A Fresh Perspective

18th Oct 2013

As a mountaineering instructor I have power.  I don't mean power in the bigger tapestry of society.  My power can't bring world peace or eradicate malaria. But I do have some power.  My power is the opportunity to inspire the clients I work with.   The power to give people the skills to have great adventures of their own.  The power to teach them to navigate safely in poor visibility or climb mountains they wouldn't otherwise feel confident trying.  To teach them to build a safe and efficient belay system or improve their understanding of access rights.  To train and assess new leaders or show people how to steer efficiently on tight mountain biking trails.  To make them want to get out themselves straight after their course finishes.  I strive to use my existing power well just as I always strive to improve my instructing powers.
A big part of this process is to reflect - and I do it after every course.  My practice, I can say with certainty, develops every time I spend time with clients.  Having said all that, sometimes a fresh perspective is really valuable too.  Several years ago I saw the film The Doctor starring William Hurt.  He plays a high power doctor who doesn't, to put it mildly, have the best bedside manner.  Unfortunately, he gets very sick and the film revolves around his treatment and his experiences of the medical profession he has been part of but is now experiencing from the patient's perspective.  The process leads to him examining his own values and, ultimately, returning to the profession as the kind of doctor he would have wanted to be treated by.  It's a good film and the message is powerful.
A few weeks ago I happened to be in the company of a group of doctors.  Fortunately I wasn't assessing their patient care skills.  I was attending a friends stag weekend and Saturday's plan was to go mountain biking in the Yorkshire Dales.  I used to do a fair bit of caving and, although it isn't something I've taken the time to do for several years, I did at least have enough residual knowledge to know the kind of things we'd be doing.  I'd talked to quite a few of the group the evening before and it was clear we had some very anxious group members,
We met up with the instructor, Tim, at the prearranged meeting place.  His demeanour was welcoming and relaxed.  He was clearly comfortable with what he was doing and the effect was to make me feel comfortable too.  I hoped it was also having an effect on the more nervous participants.  Tim also looked professional.  He had a clean and tidy appearance with good quality clothing (for a caver!).  Before we headed off Tim took the time to find out about our previous caving experience and give us an outline plan    It was an excellent first impression and it reinforced how important this first interaction always is. 
Tim kitted up the group and we headed underground.  It felt really good to be led rather than leading for a change.  I could see how he controlled the speed of the group, chose suitable places to regroup and how he varied his place within the group to ensure he was in a position of what instructors often refer to as 'maximum usefulness'.  It was a master class of group management.
There was lots of interesting geology and cave features along the way and Tim shared various bits of information periodically.  The group also had plenty of questions and he was usually able to answer them although there was one question that he didn't know.  I liked his response which was simply "I don't know".  No made up answer and no blagging. Just an honest response.  
Tim had chosen a cave with a range of options.  We got to one quite tight squeeze and he gave us the option to go through but he also showed us another way around if we didn't want too.  Some did and some didn't - but everyone felt challenged at their own level.  He also rigged up a short vertical ladder section for anyone who wanted to have a go but again there was an alternative for those that didn't.  
Sooner than I'd have liked our caving adventure was drawing to a close and we emerged into bright sunlight after a great session.  No one else in the group was seeing the session with my instructor eyes but they were all smiling and sharing tales of their experience.  They had all succeeded in being challenged at the right level and had a lot of fun doing it. 
For me the effects were more profound.  I very rarely get the chance to watch other instructors working and to experience sessions from the other side of the fence.  Tim had been an inspiring instructor who safely led a very mixed team.  He also did it with enthusiasm and professionalism.  He was the type of instructor all instructors should aspire to be.  It was a great experience for me and I learnt a lot.  It also reinvigorated me and allowed me to remind myself of the power all instructors have.  Of the power I have.
Posted by Paul