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Talking in a safe space

18 October 2013

I WAS talking to a head teacher in the north of England. She had done a remarkable job turning her school around, and you could see how. She used the word "urgent" a great deal; this was a school where things got done.

I remembered a management course I attended as a curate, where we learned of the distinction between "urgent" and "important". "'Urgent' needs to be attended to," the speaker said, "but it isn't why you're here; you're here for the important."

But in this school, "urgent" was a virtue, which explained the next revelation, as the head explained how proud she was of the absentee record among the staff. "It's very low," she said. "They're all ill in the first week of the holidays, which I regard as a triumph."

Why am I sitting in the head's office? I am here on behalf of the Mind Clinic (themindclinic.org), which takes the principles of talk therapy - safe space and insightful listening - into businesses. It is proving popular: whatever the business, the sessions are always overbooked.

Employees leave their work desks to talk about their issues - most of them have never done this before. A school is also a business, and this head teacher is aware of the pressures on her staff.

But, under the surface, she has concerns with the idea of therapy: "Does it demotivate people?" She is worried that if you allow people to speak their story and reflect on it, then they will suddenly lose interest in their job and "go and open a donkey refuge in Venezuela".

I said that the more likely result would be that they would continue to do what they did, but with more awareness, more resilience, an extra layer of intelligence - and more hope.

She was a good woman, open and engaged with our conversation, and, perhaps most impressive of all, not defensive. She was very open about the fact that those who were meant to be providing psychological support for the staff were not; and that the school needed something like this. But would a listened-to soul be less goal-orientated, less driven?

This was a problem, because her parents wanted staff who pushed their children to the limits. Might her parents actually want the "urgent" above the "important" for their offspring?

Exam-centred education is all urgent. But can there be anything else? I raised the question how healthy it was that the staff all got ill in the first week of the holidays. I wondered what that modelled for the children - a guiding principle such as: "Life is getting the job done at whatever the cost to yourself"? Is that healthy?

The head wants to continue the conversation. What a brave and impressive soul she is.

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