Coaching in the Fire Swamp

I saw a great movie a long time ago. It was called “The Princess Bride.”

It had so many great quotes and absurd scenes that I could write an entire blog article about it. There was one thing though, that I am reminded of now when I am talking to people about coaching teams (agile teams or even just teams of good people).

In the movie, people are warned not to go into “The Fire Swamp.” It has 3 great perils in it that you do not want to face – Flame spurts, Lightning sand and R.O.U.S (Rodents of Unusual Size).

As you would expect, our heroes are warned to never go into the swamp, because of all the danger. Yet, inevitably, they wander into the swamp and then must the three perils.

It seems to be a recurring pattern across many good movies – our heroes are aware of a place of terror, they are warned not to go there and then they inevitably travel straight into the one place they had agreed that they should never go.

Maybe its a big leap, but I think that there is a similar “swamp” that teams get themselves stuck in time and time again.

In honor of the movie, I will describe this as the “Fire Swamp.”

The rest of this blog is about looking at whether the fire swamp is real and then how to get out of it if it is. I would prefer to say “how to avoid going there” but it seems that people decide to avoid it and then walk straight in – and I don’t just mean other people go there, I catch myself doing it too.

The Fire Swamp – real or just a bit silly?

The fire swamp of coaching is a place where conversations stop being productive and everyone gets stuck in the bog, trapped by at least one of the 3 perils that they know they should avoid.

It happens when people encounter situations that they are not happy with. For example they are confronted with an unfair change in a deadline, or someone complains about something.

In the open plains of great collaboration this is a simple situation. We just follow these simple steps

  • Acknowledge the bad news
  • Express the fact that we find it disappointing
  • Move forward to the next adventure

But in the Fire Swamp, we instead take on one of roles that pull us down into a swamp and stop us moving forward:

  1. The victim. Rather than saying “I am disappointed” and then discussing next steps, we reflect on how badly it sucks to be the victim here. We start talking about how “this always happens to me” or “this is just not fair – I did the right thing and now this happens.”
  2. The Persecutor. Here we decide not to focus on ourselves. Instead we decide to focus on the evil perpetrator that caused this grievous wrong. We start talking about things like “they always do this” or “what a (sub-optimal example of a person), who do they think they are?”
  3. The rescuer. This one does not appear until it looks like a victim or persecutor is about to appear. Then, rather than letting others resolve their own conflict, we leap in to make sure that nobody suffers. We say things like “That’s OK, I will take that on so you don’t have to” or “We can all get together for a big meeting to discuss this, let me take it off line and put it into an action list so it hangs around unresolved for a while.” This is the one I fall into the most often for some reason – my desire to minimize the distress actually just prolongs it and gives it more energy.

None of these perils seems all that bad and each can be just a passing reaction that lasts a minute. I send a dumb email and then someone points out my mistake – I feel like an idiot. Then I blame the person who was rushing me and distracting me so I sent something off without time to think.

Then hopefully I move to correcting the email and moving on … but then someone else immediately responds to point out that this is not an issue and they walk over to my desk to explain the same thing to me. I have spent 10 minutes of my time dwelling on it and it is over. Now I can get back to chatting or working.

But in fact each time I indulge one of the perils, it consumes energy and I only have a fixed amount of energy each day. This means that if I encounter these things a few times a day, my energy is tapped and I feel down.

So I go home and watch the Princess Bride or something and feel better. Then I am ready for another day.

But the real danger is that the 3 perils attack when we are in a group and we are collectively sucked into a swamp. One person stops giving updates in our stand-up or retros and I decide to start explaining their problems for them. They are now consuming energy to be a victim and I am spending my energy rescuing them, but none of this energy is moving us forward.

Worse, we go to our showcase/team update and have some bad news to present. We all know it is coming and it is not a big issue. But instead of acknowledging we fell short and talking about what to do, someone feels defensive and explains how it is yet another example of “the business” not giving clear instructions again and expecting us to be mind readers. The rest of the meeting turns into a great bitching session (I mean sharing of feelings session) and several people expend a chunk of energy on the topic. Then they get together later in the day to recap the persecution discussion and repeat it. Now we have lost an hour and a chunk of energy across the team – but with nothing to show for it except a potential increase in cortisol across the team, making people fatter and possibly diabetic. That’s not too bad though since it won’t effect our performance during the rest of the week.

Except now that the persecutor is free, it appears again in the next meeting and becomes a habit.

Now the rescuer comes to meetings, only to be worn down and victims start appearing in anticipation of being persecuted by others. So now there are victims of their own expectation of being victims.

OK maybe that sounds a bit dire and over the top. It is not a swamp anyone should enter, so just don’t do it.

The first step in coaching is to draw a triangle

I am not sure if you believe in my mythical fire swamp, but here is a simple experiment you can do.

Go to some meetings (which shouldn’t be hard in most organizations). But rather than participating just take 10 minutes out to reflect and watch the meeting.

If you cannot be quiet for 10 minutes in a single meeting all day, then reflect on that as there is a chance that this could impede your ability to coach ๐Ÿ™‚

Start your 10 minutes of reflection by drawing a triangle on a piece of paper, or if you are cool enough on your ipad. You can put headings on the triangle or leave it blank.

Now that you have you triangle, just watch and listen. Don’t worry about what you should say or whether people are right or wrong about things. Just pay attention to whether people are

  • Expressing the fact (perception) that they are a victim, or sitting there with body language that looks like a dog being told off for stealing food.
  • Complaining about others; or
  • Stepping in to take the burden off others … giving answers for them, explaining their actions or even taking on additional work to stop the other being a victim or to reward the perpetrator.

Mark the triangle with the times that it is happening and see if it happens “not at all,” “a little bit” or “a lot.”

That’s it. Now join in again and talk all over the place. But after the meeting, look at the triangle.

  • Try and see if you can remember who was doing all this naughtiness and then think about how they are wrong and you should change them. But then realise that you are spending your time as either persecutor or rescuer. Probably you shouldn’t do this, but if you do, just ask yourself what is driving that behavior and then move on
  • If you have trust in the team you can tell them about the experiment and have ask them if they would all like to participate. Then you can have some interesting conversations and hopefully get out of the swamp more easily next time.

The second step in coaching is to reflect on yourself

I believe the Fire Swamp is a real thing and I don’t want to go there. Yet for some reason I still walk into the swamp as the rescuer and then get stuck for a while. Sometimes I am also the victim or the persecutor but this is less of a threat to me.

I know that because I tried the second triangle test. I drew the triangle in my notebook and then as I left meetings I reflected on whether I had found myself talking a one of the perils. Based on that I found that I quite often do it when people are stressed and rushed.

So now I have a “habit correction story” that I got from a great book on coaching (“The Mindful Coach).

I have a daily todo list, but I have added a “don’t do list” with this statement on it

  • When (I am in a team meeting and someone seems to be stressed and I think they are uncomfortable)
  • Instead of (jumping in to support them)
  • I will (wait for 5 minutes and then reflect on what happens)

This seems simple and maybe a bit lame but it has worked for me.

The final step is to share with others

Once you are aware of your own potential habit of wandering into the swamp you can share your observations with others.

For example you can just observe:

I noticed that we have spent 10 minutes discussing how the IT team are an issue

Or if you want to go further you can start giving more directive feedback

I noticed that we had a long discussion about how IT are letting us down, but the impact of that is that we have not spoken about what we can do this time around to move forward.

Of course you might also find yourself coaching if people are really stuck in the swamp. You will know that is the case because when people get stuck deep in the swamp, some of them will start “catastrophizing.” If you want to get involved here then you can look at some of my other articles on how I think you can help.

3 comments

    • Thanks Agyani. Itโ€™s easier to get out now when I realise Iโ€™m doing it. So when I am focused and paying attention itโ€™s easier to both keep myself out of the swamp and help others. But I still run on automatic sometimes and then realise what Iโ€™m doing after a while.

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