, retrospective thinking) and “in action” (while doing something, thinking on your feet) has rightly become an important feature of professional training programmes in many disciplines. It can also be argued that effective reflective practice needs another person such as a mentor or coach, who can ask appropriate questions to ensure that the reflection goes somewhere, and does not get bogged down in self-justification, self-indulgence or self-pity.

If the student can be coached to identify the feelings they have experienced and the thought processes they have used – to reflect on his/her own learning – then learning will continue at a much swifter pace and ultimately with less support from the coach or mentor.

As the makers of the man’s iPhone say, “Think Different”.

Enabling a person to initially reflect ‘on action’, and subsequently reflect ‘in action’ is the key to sustainable self-development. Due to its importance, trainers, coaches and facilitators have a responsibility to ensure that this is a golden thread throughout all their contact time.

Returning to the man on the train … I got to ask him all the questions I listed above. That’s because having seen him looking back into the train, I had a look around his seat – and I found his iPhone.

When I returned it to him a couple of days later he explained that he had fallen asleep. When he awoke he needed the toilet, but didn’t realise how close to his station he was.

If he had reflected in action – as opposed to on action – he may well have not gone to the toilet, and thus not lost his phone – a significant potential return on investment! And whilst I accept that most of us are not at our most effective when we wake from a sleep, the more practiced and engrained reflection is, the more likely it is to become the default position, and so just happen.

It all made me reflect on how my son had left his iPhone on a bus a year or so ago – he also spoke to the person who found it, but they didn’t return it. Not all reflection is helpful …


‘Tragedy’ into triumph

Monday, October 24th, 2011

In the late 1990’s when our children were still at primary school, we went to see a few live bands – perhaps ‘groups’ would be more accurate than ‘bands’ – that I wouldn’t have otherwise gone to see. There was a huge difference in quality. B*Witched were so poor it made me angry at the time having spent so much money on the tickets, and 911 were not much better. But there were also some very good gigs, too. Both Spice Girls and Steps put on excellent shows which we all enjoyed – in fact I enjoyed far more than I ever thought I would.

Consequently, when I recently saw a short series advertised on Sky TV about Steps potentially reforming, I was sufficiently interested to watch it.

Having watched the first of the four episodes, I understood more about why and how they had broken up as a group – and it was abundantly clear that it had not been a happy event.

The more I saw of the programme, the more apparent it was that it was a great advert for mediations, the reasons they happen and what they can achieve. For this reason, it made it captivating viewing.

For anyone unfamiliar with mediation, it is a process to help resolve (generally) interpersonal disputes within the workplace. It usually involves a third party – the mediator – bringing the two or more sides together with the aim of achieving a mutual agreement.

Mediation can be most effective when used at the start of any disagreement, before the conflict escalates in the workplace. An early intervention can prevent the sides from becoming entrenched, and stop the situation engulfing other people or members of the team.  If there is no early intervention, there is the potential for the dispute to become more serious – and possibly for it to become so serious, the relationships involved cannot be reconciled.

Conflict between individuals that is not managed effectively is also potentially expensive for organisations – lost productivity, related sickness and legal advice are all serious costs. And if the situation is not resolved, they can lead to tribunals. According to the conciliation service ACAS, in 2007-8, the number of individual employment tribunals rose to over 90,000.

Having said all that, I am not saying that mediation is a panacea, and there are some cases of conflict where it will not be suitable.

But it could have worked for Steps. In fact, the programme demonstrated an extended version of a mediation – and was an excellent example of how beneficial it can be.

During the latter end of their 5 years together, factions formed within Steps (they were definitely out of step – sorry, couldn’t resist it!). They started to talk about each other rather than to each other. They made assumptions about what was going on rather than find out what was actually happening. They didn’t value other members and so made no attempt to listen to them. And they viewed their world judgementally in terms of adjectives rather than fact.

Things got so bad that two of the group resigned an hour before the final show of a tour – leaving the other three to go on stage trying to take in the enormity of the end of their band.

Ten years on they had agreed to meet up. It was visibly apparent from the start how much anger and frustration some members had been carrying during the intervening years. It was very uncomfortable for others. But they had started talking. And they started to listen. They were asking inquisitive questions, talking in terms of their feelings, and explaining why they had one things.

But several months of not talking and then 10 years of anger and other negative emotions are not properly dealt with in one meeting.

Several meeting took place – some as a whole group and some within smaller groups where there were still tensions. They now had time – something they had little of when recording and touring. It showed how investing time in a team makes it stronger and more productive.

Eventually everything had been said. It didn’t make the wrongs right, but it enabled each of them to move on. The feelings had been explored and put to bed – they were ‘left luggage’ rather than ‘baggage’.

At the end of the programme it was apparent that it had been helpful for all of them. There had been learning – about themselves and each other.  They were more comfortable with each other, and in some cases the relationships were stronger than they ever had been.

Okay, it was TV and was to promote a reunion and a new tour – we only saw what we were supposed to see. But the emotions weren’t put on – and whatever might have been left out of the programme, it was an excellent example of how mediation can work. But if you find yourself in such a situation, or are managing something similar, don’t leave it 10 years!

As for the new tour, I’ll give this one a miss – but if the concerts are as good as last time, they will be well worth a visit!


Handling weather fronts

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

I was very sad to see that Alex “Hurricane” Higgins had died at the weekend. In the early 1980’s I really enjoyed watching him play. He had such talent as a snooker player. He could pot balls from difficult positions with such apparent ease. He didn’t indulge in conformity. I have very fond memories of discussions with my dad as to his qualities when compared with the likes of Steve Davis – who my dad particularly liked to watch. I suspect that part of my fascination with Alex Higgins was that he was totally the opposite of me in so many ways and, at that time, I wished I could have been like him in.

Knowing more about him now, I am very pleased that I wasn’t and am not like him. As the years progressed I became more aware of his unpredictability, his mercurial temperament, his alcohol-related behaviour. He had a chaotic lifestyle.

When I read about such individuals, I always wonder whether with a little more assistance they could have lead a more organised and less chaotic life. I then wonder whether by doing that, it would have stunted their phenomenal talent and inventiveness. Does the sheer brilliance of talent have to go with a lifestyle of chaos and unpredictability? Are the two inseparable?

I don’t know. But I do know that most of us at certain times in our lives find ourselves in situations where we need a little help in order to steer ourselves through stormy situations or mildly chaotic periods. And this same weekend I had a phone call from one such person who I had recently assisted. Jayne – I will call her – has absolutely nothing in common with Alex Higgins, and in at least one way she is completely different to him – she realised when she needed a little assistance.

Last month – 22 June to be precise – I blogged about how I was assisting a number of people with their preparations for their CIPD examinations. One person in particular – Jayne, I will call her – had explained to me that when she read the exam paper, the questions, “just became a jumble of words making no sense”.  Jayne had failed the exams the first time around, having walked out after half an hour. When we first made contact, there were three weeks to go before the exam and she was panicking about what she needed to do. She was finding the whole thing very stressful – made worse by problems she was having at work.

Three weeks wasn’t long to have an impact. We had telephone chats every two or three days. We had short term action plans and longer term action plans (but never longer than three weeks!). I gave her micro-teaches on aspects of Transactional Analysis (TA), Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and Emotional Intelligence (EI) to help her understand what was happening for her and how she could start to manage the situation more effectively. I devised a set of questions (see 22 June entry) to assist Jayne with focusing whilst in the exam.

I spoke to Jayne a few days after the exam and she thought that she had given it her best shot, and a few days later she emailed me (see 10 June entry) to thank me for my assistance.

I didn’t expect to hear from Jayne again – but then she rang at the weekend. She rang to say that she had passed, and not only had she passed, she had achieved a distinction (over 70%)!  She was very pleased – and wanted to thank me for my support. I was overjoyed for her, and was smiling about it for the whole weekend – the effort that she had put in had really paid off. It illustrated a few points for me:

  • There are times when we all need help – and those of us who are prepared to seek it out will generally flourish.
  • Never give up – it’s never too late to start to address something – (but it is easier with more time!).
  • By being open to new learning and skills we can achieve much in what appears to be a short space of time – and can create positive ‘anchors’ that will assist us in future endeavours.

How could you be more effective with a little assistance or a little more focus?


Playing with feeling and playing to learn

Monday, July 26th, 2010

In my last post I talked about the value that can be gained from affective learning methodologies, and the reluctance of some trainers to use such methodologies. One such methodology is the role play, and in this post I will give a brief run through on how to do it well.

Some role plays are very tightly scripted or structured – almost being the acting out of a scenario, or a simulation – and such activities are not intended to, nor are they likely to, achieve any affective based learning.

In order to create learning through the use of the Affective domain, the role play needs to be as unstructured as possible – and even then there is no guarantee it will achieve this. As the title suggests, it needs to involve ‘play’. We first learn to ‘play’ as children – and this generally takes place within very loose parameters, generates feelings and is one of the principle ways for children to develop their understanding of the world around them. Not unlike a good role play!

When I think back to learning events that I have really enjoyed delivering because of the intensity of the learning that has taken place, several involve unstructured or semi-structured role plays. When prepared, delivered and – most importantly – de-briefed effectively, they are an impactive way to improve interpersonal and decision making skills in a safe environment, generating long lasting learning.

Here are some key points to incorporate into your planning if you want to stand the best chance of creating an affective role play.

  • Be clear about why you are choosing the methodology – does it link in to your desired outcomes or objectives?
  • Role plays tend to be most impactive once the group is settled and relatively comfortable with each other.
  • Use volunteers – the more relaxed and willing the participants are, the more likely they are to ‘get into the role’.
  • Use written instructions so that the participants don’t know what the briefs are for each other.
  • Use names that can be for either gender – Sam or Pat for example – so that you can use whoever volunteers.
  • Where you are using an unstructured role, it is important to give the role a person’s name (i.e. Sam). This will make it clear to the person playing the role that their skills are not being assessed by those watching. In order to generate real feelings, they need to understand that they are not being asked to ‘perform’.
  • Give sufficient instructions so that the participants know how to get started, together with the licence to react as they feel fit as the role play unfolds – so you give them a ‘role’, and encourage them to ‘play’.

When might you use one? Well, one example could be in customer service training where you are wanting (1) delegates to be able to explain the potential effect on customers of a particular course of action and (2) to give feedback to a delegate on how he or she deals with a situation they may be faced with in the future.

Your briefing for the employee who will receive feedback on how they deal with a scenario could be that they are required to deal with a customer complaint in the role in which they are employed – in this instance as a Borough Council ‘front desk’ clerk.  The complainant’s brief could be that they are Sam and have neighbours who have had noisy parties for the last three weekends which have stopped Sam from sleeping. As a result Sam has spoken to the neighbour who has said that they will carry on having them, and so Sam wants the Council to address the matter before the weekend. Sam can react as he or she sees fit dependent upon how Sam is dealt with by the clerk.

Having run the role play to its natural conclusion you come to the all important de-brief. Important because you may have generated feelings in individuals and as the instigator (and trainer) you have a responsibility to discuss and give meaning to these. Important because this is where the learning is for all who are present. This is the order in which I would de-brief the scenario – and the order is important for the benefit of all those involved.

  1. Go to ‘Sam’ and ask them what they are feeling / what emotions they have.
  2. Go to Council employee (using real name) and ask the same
  3. Ask if the role play has generated any feelings for the rest of the group, and if so what feelings.
  4. Go to ‘Sam’, and this time using his / her real name, ask why Sam had the feelings described in point 1. Explore what created each of those feelings. (The name change is important here as it starts to take the person out of role).
  5. Using their own names, ask the same questions of the Council clerk and any others from the group.
  6. Points 4 & 5 above have enabled you to extract the affective learning and enabled you to debrief those involved.
  7. You can then debrief the rest of the role play in a similar way to how you might have done if you had used as a case exercise or case study as your methodology. If there are no feelings generated, you would again de-brief in a similar way to a case exercise.  
  8. Ensure the group has taken all the learning from the scenario.

That’s my 5 minute guide to running and de-briefing a role play with the intention of incorporating the Affective domain of learning. Did it make sense? If not, or you need more information, please get in touch.