Positive Trauma in Learning

HR Consulting, Employment Advice, Business Training, The People Effect

Written by:
Steve Punter


Memory is a fascinating thing. I have often wondered what it is that makes one event stick out from others, like a lone tall pine tree towering over miles and miles of native bush and scrub. As trainers, we are engaged in (what seems like) an eternal battle with blandness, with forgetting, with ‘same old same old’, attempting to make whatever it is we are teaching appear bold on an otherwise drab background, so that it will be ‘remembered’.

In a darkened theatre, in 1967, right at the back, sits a 14-year old boy, wagging school or maybe it was a Saturday, either way he sits spellbound for an hour and a half and watches the beautiful Anouk Aimee in ‘A Man and a Woman’; not exactly a thrilling title but then maybe this 14-year old had read something into the title that unfortunately didn’t exist. Perhaps it was something to do with trying to understand the mystery of sex and gender difference, as all 14-year old boys do, continuing into their 80’s with no clear answer…

At some point in the movie, the theme song occurs, with the two lovers walking along a beach somewhere in France, the whole coloured in a single blue colour but with variations of contrast – like the old sepia photos, only in this case, in varying shades of blue. The music is a soft Samba, the dialogue is ‘en francais’ and thus more or less unintelligible, but that is not important. The dialogue is not necessary. The colour, the beach, the music, and the dulcet, haunting, lilting female vocals – even the vocals are sung notes, not words. Put all that together and for that 14-year old, in that context, and at that moment, with hormones and glands going in all directions, it was sheer magic.

Sitting here at my keyboard more than forty years later, having finished two Employment Agreements, an Independent Contractor Attestation, and one Company Policy document, that song came back to haunt me. Da…, da…, da…, dadadadada dadadadada, dah dah dah dadadadada dadadadada… I guess you had to be there. Anyway, what made that come up out of nowhere? For the purposes of this story, that’s really not as important as the fact that it did. In technicolour blue, as if it was yesterday. Either something in the story line, or the sound of the singers, or the visual effects – who knows exactly what did it, but that scene is indelibly etched on my mind. I can’t remember anything else about that movie. Just the beach, the girl, the colour, the tune, and the singing. Perhaps it was something to do with the emotional upheavals of youth, and/or maybe I was in a particularly melancholy frame of mind.

So I’m wondering, as I often have, about the link between trauma and memory. Trauma is a word with two sides – a car crash being negatively traumatic while a ride on the Tower of Terror (which I might point out – you pay for) is positively traumatic, in the same way as sky-diving and bungy-jumping, all three attracting huge numbers of willing participants. Not this boy…. I like my trauma funny, not scary. Watching Rick Mayall having nose hair removed by his friend wielding a pair of pliers in ‘Bottom Gas’ reduced me to hysterical tears and made my stomach ache for hours afterwards. You enjoy your Bungy.

So, as I’ve ‘matured’ over the years, I’ve spent more and more time thinking ‘how do I put something different into this training workshop – how do I introduce positive trauma’. ‘Experiential Learning’ appeared to hold one of the keys and maybe still does but I’m not at all sure how abseiling down a cliff face for the first time in your life, while certainly traumatic, relates to dealing with Conflict in the Workplace. It’s all in the transfer, remember. Humour is, of course, an equally two-edged sword and you have to be a little careful, since an offended learner is no longer a learner. Write down all the jokes you can remember, dig out clause 21 of the Human Rights Act, then go through the jokes with a red pen, scratching out anything discriminatory. Oh… None left eh? Bugger….

Nevertheless, it is possible to have humour without it being at someone’s expense. Poking fun at yourself is legal obviously, and fairly safe. But what else can you use? Sadness is out (let’s all have a good cry over time management skills – can’t see that working) and rolling a joint is definitely not a starter, except on Great Barrier Island, a venue I must definitely check out.

Chartering aircraft is frowned on these days although I bet one group of WINZ public servants still remember what they did (good on you Christine Rankin, while those of us in management studies understood you perfectly, unfortunately the Neanderthals in power politics weren’t quite ready for you), and I still remember an impromptu meeting I had on an otherwise empty Air New Zealand Friendship where we knocked all the seats flat to get a better view and the Pilot obligingly flew around Mt Ruapehu twice while we six had our meeting. Awesome.

Years ago, at the Chateau on the Remarkables, while closed for the season, the Hyatt Hotel staff had gone up in the early dawn, opened the place and cooked breakfast. Some 30 or so managers – all women, and of whom half reported to me – were told to board a bus outside the Hotel in Queenstown, for a ride to ‘a secret location’. My boss had arranged it – even I didn’t know what was going to happen. So I went with them, and the busses stopped half way up and put chains on to deal with the thickly falling snow. At the top, we got out, went from freezing to warm, and sat down to a huge breakfast and roaring log fires. No-one (including me) noticed the busses disappearing. Sometime later we were all standing outside, on a first-floor deck, watching a couple of snow-ploughs going back and forth, keeping an area the size of a football pitch clear. I started wondering why… then it was noticed that the busses had gone… then, in the distance, a sound that any M.A.S.H. fan would recognise. The steady ‘thwock-thwock-thwock’ of helicopters, six or seven of them, appearing out of the snow, settling in front of us. What an awesome sight and sound, I can still see them now, over 20 years later. And that’s how we got off the mountain. My first chopper flight, and what a place to do your first… through the mountains, down to the Shotover River, landing in a squadron, onto the jet-boats, and let’s play freeze your eyeballs while scaring the hell out of you. Then onto busses (the same ones) and off to Arrowtown for lunch, to slowly let the nerves relax in an olde world environment.

What did we learn? We learned about how it feels to be rewarded, we learned how valued we were, and we learned how well our hard work was appreciated. Do I remember the lesson? As if it were yesterday…

So, there’s our challenge. Without helicopters, jet-boats and squidzillions of dollars, how do we make learning ‘positively traumatic’?

Carpe Diem


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