Gradient – some thoughts

Many years ago I was walking towards the North Six Shooter outside Moab with my climbing partner. By far I was the weaker climber – on paper at least. Finally we got to the base of our first tower climb together and I realised something was wrong, my partner had been lagging all morning and I had not paid too much attention. There was doubt in his voice. Doubt about the weather, doubt about the heat, doubt about all different weird stuff. Too much doubt.

I quickly realised that the route was not the problem. And I had to work out why my partner was so freaked out and why he was not acting the way I expected. I also knew that I could not take on the responsibility for us both, in this setting, at that time, when he was in this state. I needed an equal to shoulder responsibility, at least at that point.

The mistake I had made was that I had forgotten to check in earlier as to what was going on with him. I assumed that because of his resume he would be able to pull his weight now. After a rest in the shade we headed down the scree frustrated. Later that evening we talked about things. A few days later with deeper insight (he had survived a near death epic in the desert many years before) into each other we went back out there a few days later and had a grand day out. A fairy tail ending of sorts, but often these issues result in dashed dreams and broken friendships or at very least frustrating days out for all.

What was going on here?

We have all walked up stairs in a hurry (or down for that matter). Each of us has their own pace and ability to climb stairs. Some of this is natural (like long legs or a strong body or actually an ability to turn over the legs quickly), some ability is trained. But don’t be fooled. What seems normal to me is certainly not that to others! One of the fastest walkers that I know is about half my height – who would have thought? She is a long distance swimmer. She is not overly trained she just walks super fast. Not in a million years would I put money on her beating me. Not that it is a race 😉

It is quite natural to assume that our own ability is the norm. We also assume that our own rate of learning (or gradient) is shared by all. Somehow we admire those that are better than us at a task but strangely enough we tend to be completely surprised by others that are not as able. Indeed sometimes this catches us off guard. One of the top climbers in the south of England admitted to me that he was afraid of heights! It took me a while to even grasp that this could be an issue for somebody of his ability.

“Come on, get over yourself! You have nothing to fear! The rope will hold…” These are all true, for me in that moment.

It may not feel so for your partner.

The natural thing for us to do is to come from our position (our gradient) and assume that what we are struggling with is hard for others too. What we find easy should be easy for others too. We make an assumption and thus we ultimately stand in judgement of our peers.

The thing with gradient is that it is our ability (steepness) to learn but also it symbolises our position along that slope. We are all different and can learn at different rates depending on circumstances. Just adjust the stress levels and see how normal functioning people become gibbering wrecks. That 5.7 move on loose rock, in the cold with a deck fall becomes a different animal.

So how do we do things differently?

We have to approach the other person from where they are at. Not from our position. The only way to do that is by asking questions. More specifically through open ended questions we gain insight. “What do you not like about heights?” “Why do you think you are feeling anxious?” “What can I do to help?” “How are you feeling today/about this route?” are all good examples of questions to ask.

It is about coming alongside the other person and not standing in judgement. In this way we empower the other person to come from their truth and their strength and they can contribute in the best way they can.

The thing is that roles do change during a route/trip/day. Strangely not in a predictable manner but rather surprisingly in my experience. When members of a team are empowered they can contribute and take up the slack when the opportunity presents itself.

Tips to asking open ended questions:

  • Open ended questions seek insight rather than a Yes/No answer.
  • Start your question with: What…, How…, Who…
  • Listen. We are taught to be quiet but not to listen. Listening is a skill that requires practice. Try to gain insight and avoid “stacking” your next question. What this means is avoid getting your next question ready before the other has finished answering (or speaking).

The concept of Gradient applies to any relationship (personal, sporting, work) and an awareness of this can greatly improve these.

What did you take away from this article?

One thought on “Gradient – some thoughts

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