Finding the pony

Finding the pony

I’ve just been listening to a child psychologist on national radio talking about optimists and pessimists. It reminded me of a management problem I faced at Cawthron Institute where I took rather a risk in order to communicate successfully.

The problem involved a young Ph.D. student from Japan. He had just discovered that his supervisor back in Japan had done something dishonourable, something which he felt would be to the disadvantage of his New Zealand hosts. He became deeply depressed, stuck in a dilemma which he eventually confided to another Japanese researcher working at Cawthron at the time: Dr Kawamura.  Kawamura-san then spoke with the student’s Cawthron supervisor, who felt he was out of his depth and brought the problem to me.  They were both extremely concerned with the student’s state of mind, even mentioning the ‘s’ word.
I won’t go into the act which precipitated all of this. It was a concern, but nowhere near as serious as he thought.  I felt that relationships were strong enough that we could work through  it.  The immediate need was to communicate to the student that he should not feel shamed and that we would support him. But how to do that? His English language skills were not too flash. I thought hard about that and organised the meeting with the four people involved:  the student, his Cawthron supervisor, Kawamura-san who also could act as an interpreter, and me.

I had decided to use my authority position. After all, I was a close friend of Kosuge-sensei, a very important man. So I sat on one side of my small coffee table with three expectant people lined up on the other.  “I wish to tell you a story and I would like Kawamura-san to translate this so that you understand”. Everyone nodded.  “Once upon a time” I began. Surprise from Kawamura-san and the supervisor.  “Go on, translate that please”. So he did. Then the story continued.

“Once upon a time, there was a man who had twin sons. One of them had been born an optimist, the other a pessimist.  It was Christmas morning and the man heard each of his boys wake early and jump out of bed looking for their present.  He heard cries of sorrow and disappointment from one room, shouts of joy from the other. He sighed, got out of bed, put on his robe and went to the room of the pessimist. Here was his six year old son sitting in the middle of the floor amidst the wreck of a new train set.  “I’ll never get this going, it’s broken” sobbed the child. “I’ll help you” said his father, “but first I’ll check that your brother is okay”.

He opened the room next door to find a great pile of steaming horse manure in one corner, stretching from floor to ceiling. The boy was using his beach bucket and spade to dig away at the pile, singing happily to himself. When he saw his father he jumped up and down.  “This is the best Christmas present ever!” “You like it?” asked his father. “Oh yes!  With such a big pile, there’s got to be a really big pony in here somewhere!”

(Needless to say, this was quite a challenge for the interpreter and took considerable time and repetition.)

A long silence, me sitting facing the student. “So, we must find pony!” I said.

In intake of breath from the student:  “soo desu ka (really?)” “I think so” from me.   I felt like a Buddha sitting there.  Then he gave a small smile and I knew we had got there. Phew!  Eventually we did get it sorted.

A few years later, I had to visit Japan to make a presentation to Kosuge sensei on his birthday. The same student, now doing a post-doc, had been appointed my assistant and minder. It felt very good indeed.

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