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Softening the Blow: Part 1

Published under Research delivery
Written by Josh Brinkers

At the end of November last year I found myself at-odds with the law. My adventure into crime started because I had to take my cat to the vet for a routine check-up. That sounds pretty straightforward, but the cat in question was my seven-kilo tabby Fat Walter.

Let me make this clear from the beginning: Fat Walter’s a weapon. A semi-feral force of nature. He’s a striped ball of muscle, claws and rage, and being confined to his cat carrier (well, dog carrier - he’s freakishly big) is bottom on his personal list of Favourite Things to Do.

In short, taking Fat Walter to the vet is a high-risk venture, and I always try to make the process as fast as possible. However, once I’d wrestled him into his carrier and cleaned up my more serious injuries from doing so, I found that my car’s windows were iced-over from the cold. I quickly got to work scraping and de-misting, but it wasn’t long before I was running out of time and Fat Walter was running out of patience.

So, with the top third of my windscreen yet to de-mist, I started driving to the vet. I know it was reckless, but I had no choice. Dealing with Fat Walter is equivalent to dealing with a scaled-down and perpetually-irritated tiger, and he looked like he was on the verge of going Incredible Hulk on me.

Within about 60 seconds I’d been pulled over (serves me right for living next to a police station) and was explaining to a policeman that I was late for a vet’s appointment and a bit scared of my cat. He was having none of it, said I shouldn’t be driving with my windscreen still fogged up, and wrote me up. A couple of months later I found myself on a driver’s awareness course.

I’ve never been on a driver’s awareness course before, and it was absolutely nothing like I’d anticipated. I was thinking I’d be forced to watch at least an hours’ worth of dramatisations featuring children getting hit down by red-light-running sociopaths, followed by a stern caning and militant chanting of the Highway Code. Something like the aversion therapy scene from A Clockwork Orange, just set in a rented hotel conference room.

However, what I got was much softer - even thoughtful. The course encouraged us to explore the feelings and emotions that lead us to make the decisions that resulted in us being there. To start we were given photographs of someone doing something illegal while driving (running a red, using a mobile etc), and asked to come up with storylines that explained why they were doing what they were doing. Mine was of a guy overtaking a line of cars on a blind corner – I suggested his wife was in labour in the back, so he was rushing her to hospital and reckoned the time saved was worth the increased risk.

From there we were asked to boil the feelings our story’s driver must have been experiencing down into a single emotion: the driving force in their decision to break the law. In my pregnancy storyline it was fear (of not getting to the hospital in time). We then applied the same process to our own real-life reasons for being on the course, and I realised my personal driving emotion was also fear (of my cat).

The thinking behind doing this was that once we knew what emotions drove us to make illegal decisions we could control them and not make the same mistakes again. So, why am I telling you all this? Well, because it’s made me consider that messages are affected as much by their delivery as by their content.  This naturally led me to think about the job I do and how I deliver potentially 'bad news' to clients.  

Read Part 2 of 'Softening the Blow' for the next instalment.