Thought Barriers

Bike leaning against bridge

There was a young lady crying on the platform the other day. I noticed her from at least 20 metres away. I had that long to decide whether approaching her was going to help her or make her feel worse.

I walked slowly towards her, thinking what I should do. Then I stood next to her, pretending to politely not notice. Though she knew, I knew she was crying. Still, I chose not to do anything. “Perhaps on the tram…” I thought to myself.

The tram came, we all walked on slowly and she happened to sit down in front of me, I was standing. There was an older woman next to her, who did the same thing. Noticed she was upset, and said and did nothing.

Now I’m not sure if I was in Melbourne instead of Amsterdam, whether I would have reacted any differently. I have been a bit puzzled by the aloofness of the Dutch, because all I have experienced is that they are the most genuine and kind people.

It has me think about all the barriers we have in our minds that stop us from acting in accordance with our instinct. My instinct was to ask her if she was ok, to offer her my unopened bottle of water, to offer the unassuming ear of a stranger but I didn’t.

There are so many invisible barriers that prevent us from acting like compassionate caring human beings. This happened to me in a normal low stress social situation, imagine what we do when the stakes are high.

How do we interrupt the role fear has in driving our tendency to protect ourselves from embarrassment, or protect our self interest, or deliver blindly on a business outcome (again, to keep our job, or stay in the good books)?

I know this is a big question, this is my contribution towards an answer – it is just one small thing.

Ask the question your intuition says you should.

I have always said that questions are more powerful than answers. And being masterful at asking great questions has you access really great answers. Often, we don’t ask the questions that our mind or our gut is screaming at us to ask. We don’t ask the question for the same reasons why I didn’t approach the young lady on the platform. Thought barriers that prevent us from acting in a natural, curious, compassionate way.

Here are some questions I didn’t ask when I worked in big business, and wished I would have:

How is this decision creating real value for people, beyond making us money?


What are we actually doing here, really?


What outcome are we enabling for those we are ultimately here to help? How is what we are deciding now, helping us achieve that?


Does everyone in this room really feel comfortable with this decision, or are we settling because we think it is too hard to do anything better?


Is this time limit real? Who made up the delivery date and for what meaningful reason?


Are we being clever about how we are delivering this, or are we just doing what we know how to do?


Asking the question your intuition is screaming at you to ask opens up opportunity for an interesting conversation and chips away at your thought barriers. Even if you are shut down by someone threatened by your question, the question is now out there and you’ve drawn attention to an issue important to you. You’ve also acted with integrity, which always feels good.

When your intuition is roaring loud, follow it.

Perhaps what I should have done at the platform is to ask the question my intuition was screaming at me to ask, which was “Can I help with anything?” Most probably the young lady would have said “no thank you” and smiled through her tears, as we all do. But then she would have known that there was someone at the platform willing to help her. And that makes her current reality just that little bit better.