We all have a strong drive towards fixing things when they don’t look the way we think they should. If a window is broken, tension in our system causes us to find a solution to fix it. The same can be said for when a painting hangs crooked on a wall – we instinctively want to straighten it. This is called the Cognitive Dissonance principle. When something breaks, we want to fix it…and it’s normal that we do. However, in my attempts to fix things at home, I often damage the tools I have by not using them correctly-or even leave the original item I’m trying to mend irreparable! I normally cut my losses after that and buy a new one or dig deep and get the professionals to do the fixing. But when it comes to people and communities, the same trial and error principles do not apply. In his book ‘When Helping Hurts’, Steve Corbett makes a compelling argument: if the diagnosis of the problem is wrong, our fixing might cause more harm than good. (If you haven’t already, stop reading and watch this )
Thus, since LifeXchange is all about the wholeness of people, we take this argument very seriously and diligently back our intervention approach with comprehensive research. We don’t pursue mainstream ‘deficit-based’ approaches that focus on external negative factors like drugs, unemployment and crime. These approaches aim to eliminate or fix the wrongs. LifeXchange, on the other hand, has a ‘strength-based’ approach, where the drive is to strengthen people internally so that they are protected from these negative influences. Research holds that not only does the ‘strength-based’ approach give people dignity, it also allows for a sustainably transformative effect.
I personally made this switch eight years ago after having been in an NPO with an aggressive ‘deficit-based’ intervention approach. I wanted to put this strength-based slant to the test and it looked simple enough on paper: build relationship with a person, stay connected, stick around when things look messy and resilience will simply flower within them, making them stronger people.
Easy on paper, but incredibly difficult in real life. The temptation to jump in and fix their problems can be so overwhelming! However, I reaped the benefits of this approach with my mentee. For about 2 years I never told him to go to rehab for his TIK addiction, never told him to leave his gang and never told him to get a job. I just kept on connecting with him even when it felt impossible. Of his own accord he stopped using drugs, he left his gang and he found a job. Even though he lives in the same community, surround by drug dealers, gangsters and poverty, he’s developed the inner strength to resist these influences. His peers stand in awe of this change and calls him ‘courageous’!
Eight years later and we’re still connecting. The other day I asked him if there are still many shootings in his area. He mentioned that there was recently one at a party and that a friend of his were involved. Before I could even ask where he was when this incident happened, he said, “that’s why I don’t hang out with those guys anymore”. After he obtained his driver’s licence and I asked him to take the wheel one morning, he replied, “no I had a few drinks last night, maybe not wise to drive.” How could this same person now be so mature about life? I stand astounded about what happens when we take our eyes off the ‘problems’ around us and stop this fixing mentality. We need to develop a being mentality. Let’s not focus on fixing the mess in the lives of other people, but just be in the mess with them – the results will amaze you.
by Cobus Oosthuizen