Playing With Fire

This post is all about how to handle stressful or difficult situations. It has been triggered by a recent conversation with a senior executive in a global organisation. He asked me for some tips on how to handle colleagues who appeared to be indifferent to his ideas.

What he found particularly infuriating were people who repeatedly tapped their pens or flicked through their papers when he was making a presentation. This behavior threw him so much off his stride that he found it difficult to even think straight.

I’d like to share my answer with you because it actually applies to any situation that you find stressful or annoying. But first, here’s an analogy.

We all know that fire is a powerful force. It can bring huge benefits: it cooks our food, heats our homes and powers our transport. But fire can also be tremendously destructive, even life-threatening – think here of forest fires, man-made explosions and volcanic eruptions.

Now, imagine a box of matches. When struck, each match becomes a tiny fire. If it is fed with fuel, such as petrol, it will soon turn into a major blaze. If instead it is doused with water, the water would put the match out although it’s likely to leave a soggy mess.

Whenever a thought enters your mind, it is like a match. You can give it the fuel of your attention and it will soon grow into something much bigger. Alternatively, you could pour water on it by trying to suppress it. The question is: which option is the best choice?

The answer can be seen by going back to the senior executive. It became clear from our conversation that when he saw colleagues shuffling papers or tapping pens, the thought that arose in his mind was ‘my work does not matter – it’s not important’. The trouble started when he gave this thought most of his attention, just like adding petrol to a match. The resulting inferno in his mind burned up all his concentration and motivation – no wonder he found it hard to continue his presentation!

Suppose he had tried water instead? Then his attention would have been diverted away from his presentation by the mental effort of trying to suppress the thought. And just as any firefighter will tell you, water can cause much damage all on its own.

Fortunately there is a third option. We know that when a match is struck, it only has limited life on its own. Its energy is soon exhausted because, when the matchstick is burned through, it will automatically extinguish itself. A thought is exactly the same. After it enters your mind, if it is given neither the fuel of attention nor the water of suppression, it will soon fade away.

So my suggestion to the executive was to notice when he started to feel negative because a negative feeling is the signal that an unhelpful thought has been ‘struck’ (in his case it was the thought that ‘my work does not matter’). The critical point is not to pour on petrol by giving it serious attention; let it fade away like a single match with no fuel.

I know this works because I have done this in many different situations. By not fuelling the thought behind the negative feeling, the thought fades away and is automatically replaced with fresh thinking.

The good news is that when you begin to feel negative about a situation, you can choose how to respond to your own thinking – you can add petrol, pour on water or do nothing. Don’t just take my word for it – try it out over the next few days. You may even like to share your experience with other readers with a comment below.

Enjoy the experiment!


Playing With Fire — 4 Comments

  1. Trevor I love this, it really illustrates the point well. It reminds me of a state of ‘mindfulness’ in which we are with our thoughts, accepting what is, not trying to change anything. Very inspiring, thank you.

    • Thanks for the comment Andy. Perhaps the Universe has a sense of humour – when we don’t get bogged down by trying to change our thinking, our thinking changes anyway! There is always a fresh thought ready to flow in when we let it.