Celebrating Social Sensemaking

A Special Celebratory 30% Discount

To celebrate the one year anniversary of the Social Sensemaking script being sent to the editor, we are offering visitors to the Dolphyn website a 30% discount on your copy of Social Sensemaking.


What is the Book About?

After a lifetime of working in Risk and Human Resources, the Contributors to this book take time out to reflect on these fields. They ponder why there is such a fixation on control and power; this ultimately restricts people’s thinking, autonomy and hence motivation and innovation. It seems that the seduction to want to reign in and control people, is difficult to resist in many organisations.

This book, and the idea itself of Social Sensemaking©, was born from a search for a more humanistic approach and methodology to supporting people to deal with risk. That is because in order to make sense of risk, we need to commune and converse with others; it is a social activity.

The book is written in the form of a ‘reflective journal’; it is not a text or a report on formal research. Instead, it is a collaboration of stories and experiences in how we make sense of decisions and judgments; particularly about risk. It questions the traditional controlling and dictating methods that can be too easily adopted by the Risk and HR fields, and offers ideas that are more ‘humanising’.

We invite you to join in the ‘learning adventure’ shared in the book.


Safety Cries Wolf!

Why is Safety so easily sucked into the practice of creating fear? It must be challenging to constantly talk of ‘care’ while at the same time acting in a way that induces anxiety. How does Safety manage this contradiction? How does it cope with the tension? Does Safety understand what this is doing to people?

There are many challenging questions, they become even more challenging when Safety Cries Wolf!

We’ve all heard the children’s parables and cautionary tales that feature the fictional Big Bad Wolf. These are stories where the ‘Wolf’ seeks out either; a young girl in red, three sweet and innocent little pigs or seven young kids. In these stories the Wolf has just one simple goal; to in some way or another manipulate their victim, and then terrorize them. In some cases, this even involves eating their Grandmother!

Safety so often portrays itself as a ‘Big Bad Wolf’; targeting the helpless, the fragile and vulnerable, all in the name of ‘care’ of course. The Safety Wolf hunts for those; who are not expecting them, who seem not capable of understanding the complexities of the Wolf’s warped view of the world, and who are just trying to do their job. The Safety Wolf also has little ability to understand, nor does it have consideration for, how people live in ‘the real world’. For them, it’s Safety at all costs, strangely even if that means harming people along the way. It can be challenging to understand this absurdity in Safety.

The Big Bad Wolf of Safety pretends life isn’t grey and messy, they have eyes that can see only black and white. The ‘choice’ we have, is to be either the Safety Wolf’s enemy (e.g. ‘you don’t care about safety’ or ‘you choose against safety’), or be obedient to what the Safety Wolf expects. Anything in between these two clear options is simply too challenging for the Safety Wolf to understand. This would require an appreciation and acceptance of helplessness, vulnerability and of faith. The Safety Wolf has no time for, nor understanding of, such complexities, diversions and inefficiencies in life. They instead believe in process, rule and method; things that are considerably easier to ‘administer’, ‘enforce’ and ‘dictate’.

There is a problem though….

Click HERE to read the full article and learn more about the problem.


Advanced Return to Work Training – a humanising approach (Sydney)

Key Questions:

  • Are you frustrated by the workers compensation system and looking for more innovative and ‘humanising’ ways to navigate through it?
  • Are you interested in learning about motivation and how this can better support people with injuries?
  • Do you want to learn more about decision making by people involved with Return to Work including; people with injuries, doctors, insurers and the many others impacted by injuries?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, this Workshop may be for you.

The Workshop is being held at the iconic Wayside Chapel in Sydney which provides the perfect setting for a better understanding of people and a humanising approach.

Book Now

Workshop Facilitators

This Workshop will be facilitated by James Ellis from Framework Group and Rob Sams from Dolphyn.

James and Rob provide a unique mix of both hands on experience and study in the fields injury management, physiotherapy, social psychology along with health, safety and well-being. The focus of their work is to develop a more humanising approach to Return to Work which seeks to benefit people who are injured at work along with their employer.

Looking for a Taste of What You Might Experience?

James and Rob prepared this short video a little while ago and they will give you an introduction to their approach.

James and Rob - Video Part 1

A Unique Approach to Injury Management and RTW

We have a a unique model of injury management that allows our employer clients to maintain and enhance their relationships with their workers which, in turn, has positive organisational implications. We believe that injury management provides employers with a portal through which they can demonstrate how much they care about their team. We understand that mistakes and injuries are inevitable, because people are fallible, but this same fallibility provides opportunities for learning and enrichment of relationships.

During this Workshop, you will learn more about our approach including:

  • An understanding of human motivation
  • The impact that our social environment (including culture) can have on RTW
  • A better understanding of decision making including from the perspective of people who are injured, doctors and other people involved in the process

Our approach is to value people and relationships more than process. Our goal is to facilitate recovery and prevention, in the context of learning. In fact, we have learnt that by humanising injury management, we can impact an organisation in a powerful way that can permeate and enhance the culture. We’ll share Case Studies of how we have gone about it.

We know that workers compensation presents many challenges, some predictable and many that are not. We don’t promise predictability but we can help you to enhance your organisation’s resilience with respect to injuries. We believe it is possible to look after your staff before and after an injury in a way that improves morale, gives you back time in your day and also saves you money

Book Now

Who Would Benefit From Attending?

Anyone who has an interest in or works in the field of injury management and RTW will benefit from this Workshop. Specifically though, this would include:

  • Injury Managers
  • RTW Coordinators
  • HR Managers and Coordinators
  • Case Managers and other working in the insurance industry
  • Injury Treatment Providers and other medical practitioners
  • Rehabilitation Consultants
  • Health and Safety Personnel

What do you Receive?

All participants will receive:

  • Course material including notes and tools to support implementation
  • A copy of Robert Sams’ book Social Sensemaking in  which James has written a number of Chapters
  • Morning Tea, Lunch and Afternoon Tea on both days
  • Access to ongoing learning portals and material

Book Now

The Pathway of Loneliness

It must be one of the great absurdities of our modern world; that in a time where our ability to ‘connect’ is so abundant, that we are perhaps lonelier, more isolated and insecure than ever. It’s a puzzling irony that while we can ‘connect’ to so many people, in so many ways, that this ‘connection’ may create loneliness.

Our lives are in danger of becoming divorced from any idea of community that is meaningful. In so many areas of our (modern) lives, the idea of community and ‘communing’ have given way to ‘likes’, ‘shares’ and ‘the privitisation of self’. Our (western) society, addicted to utility, entraps people into a world of efficiency, efficacy and ultimately loneliness. Let’s explore.

I had a chance catch up with Carol today, we hadn’t spoken for quite a while. There was no special reason for the catch up, yet it was special. She was bursting with pride and love, telling me about little Geraldine, her nearly three-year-old daughter. Carol is a single mum who works full time and she is feeling exhausted; yet at the same time energised. She talked of both the challenges as well as the joys of work, and of motherhood; both things providing (often simultaneously) enjoyment and struggle. Life is full of competing tensions,

Carol has little ‘down time’, yet still, she took the time to be with me. During our chat, I was concerned about nothing but Carol and it felt to me that Carol was the same. Perhaps this was a (risky) moment of ‘meeting’; a short time where it was just ‘us’? This ‘meeting’ required no agenda, minutes, or records; rather it required presence, trust and risk. Such moments of ‘us’ are rare, but when they arrive they feel like real ‘living’; I love them. I wish (and long) for more of them.

Maybe it is their rarity that make them so special? Perhaps too it is the faith in friendship and the risk of sharing our vulnerabilities with others that contributes to their specialness? To ‘meet’ with another requires a level of intimacy and openness that can leave you feeling exposed and weak. Faith is the only way that we can deal with this as there is no assurance nor certainty that others will not abuse us in moments where we reveal ourselves to them. Likewise, we don’t know how we will respond to others. Sounds risky.

We don’t talk of faith in risk and safety though, it’s as if they the industry is blindsided instead by belief: in systems, process and method. To change would require a ‘leap of faith‘, and that’s unlikely to occur anytime soon, as Safety continues to perpetuate an ideology of control, security and obedience. Safety won’t even move close to the edge of the cliff, let alone leap into the world of absurdity that is risk.

Yesterday, I was at a ‘gathering’ of another kind. While it was called a meeting, there was no ‘us’; instead countless moments of ‘I’ and ‘you’; assembled together in an appearance of us. The purpose of this type of gathering is to ‘produce’; measured by outcomes. This (so-called) meeting with its clear (and packed) agenda, started with the requisite pleasantries, creating an illusion of us. However, it moved quickly (and solely) to talk of productivity and actions. People like to leave ‘gatherings’ with a sense that risks are taken care of and controlled. When you leave a ‘meeting’, no such feeling is required.

Such gatherings often leave me feeling lonely and used (utility). Nevertheless, I still attend; I must. What’s more, I often find myself seeking them out. How strange?

I’ve come to realise that such gatherings are a necessity[1]; however, they also suck us of much life and ‘living’. They are not about people coming together as ‘beings’, rather they are an assembly of parts combining to ‘produce’. Yet, despite these gatherings often causing an empty feeling of utility, they can equally lead to a feeling of achievement. It’s strange how some reject the idea that life is interwoven with paradox…

These gatherings are an unescapable part of our existence, yet are the reason many choose no longer to exist. A meeting where there is no us, is no real ‘meeting’[2]; and despite the harmful feelings that such gatherings leave us with, we must continue to attend, it is part of living. We must also continue to take the risk and ‘meet’, in faith that others will not abuse such a gift. It is not easy.

We must also continue to wrestle with the challenges of being an ‘I’, in a world where true living requires ‘us’. Gatherings where the focus is on ‘I’ and ‘You’ naturally lead to loneliness, yet perplexingly, and at the same time, may also leave us with a feeling of accomplishment and safety.

Why are moments of ‘meeting’ so rare in our modern world?

Meetings of ‘us’ are not efficient, nor safe. Sure, they produce connection, but not ‘results’. Perhaps this is the reason we are so easily tempted toward ‘gatherings’, and further why there is so much talk of human performance and proficiency in our modern world; because we need to feel free of risk?

It is as if there is a deep force at play compelling us to feel productive in everything we do. Is it this force that steers us away from ‘meetings’? Are we enticed toward ‘gatherings’ because they (can) provide us with an illusion of ‘purpose’ and achievement? Perhaps ‘meeting’ is too costly? Maybe we want ‘cheap’ meeting, where it costs very little? There are so many questions.

Strangely (and paradoxically), despite being social beings, we seem to tolerate the lonely nature of ‘gatherings’, as we strive for a feeling of belonging and of security; a feeling that can be created when we ‘produce’ together. This is not the same type of belonging though that occurs when in moments of ‘us’. Perhaps both types of belonging are required, despite being so different?

In the face of the obvious answer to such a question, and regardless of the anxiety we may feel when we utilise each other to ‘produce’, we continue to expect proficiency, worth and safety in all areas of our lives. Feasibly, it is the tension that such expectations create, when compared with our lived experiences of; mistakes, fallibility, and hurt, that we must learn to co-exist with, as we desperately await the next (rare) moment of us (living)?

Can there be any true living without ‘us’ moments? Can we produce living? Perhaps real living is something that (only occasionally) emerges as we connect and bond with others?

When Carol and I ‘met’, there was no consideration of, or need for an outcome. Our ‘meeting’ wasn’t planned, nor was it expected. Challengingly, our next encounter may be different as we revert to the more commonly experienced moments of I/You; that’s life. Such moments are hard to escape in a world of necessity that is preoccupied with ‘producing’ and security. Loneliness though, is so often the unintended by-product; it must be.

This loneliness is an unavoidable part of what it means to be human, we are surrounded by it. Despite the social nature of our ‘being,’ we can easily spend much of our time on a pathway of loneliness and disconnectedness. Could this be an addiction?

Plausibly we are addicted to ‘producing’, thus leading to loneliness; all the while we crave connection and togetherness. Perhaps in a strange way, we are simultaneously both social and self-interested beings. Is it one of life’s great challenges that we must learn to live as an ‘I’ while seeking out special moments of ‘us’?

Life seems full of questions, here are just some that we can further ponder:

·       How do we resist the addiction of the pathway of loneliness?

·       Is the pathway of loneliness also a way of risk aversion?

·       What are the unconscious forces that drive us toward the pathway of loneliness?

·       What can we do when we see others being seduced by the pathway of loneliness?

·       What fears may you need to overcome to ‘meet’ rather than ‘gather’.

What challenging questions to grapple with. I guess that’s living?

Robert Sams

Email:              [email protected]

Web:                www.dolphyn.com.au

Book:               Social Sensemaking – Click HERE to Order

[1] Ellul, J. (1976)  The Ethics of Freedom. Eerdmans Publishing Company
[2] Long, G. (2013)  Love Over Hate. Finding Life by the Wayside  The Slattery Media Group

Chapter 21 – Are You Creating an ‘Obeyience Culture’

*A Free Chapter from Social Sensemaking by: Robert Sams and Max Geyer

“Culture as a collective programming of the mind thus plays an obvious role in motivation. Culture influences not only our behaviours, but also the explanations we give for our behaviours.”

Geert Hofstede in:
Culture and Organisations; Software of the Mind (2010, p. 327)

Are we compliant?

When I started consulting in risk and safety, people would regularly contact me and ask “are we meeting our legal requirements?” or “are we doing all we need to do, ‘under the law’”. Consulting in risk and safety seems to attract these questions, and people expect that this is an area I am interested in. After all, if you’re into safety, you must be focused on legislation, right?

When an organisation focuses only on legislation and rules, people are often treated as objects within a system. This is because the focus often becomes about the system and perfection and there is little understanding of how people make decisions and judgments. This may actually increase risk in an organisation because people work out of fear rather than understanding; follow process rather than thinking creatively; and are more concerned with perfectionism than learning.

This is why I’m not that into Safety anymore.

Some organisations are so fixated on meeting their legal requirements (and obeying ‘the system’) that they become blinded to the impact that this has on culture. Companies that focus their attention solely on a ‘system’ create a culture that demands obedience, in what I refer to as an ‘Obeyience Culture’ – obedience in the name of compliance.

This type of culture fosters fear, silence and blame; all of which lead to organisations where surprises are the norm, and unusual events appear from nowhere because people in those organisations do not reports mistakes, near misses or ‘oh dear’ moments. This is because this type of reporting is not how things are done in an ‘Obeyience Culture’ for fear of reprisal (blame, loss of bonuses, safety awards etc). So why do these organisations require obedience?

The reason is that leaders in such organisations believe that obeying instructions, following directions and adhering to rules is what the law requires. You will hear such leaders say things like “we just need clear guidelines, standards and processes, and people who will follow them”. Such leaders are treating people like robots expecting that they should do everything that is asked of them, without question. Rules are there to be followed.

In one recent organisation that I heard of, they developed ‘Sensible Standards’ that had to be followed, and they expected ‘uncompromising compliance’ (which meant a first and final warning if you didn’t follow the standards) from everyone. They told their front line supervisors (that to make it easy for them), that the supervisors had no discretion when it came to their people ‘breaking’ the standards. They were expected to punish people, no questions asked. The site leader added, ‘we are doing this to save lives; that’s what we are about’. I’ve become attuned to words like this, and I now listen for the discourse of these words. Words like this are a sure sign that this was an ‘Obeyience Culture’.

The irony is that organisations with an ‘Obeyience Culture’, do not deal with risk as we well as organisations with ‘learning cultures’. ‘Obeyience’ creates an environment that is structured, fixed and difficult to change (see Chapter 23). ‘Obeyience’ cannot entertain critical thinking because it cannot entertain being wrong. ‘Learning cultures’ instead provide an environment that is full of critical thinking and of challenging ideas and practices. They are nimble, creative and resilient. So organisations that strive to meet legal requirements and deal with risk through obedience, may well just be doing the opposite, because in those organisations people cannot learn and when they make mistakes, they must be punished.

So why are organisations and leaders seduced into thinking that an ‘Obeyience Culture’ will help them meet their legal requirements?

The seduction comes from the belief that employees obeying rules means that they, as leaders, are doing what the law requires them to do. This is often what is portrayed in various legal briefings and advice that is distributed to organisations and managers. We are constantly being advised that we must have and review policies, procedures and standards and we must create a culture where people follow them – ‘Obeyience’.

I understand why it is tempting for some leaders to focus on developing an ‘Obeyience Culture’, however I wonder though whether they stop to consider the by-products and trade-offs that are created by fostering such a culture?

The by-products and trade-offs include silence and under-reporting; no one wants to bring bad news or to highlight mistakes (breaches of ‘the rules’). However, there is a greater concern that leaders should be aware of, which is the power that they have over people and their behaviour when their focus is on obedience.

Milgram (2009) highlighted this in his social psychological studies in 1962 in which 40 people, all males, participated in an experiment that demonstrated what ‘ordinary’ people will do to each other when they are operating under the authority of another.

In his experiments, Milgram had actors, who were dressed in white coats to demonstrate authority, issue instructions to some of the participants to administer electric shocks to other participants when they answered incorrectly to questions they were asked. As people continued through the test they received increasingly higher doses of electric shock each time they answered incorrectly (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCVlI-_4GZQ accessed 5th July 2016).

The people, who were receiving the supposed shocks, were not really strapped up to the electricity, but those who were administering the shocks believed that they were. They were told ‘they will learn more, because they get punished when they make a mistake’.

Of course, this was not the case at all; there was no learning for the participants who were receiving the supposed electric shock; the real learning related to how far people will go, and what they will do, when a person who is perceived to be in a position of authority, administers a command.

Milgram’s experiment provides a fascinating insight into the power of authority, and demonstrates just how obedient people will be, even when they feel uncomfortable, and don’t want to do what is asked of them.

So what can we learn in risk and safety from Milgram’s experiments, and what do they mean for organisations with an ‘Obeyience Culture’?

There are two key lessons for leaders to consider. Firstly, leaders should be aware and reflect on how their own authority and style may impact on the people they are leading. This can often be a difficult thing to detect. After all, if their style is to issue instructions and people always seem to follow these instructions, they may think everything is going fine.

Of course, if this is done in the social context of an ‘Obeyience Culture’, they will not hear from their team when things go wrong, because this is not the way things are done in an ‘Obeyience culture’. A lack of honest feedback is another by-product of an ‘Obeyience Culture’. If you are a leader and you rarely hear of problems, mistakes or errors from your team, you should be concerned that you may have created an ‘Obeyience Culture’.

Secondly, leaders need to be aware of and reflect on the overall culture of their organisation. Leaders in an ‘Obeyience Culture’ may themselves be fearful of the ramifications of not meeting their legal, head office, regulator or other imposed requirements (their due diligence). The irony is that the leaders themselves may be blinded or at least mislead by Obeyience.

What does it mean to be diligent?

In the ‘Obeyience Culture’ we will hear reference to ‘due diligence’. We hear people saying (and rightly so) that we have to demonstrate due diligence. But when we hear this we are usually drawn to a six-point checklist, which someone has extrapolated from The Act, and we hear them say that by checking off the points on this list you will be able to demonstrate due diligence.

That approach is challenged by some. Greg Smith (in his “Risky Conversations” collaboration with Dr. Rob Long and Craig Ashhurst has this to say:

Due diligence, has got a lot of noise lately in the safety space… I’m absolutely convinced that the way it’s being flogged around the safety industry fundamentally misrepresents what due diligence is about. I think it also represents the real lack of critical thinking that we see in the safety industry.

(Long, Smith & Ashhurst, 2016, p. 20)

So what does this mean?

The point is that being able to demonstrate ‘due diligence’ is not about having a thing (a policy or a system) it is about doing a thing. Demonstrating due diligence is about being diligent. And diligent is defined as “showing persistent and hard-working effort in doing something” (Encarta Dictionary: English (UK) viewed 6th July 2016). That is, those who have responsibility for making decisions across the majority of an organisation (as defined in Australian Health and
Safety legislation. So, demonstrating due diligence is focused on doing; it is an activity thing.

So what does demonstrating due diligence really mean?

Being diligent requires ‘Officers’93 to go and look, question and understand what is going on in their business. It requires ‘Officers’ to enter the workplace and actively interact with the people conducting the work. It also requires ‘Officers’ to understand about (not just be aware of) the risks that they (actively) know are present in the business and that people are engaging with. The ‘Officers’ understand about the risks because they are diligent (persistent and hard working) in their risk understanding activities. They are diligent in their active pursuit of these activities which include: active questioning, active listening and active understanding.

Further, demonstrating due diligence is also about being able to (actively) confirm that ‘what is going on’, is actually what they agree is ‘what ought to be going on’. It is actively confirming that what the human, fallible, error prone people conducting the work, understand the policies and procedures are saying is what they (the Officers) deem are the most appropriate ways to manage the risks that they (actively) know are present in the business. And they know this because they are active in finding out from these same people what those most appropriate methods might be; including actively ensuring ‘as best they can’ that these same people have the necessary resources (skills, knowledge, well-being, support, equipment, etc.) to discern and manage the risks.

But wait…. there’s more: demonstrating due diligence is also about being active in knowing when the unexpected happens (what Weick and Sutcliffe (2007, p. 12) call having a “sensitivity to operations”). Again this means that ‘Officers’ actively engage with people to learn about what is ‘really’ happening, as opposed to what they ‘hope’ is happening. And most importantly it is about: stopping, reflecting (as individuals and collectively) on what has happened (good and not so) and paying active heed to experiences and learning from them.

I’m reminded of Dewey’s philosophy on learning “… education’s purpose is to prepare us to survive and, hopefully, flourish in a future that is by nature uncertain.” (Dewey, cited in Hildebrand, 2008, p. 125).

If you are in an organisation that focuses mainly on LTI’s, risk assessment scores, completing checklists, counting ‘safety observations’ and ‘zero harm’ and little focus on understanding people and motivation, and no acceptance of mistakes; and you think that demonstrating due diligence is about ticking off boxes on a checklist; it is likely that you have an ‘Obeyience Culture’, or you are on the path to developing one.

So what do leaders need to be aware of in order to avoid an ‘Obeyience Culture’?

Further growing and developing the ideas in this Chapter

Leaders who are keen to understand whether their culture may be based on ‘Obeyience’, may want consider these questions as a starting point:

  • What words are used by leaders across the organisation and what is their discourse (or trajectory)? Words like ‘uncompromising’, ‘must do’, ‘no discretion’, ‘zero tolerance’, ‘absolute expectation’, ‘we are serious’ and ‘no room to move’ can all be signs that the organisation is focused on ‘Obeyience’.
  • What language is used in organisational policies and procedures? Is it focused on words like ‘compliance’, and ‘adherence’, or instead on learning, acceptance of error, and an open culture of listening and ‘humble inquiry’?
  • How are people rewarded and recognised? Is the focus on injury numbers (lag indicators), or effective conversations (lead indicators, or preferably, not measured at all)?
  • How are incidents dealt with? Is an incident, near miss or hazard report seen as a failure, or an opportunity to learn?
  • When the unexpected happens, what is the first question asked? If it is “who did it?” instead of “how can we learn from it?” – then you may have an ‘Obeyience Culture’.
  • How is the demonstration of due diligence seen? Is it an ‘activity’ as in a “persistent and hard-working effort” to understand that ‘what is going on’, is actually ‘what ought to be going on’ in order to discern and manage risk? Or is it a desk top audit process governed by a 6-point checklist?

Segue to the Next Chapter

Of course, understanding organisational culture is a far more complex task than simply considering these few questions, but they are a good starting point in understanding whether your organisation has, or is on the journey to an ‘Obeyience Culture’. So, how may you go about impacting on your organisational culture to make it more focused on supporting people to discern risk, rather than on trying to control behaviours?


*This is a free Chapter from the book Social Sensemaking by Robert Sams which can be ordered by clicking HERE.


Wrestling in the Mud

‘Wrestling in the Mud’

He began crying without notice, it took me by surprise. We were in our late teens and just finished cricket practice. Following our usual routine, we stuck around for an extra ½ hour, just the two of us, as best mates do. As soon as we finished he broke down. I had no clue what to do, I’d never experienced it before.

I do remember that I simply wanted his pain to go away, it felt uncomfortable and awkward for both of us. However, at the same time it also felt comforting. We were only there for a short time, not a lot was said and he soon ‘came good’. There was nothing that I did to mysteriously change things, but somehow after 20 minutes of two mates sitting side by side, as one expressed his despair and anxiety, and the other allowed these things to sit between them, things got better.

I wonder if I somehow lost this adeptness as I progressed in a career in Safety and HR or, maybe it was taken from me?

Mental health is often a tricky topic to tackle, particularly in modern organisations where the convention is that such ‘problems’, just like any other problem (or hazard), ought to be eliminated, or at least fixed where possible. The challenge is that some problems (if that’s how we want to think of them – that’s a whole other topic) can’t, perhaps even shouldn’t, be fixed; at least not easily or efficiently.

This is one thing that I have learnt during the 5 years I’ve worked with Lifeline. Counter intuitively for some, often the best approaches to supporting others is to simply be ‘with them’ as they experience pain; as uncomfortable an idea that this may be. This can help people heal and learn for themselves.

Of course, it may not help people and they may spiral into further pain and discomfort. However, this is the very nature of human beings, we are fallible and we will all suffer from time to time; it can’t be avoided. Things aren’t and cannot always be positive or cheerful, it’s our approach for how we deal with these situations that I would like to reflect on in this piece.

Let’s begin by exploring why Lifeline is so important in our community. It is an organisation that provides a place, and the space, for people to be heard, this has been the case since it began.

Lifeline was founded in 1963 by the late Reverend Dr. Sir Alan Walker, when he took a call from a distressed man who later took his own life. Determined not to let isolation and lack of support be the cause of more deaths, Sir Alan launched a 24-hour crisis support line. This service (13 11 14) now answers around 1,800 calls each day, with around 50 calls from people at high risk of suicide.

There are over 11,000 people who volunteer their time at Lifeline and on the surface, it may sound like a simple approach to what they do; that is just listening to people, as I did with my mate. While this is true in one sense, and the skill of listening is critical for the role of Counsellor, what is more important than the methods though is the methodology behind the vocation of Counselling. Exploring this methodology is at the center of what I would like to do in this piece.

So, what can other organisations learn from the methodology that motivates the profession of Counselling and organisations like Lifeline? Perhaps ‘wrestling in the mud’ provides some clues?

“Allowing people to ‘wrestle in the mud’ is one of the keys to helping others. As tempting as you may find it, if you try to pull them out, while you may think you are helping, the mud may not go away.”

These were welcomed words of advice, received when I commenced my studies in Counselling; a vocation that purposes to support others through ‘attending’ and ‘meeting’. Counselling is a profession grounded in an ‘unconditional positive regard’ for others (see below) and as McLeod (2013, p.8) notes in; An Introduction to Counselling:

“Counselling is fundamentally based on conversation, on the capacity of people to ‘talk things through’ and the generation of new possibilities for action through dialogue.”

The idea of ‘wrestling in the mud’ is a metaphor to suggest that the person who is seeking counselling must be allowed to, and be supported in, ‘wrestling with their pain’ (or concern, or anxiety). The methodology of Counselling engenders this. The key to a person ‘generating new possibilities’ for themselves, is that they must be allowed to feel tension as this may support ‘generation’. It is the role of the counsellor to support this by allowing the person to ‘feel heard’; rather than feeling ‘fixed’.

I submit that such a methodology, that requires (and permits) methods such as ‘wrestling in the mud’, is more humanising than those that insist on the methods of policing behaviors or those that are captivated by the measurement of them. These are methods that come from a methodology that cannot cope with pain and harm, and sees them as demons that must be eradicated. Paradoxically, in doing this, you would also eradicate much of what it means to be human. This is not an easy proposition to wrestle with.

The methodology of Counselling is not consistent with much of how our (western) society, especially organisations, operate. Sadly, people are often seen as commodities and the focus is on their utility. Anything that gets in the way of this is a problem that ought to be fixed or eliminated, including challenges with mental health. Organisations seem naïve that a by-product of this is isolation, seclusion and loneliness, and while the rhetoric you hear may be of a ‘care for wellness and wellbeing’, this is tested when it comes to tolerance of people who experience challenges with mental health. So why do organisations struggle to deal with and accept people who experience such challenges and pain?

The current predominately reductionist methods adopted in organisations may provide some clues. They are consistent with the way in which health, safety and wellbeing is generally perceived and treated. That is, the interest is largely on identifying and ‘making good’ the symptoms and ‘parts’. Elimination of pain and suffering trumps tolerance when the goal is efficiency.

What is needed is not an understanding people for their utility or their ‘part in the system’, but a more holistic notion, one that views people socially and as part of community. The field of Counselling that Lifeline is built on, knows too well the value of community and its importance for ‘good’ mental health.

As our CEO of Lifeline Australia Pete Shmigel noted during the organisations AGM in November 2016; “addressing the challenge of suicide in Australia is a social concern, not a medical one”. The key to supporting those who face challenges with mental health is embracing them as part of our community, which also means permitting them to do this while feeling their pain. We ought not ostracize and isolate people, but sit alongside them as they ‘wrestle’ with their challenges.

Counselling recognises people as social beings and that also ‘good’ mental health necessitates ‘belonging’ and being part of community. Organisations can hardly claim to support this if their approach is instill processes that seek to isolate, rather than bring together. In many organisations, very little attention is paid to mental health beyond what is often a superficial and short-lived interest. In many cases, it is simply a ‘problem’ to be outsourced (https://safetyrisk.net/do-you-treat-eaps-like-a-smash-repairer/). Who are the people in organisations who are required to deal with mental health most commonly?

Those working in Safety and HR are often at the front line when people experience such challenges. This may be when someone has been injured or a person is feeling anxious or distressed. In such situations, it can feel counter intuitive and uncomfortable to resist the urge to fix and control, however Counselling does this well. So, what can be done by those at the coal face when faced with such challenging situations?

Firstly, we need to resist the notion that it’s much better if the problem ‘just goes away’. The key is accepting and supporting rather than dismissing. However, this may take time and be grey and messy; so too is ‘wrestling in the mud’. When Counsellors ‘meet’ people, their priority is ‘presence’ and listening without agenda (attending), not ‘absence’ (eliminating) or fixing (crusading). Sadly, there is no space for ‘meeting’ in organisations that are deeply rooted in efficiency, standardization and regularization.

The methodology that models ‘wrestling in the mud’ on the other hand, accepts that problems will co-exist with people going about their lives and it allows people to tackle them while experiencing pain. ‘Wrestling in the mud’ means that we do not need to be expert in others, rather they are the experts in their own life. As noted earlier, one of the keys to successful counseling is ‘unconditional positive regard’ a phrase coined by Carl Rogers who notes that:

The central hypothesis of this approach can be briefly stated. It is that the individual has within him or herself vast resources for self-understanding, for altering her or his self-concept, attitudes, and self-directed behavior—and that these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.

So how did our society end up in a place where adopting this approach is often the exception rather than the norm? Perhaps a short understanding of the history of counselling might be helpful?

Counseling can be traced back to the beginning of the eighteenth century when the industrial revolution brought about large scale changes in society. Before this, people generally lived in small, local communities where the head of the church, or community elders would usually support people who were experiencing personal challenges. Further, people who appeared to have more serious medical (or mental health) problems were also generally tolerated more than you would see today. Gone are the days where people would be considered ‘down on their luck’ or just different; nowadays, they must be labelled and sorted.

The introduction of the industrial revolution also meant more fragmented communities, a greater focus on efficiency and with this a shift toward placing people with mental illnesses into asylums. As French Philosopher and Social Theorist Michael Foucault explains in his book Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason;

…. the modern experience began at the end of the eighteenth century with the creation of places devoted solely to the confinement of the mad under the supervision of medical doctors, and these new institutions were the product of a blending of two motives: the new goal of curing the mad away from their family who could not afford the necessary care at home, and the old purpose of confining undesirables for the protection of society. These distinct purposes were lost sight of, and the institution soon came to be the only place where therapeutic treatment can be administered. He sees the nominally more enlightened and compassionate treatment of the mad in these modern medical institutions as just as cruel and controlling as their treatment in the earlier, rational institutions had been.

Source: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madness_and_Civilization

During this period also grew the field of psychotherapy. Counselling shares some of the philosophies of psychotherapy, however it has stronger connections to social reform and a strong presence in the voluntary sector. You can see this in the way that Lifeline operates.

Perhaps there is a lot we can learn from our past about how we deal with people who experience challenges with mental health? Attending and tolerating are surely more humanising than isolating and rejecting.

What can modern-day organisations and those in Safety and HR learn from all this?

If we see ourselves as valued and trusted ‘Advisors’ in our organisations, and if mental health is and will continue to be one of an organisations greatest challenges, then don’t we need to better learn the skills, and more importantly reflect on the methodology offered by Counselling? That is, to support others to ‘wrestle with’ and find answers for themselves, rather than aim to control them.

I wonder if these questions may help us to further reflect and continue a conversation?

  • How do we feel when others appear to be ‘wrestling in the mud’?
  • How do we respond when others appear to be ‘wrestling in the mud’?
  • What societal factors may influence how we feel and respond?
  • What do others learn if we continually ‘pull them from the mud’?

Perhaps working in Safety and HR creates your own feeling of ‘wrestling in the mud, how is that for you?

How do you cope when people are ‘wrestling in the mud’?

*Acknowledgement: a special thank you to the friends who critiqued my initial version of this blog and provided some great questions to help me further reflect on the ideas shared here.


Advanced Return to Work Training

A Humanising Approach

Key Questions:

  • Are you frustrated by the workers comp. system and looking for innovative ways to naviate through it?
  • Are you interested in learning about how we can better support people with injuries?
  • Do you want to learn more about people and how we make decisions?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, this Workshop may be for you.

Workshop Facilitators

This Workshop will be facilitated by James Ellis from Framework Group and Rob Sams from Dolphyn.

James and Rob provide a unique mix of both hands on experience and study in the fields injury management, physiotherapy, social psychology along with health, safety and well-being. The focus of their work is to develop a more humanising approach to Return to Work which seeks to benefit people who are injured at work along with their employer.

Read more about the Workshop and book by clicking this LINK

Introductory Workshops – Social Sensemaking

Intro. Workshops – Social Sensemaking in Melbourne 27 & 28 Feb.

Author of Social Sensemaking Rob Sams, along with good friend and Chapter Contributor Hayden Collins, will be hosting two Introductory Workshops to Social Sensemaking in Melbourne on:

  • Monday afternoon (3-5pm) on 27th Feb. and;
  • Tuesday morning (7-9am) on 28th Feb.

The sessions will run for two hours and will introduce participants to the key tools and concepts that inform the idea of Social Sensemaking.

The cost is $150 pp which includes a signed copy of the the book.

You can message us at [email protected] if you’re interested in attending or have any questions. Details of venue will be sent to those who express interest.


A Small Change and ‘Y’ it Matters?

A Small Change and ‘Y’ it Matters?

Perhaps one of my most important discoveries during the ‘learning adventure’ of the past few years, is of how much I don’t know.

This is despite participating in formal studies, working full-time in the field I studied, sharing in relationships with people, being a Father of a (now) teenager and writing a book, all of which helped me to learn a lot; yet still there is much I do not know. This creates a feeling of excitement as I think about the further learning that (I hope) lies ahead of me.

This is because I find learning both liberating and energising. Especially as I seek to better understand people and how we make decisions and judgments about risk.

However, there are also challenges that arise when we learn and subsequently come to a feeling of ‘knowing’; it can ‘do something to us‘. I used to suggest that; ‘it’s knowing Y that matters‘, however I now ask; is it, and also what is it that ‘knowing’ may do to us?

These are the questions that I explore in this piece.

Throughout my life, but in particular over the past few years, I’ve come to realise that one of the key dilemmas that comes about when we have a feeling of ‘knowing’ something, is that while it helps us in learning, paradoxically it may also hinder it. That is, could a feeling of ‘knowing’ also bring with it the idea that we no longer need to explore, ponder, reflect and seek to understand? Do we then stop asking questions and seeking to learn?

Is it our struggle with this paradox that means that we can so easily be seduced into the methods of ‘knowing’ through reductionism?

After all, it does seem much easier to understand ‘pieces’ or ‘bits’ rather than the ‘whole’, which is more convoluted, challenging, often contradictory and complex. This is why it is important to understand the ‘methodology‘ that drives our desire to ‘know’. So why is this critical for learning and in dealing with risk?

If our worldview is focused simply on ‘knowing’, rather than continually questioning and thinking critically, then we may well struggle to deal with risk. This is especially the case if we fall for the trap that we believe that we know all that there is to know, or more commonly; all we need to know.

If our goal is to better understand people and to deal with risk, isn’t it crucial that we develop more critical thinking, continue to be skeptical of those things that we seem to know, and be free to ask questions?

Risk is about uncertainty, isn’t it? It is not a fixed, binary or always objective topic. It is understood differently by different people. It relies on hope, chance and faith, none of which can always be viewed through an objective or logical lens. We could easily be tempted into thinking that our ‘knowing’ is a fixed idea or state where once we know something, that’s it, we know it, no further action required. However, if we want to ‘know’ more about risk (uncertainty), don’t we need to be continually evaluating, reflecting, learning and questioning.

I wonder if it would be better for me to suggest that ‘it’s asking Y that matters‘?

Having said this, I do understand and accept that we cannot always resist the very seductive and appealing nature of ‘knowing’ through the lens of reductionism. Humans (me included), often have strong desires to want to break things down in order to understand (‘know’). But is this going to help us develop a better understanding of risk?

The irony is not lost on me that I am writing a piece about ‘knowing’ that in many ways suggests that I ‘know’ about ‘knowing’; I find it terribly challenging to escape. Perhaps it is by trying to describe it through words that is the real challenge? Maybe that is a topic for a whole separate piece.

Maybe it would be best to finish by reflecting on the words of Carl Jung who notes in his book The Undiscovered Self (1990):

“If I want to understand an individual human being, I must lay aside all scientific knowledge of the average man and discard all theories in order to adopt a completely new and unprejudiced attitude. I can only approach the tasks of understanding (sic) with a free and open mind, whereas knowledge (sic) of a man, or insight into human character, presupposes all sorts of knowledge about mankind in general.”

Jung (1990, p. 6)

Maybe Jung, through this supposition provides us with further fodder for reflection on the topic of ‘knowing’ and learning?

A Change Was Needed…

Reflecting on this point myself over the past few days while in conversation with a few close friends has had an impact on how I think on the topic. This caused me to be less concerned with ‘knowing’ and instead more interested with questions. It sparked a small, but what I feel is significant, change at Dolphyn.

Primed with the above thoughts, can you pick it?

Share Your Thoughts for a Chance to Win…

If you can spot the change and you would like to offer a comment or thought on it, and/or on the topic of knowing and learning, (either by commenting below, or to me directly at [email protected]), I’m offering three copies of my book Social Sensemaking to the three thoughts offered that I enjoy the most.

To spark some thoughts, here is some feedback from one of my closest and critical friends:

“One thing I don’t like about these statements is that it emphasises only one part of the learning process (or praxis/critical consciousness as Friere termed it). 

We need to identify the issue and try to understand why its important; this is where asking and critical thinking is important. But without action and reflection (leading back to identification) we haven’t created change and the learning process is incomplete.

I know we can’t make logos perfect (they are just a form of model after all) and this one is way better than most of the shit out there and leads to some great conversations, but that is where my thoughts go when I see it.

I wonder what else we are missing and over or de-emphasising when we are creating these logos, phrases and models? Is it even important to know?

Do you have a thought on ‘knowing’ that you’d like to share?

PS: One final note that I’d like to make about the minor change that I have made. I acknowledge that slogans in themselves are the result of being seduced by reductionism. It seems  breaking down all of my thoughts and ideas on the work I do down to one phrase is a classic example of how easily I can be seduced into it, even after writing an article warning of it! Yet I still did it. I guess I will have to continue to ask myself Y…


Social Sensemaking – Book Launch Dates & Venues Confirmed

Social Sensemaking – Book Launch Dates & Venues Confirmed

Human beings have long been fascinated with the question of ‘why we do what we do?’. For some, the desire to understand this becomes a lifelong quest. For me, it was a fascination with this question that lead me to commence a ‘learning adventure’ to better understand people and risk. It is my reflection of this ‘adventure’ that I share in this book. That is, how we make sense of risk through a means that I’ve coined Social Sensemaking©.

I am now pleased to announce that the dates and venues for the launch of Social Sensemaking have been confirmed and are outlined below. If you would like to attend one of the events, simply click on the RSVP link. We would like to confirm numbers for each event as soon as possible so that we can make arrangements for catering.

Dates and venues are:

  • Brisbane Thursday 10th November – The Brisbane launch will coincide with the three day SEEK (Event Investigation) Program that will be facilitated by Dr Rob Long, who will also launch the book. Those attending this event will also get the chance to meet with my long-time friend and supporter Dave Collins. You can RSVP for the Brisbane Launch HERE
  • Sydney Thursday 17th November – The Sydney launch will be held at the Eden Gardens Nursery at Macquarie Park. Good friends and supporter’s Dr Rob Long and Gab Carlton will launch the book in Sydney. You can RSVP for the Sydney Launch HERE
  • Adelaide Tuesday 22nd November – The Adelaide launch will be held during the ‘opening drinks’ of the Annual Conference of the Society of Risk Analysis (SRA) and is open to anyone to attend. The launch will be led by local Adelaide based risk expert Matthew Thorne with Naomi Cogger, BSc(Hons), PhD Senior Lecturer Epidemiology from Massey University in New Zealand, providing a critique of the book.  There will also be an opportunity to meet many Members of the SRA including President-elect Associate Professor Kirrilly Thompson. Attendees will be able to join the SRA during this event. You can RSVP for the Adelaide Launch HERE
  • Newcastle Tuesday 29th November – The Newcastle launch will be held at the office of Lifeline Hunter Central Coast. The book will be launched by the CEO of Lifeline Hunter Central Coast, Gillian Summers and all profits from books sold at this event will be donated to Lifeline Hunter Central Coast. You can RSVP for the Newcastle Launch HERE

Copies of the book will be available for purchase at each of the launches and Rob would be delighted to sign them for you on the night.

If you can’t attend one of the launch events in person but would still like to buy the book, you can do that here – https://dolphyn.com.au/news/books/

We hope to see you at one of the launch events.


Robert Sams

Email:                      [email protected]

Web:                        www.dolphyn.com.au

Book:                        Social Sensemaking – Click HERE to Order

Social Sensemaking Logo