Category Archives: Blog

Successful failure 3

Being a Successful Failure

How do we fail successfully?

Not that failure is a worthy goal or anything like that. But there are times when we are glad that some endeavour failed. For example, there may be the job one is shortlisted for only to realise during the process of being interviewed and meeting the potential line manager that you would prefer to quaff down a pint of warm spit rather than work there! I recently went through a day long interview process for a job with three other candidates. In the end when the post was offered to one of the others, the two of us who ‘failed’ high fived each other on our lucky escape. The successful candidate was hardly enthusiastic about the offer and went home ‘to think about it.’ They are probably re-advertising for the position as I write.  I guess that was one kind of ‘successful failure’.

But I have something else in mind.

Once Woody Allen commented on the secret of his success: ‘I just keep showing up’ No doubt many of those occasions on which he showed up would have proved futile on the surface and failed to produce any immediate results. Allen’s comment suggests he was a man who knew how to fail well. That is, he used each opportunity that came his way and continued to ‘show up’ rather than give up. I believe J.K. Rowling’s first book in the Harry Potter series ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (as it is called in the UK) was rejected by nine publishers before the manuscript was accepted. Dr  Seuss (a favourite author of children’s books like ‘The Cat in the Hat’, etc.) has his first manuscript ‘And to think I saw it on Mulberry Street’ rejected by 27 publishers before it was picked up by Vanguard Press. The rest is history, as they say, for both the above authors. I guess they just kept showing up.

Successful failing is about not giving up. But perhaps it is also about what most deeply motivates us. Albert Einstein’s words are noteworthy: ‘I try not to become a man of success but rather a man of value.’ The old cliché about the difference between being and doing holds here. ‘What kind of human being do I want to be?’

Sometimes we are knocked for six by repeated attempts to achieve something – like finding the right job, getting published, or accomplishing some long standing ambition. None of us are strangers to disappointment and even depression at our repeated frustrated attempts at one thing or another, and these will vary in their degree of personal importance. (At the moment I am aware of the 60+ applications I have submitted for work over the past several months only to be shortlisted for 6 or 7 and not  ‘successful’ at any so far. But my day will come!) There are times when the only thing we can do is to keep on keeping on.

Failure is a crucial junction on the road to success. Investment manager Diane Garnick, who taught a course on failure at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, put it succinctly. “We learn more from our failures than we could ever learn from our successes.” Hence John Seely Brown, head of Palo Alter Research Centre (PARC) can comment that “trafficking in unlimited failure” is key to enabling PARC’s employees to invent once-unimaginable technologies.

So keep showing up. Keep on keeping on. Above all aim to be people of value rather than people of success.  Your day will come.

Head in Sand

The Silver Lining in This Cloud of Ecclesiastical Goofiness.

Thomas Hardy provides one of the most poignant scenes in literature in his novel, ‘Jude the Obscure’. Jude and Sue arrive back at their lodgings to discover the bodies of their children hanging in the room. The eldest, nick named ‘Little Father Time’, under the delusion that he was helping to relieve his parents of a heavy burden in their current poverty, has killed his siblings and committed suicide. Amid the devastating sorrow descending on the parents Jude becomes aware of the murmur of voices outside the window. He looks out to discover two clergymen having an abstract debate regarding the precise eastward direction of Jerusalem: theological twaddle amid the debris of life and sorrows.

The metaphor is powerful if perhaps extravagant in the light of the Church of England’s apparent determination, courtesy of General Synod, to make itself utterly irrelevant to life as lived by most people. I am angry because I do love the Church of England. But my feelings pale into insignificance beside those of thousands of clergy denied full acceptance as equals in ministry in the Church.  The vast majority of those who voted supported the idea of women bishops. But thanks to the rules governing these matters, a minority carried the day.  Proclaiming the gospel in a world where most people live without reference to the Church is made more challenging by the very public silliness of the Synod vote. The Church may appear more out of touch than people thought.  And what impression will it give to have Bishops in the House of Lords making decisions related to Equal Opportunities Law.

The silver lining in this cloud of ecclesiastical goofiness is precisely that an overwhelming majority of bishops, clergy and laity voted in favour of women bishops. It seems inevitable that one day the Church of England will be graced with the gifts of women in Episcopal oversight as in other Provinces of the Anglican Church.  Until then it is up to the wider Church – ordained and laity – to make the case for the relevance of the Church of England through the quality of their commitment to the wellbeing of their communities.

It may be that the institution looks remote and rather like imploding on itself in an orgy of its own ‘la-la-landers’, but up and down the country there are thousands of people actively involved in making this world a more humane place through community organisations, campaigns to address issues of poverty, as representatives in local authorities and Parliament, and as volunteers supporting numerous causes, offering care and humbly sharing the good news of God’s love in practical ways, all of whom find spiritual nourishment in that odd, sometimes infuriating creature – the Church of England.

I am angry and sad – on my own account and on behalf of my sister laity and clergy.  But I still love the Church of England and am foolish enough to believe it still has a future.




Peace Amid The Coincidence of Opposites

The 14th century bishop, Nicholas of Cusa, proffered the idea that we might well find truth precisely in the conjunction of opposites: ‘and I have learned that the place wherein Thou art found unveiled is girt round with the coincidence of contradictories, and this is the wall of Paradise wherein Thou dost abide’. (The Vision of God)  For Nicholas of Cusa God is the font of all truth. But we needn’t be religious to appreciate that potentially the meeting of opposites may be productive of genuine insight, deep understanding and help us to get closer to the truth a the matter.  But the key is not the assorted ‘facts’ assembled by one side of the other but the attitude with which we approach one another’s account of reality.

My philosophy professor at Heythrop, Peter Vardy, was fond of saying to his students that, however confident we were in our point of view, there should always be space for the small qualifying voice that says, but I could be wrong’. Behind this comment there was an assumption about the nature of faith: it has less to do with confidence in iron clad certainties and more to do with our capacity to live with questions and uncertainties of life. This attitude toward our different ‘truths’ is as relevant for secular humanists and religious believers alike.

The problem with rock hard certainties from faith and secular camps is that they are seldom as certain they seem. More seriously is the tendencies for iron clad truths to morph into justifications for violence. The violence may not always be physical in nature. It may be expressed in an unwholesome contempt for the human being before us or even regard the person as one underserving of respect. The atheist Richard Dawkins and the religious right share a similar rhetoric. At worse the certainties become a source of actual violence. The long and bloody conflict playing out in Israel is fed by the rock hard certainties of people on both sides of the divide. They have become each other with tragic and devastating results. (Rene Girard would call it ‘bad mimesis’.)

Whether in hotspots of conflict around the globe, here in the UK or amid post election tumult in the USA, we need to commit to commit ourselves to creating spaces for authentic listening. Too often voices are drowned out by the mutual shouting of slogans and abuse and the root issues are seldom thoughtfully explored. News agencies, media pundits, politicians and grassroots people carry a responsibility here. And amid the noise of polarised opinion and inflaming stories we need to, in the words of Jesus, ‘take heed how we hear’. Is it possible to bracket my certainties, connect for a moment on the limits of my own vision and,rather than dismissing the other side as a bunch of  ‘nutters, bigots and half-wits in the pocket of corporate interests’, ask about their fears? Fear is the real ‘mind-killer’ and the font of hate and violence. Or instead of  dismissing the other as ‘God-hating, fetus-aborting liberals’ can we ask about their motivating concerns and values? All of us benefit from nurturing our capacity for compassionate and critical listening. The ‘other’ may prove to be our guide and guru insofar as they help us grow in an understanding of a position different form our own– even if we continue to disagree. At the very least, the climate of debate and discussion can change.  We might discover that reality is a bit more complex than can be cast in terms of either pro-life or pro-choice / liberal or conservative / pro Israeli / pro Palestine alternatives. You might even be surprised by some common ground.  There can be peace amid the coincidence of opposites.

angry voter 2

Before You Drive Your SUV Over Your Spouse…

The post-election rants from voters disappointed with the re-election of President Obama have in turn been amusing and disturbing. One pundit has predicted that there will never again be an election as Obama will stay put in the White House, trash the constitution and rule by executive order for the foreseeable future.  The more religious orientated among the disheartened have regaled us with biblical texts, called for repentance and taken some schadenfreude at the prospect of a consequent apocalypse. One preacher has declared that the president’s victory is a prelude to the reign of Antichrist.

The Heavens have apparently been shaken and God’s ire roused by those who voted for the Democratic ticket. Not a surprise then that there are now petitions circulating in some of the states calling for secession from the Union.

In a not unrelated story, a woman in Arizona ran over and seriously injured her husband with her SUV for failing to vote in the election. Holly Solomon was upset about President Obama’s electoral triumph and accordingly held her husband to account.  She blames Obama for many of her recent hardships. (Though I suspect mental instability and a taste for the odd bit of violence may also play a role here.) It is no coincidence that some of the most aggressive, fear-fuelled polarising rhetoric re: President Obama had found a home in Arizona.  And to be fair, on a wider front, this  generally proceeded from both camps. Just check out the various posts leading up to the election about both candidates on social networking sites like Facebook, etc. Some of the commentary was as comic as it was fictional; but much of it was vicious and hateful.  And that what concerns me.

The polarising language – whether in the form of liberal gloating or conservative hysterics –  underscored by its black and white vision of the world, barely conceals a violence that may prove seductive to fringe characters. For them actual violence may be seen as a redemptive alternative. They may even see themselves as somehow heroic, patriotic and servants of God. (The Taliban are not alone in sipping from that heady cocktail of fear, rage, hatred and religious ideology.) Hilarity at pictures of secessionists holding placards misspelling ‘secede’ as ‘SEECED’ aside, it all points to a kind of excess that I trust is only marginal –however loud -among conservatives and liberals alike. But the problem with this kind of excess is that it takes on a life of its own. The world becomes a distorted place where those who disagree are demonised as enemies of God.

Liberals and conservatives – and how I dislike these pigeon holing terms – will do well to abandon the polarising discourse that in the long term simply feeds a violent mind-set. Let go of the caricatures and, in some cases, deliberate falsehoods we have flung at one another and replace it with sound debate and reflective analysis.I say we all vote for a more responsible public discourse. We will still disagree because we will be starting from different sets of priorities.  But there will be no need to throw a wobbly and ‘secede’ from the national sandbox with our toys because the democratic process has gone in a way that disappoints us

Cats, Contemplatives and Mediators

In some ways my cat Freya possesses attributes that would make her an excellent mediator. There is the calming influence she exudes as she sits next to me on the couch. She listens and has an extraordinary ability to hear things. She will know well in advance that my wife or some other family member is approaching the front door or that someone is about to descend the stairs. She is always at the ready to greet and meet them with a welcoming chirrup.  Okay, perhaps the impression that she is actually ‘listening’ is slightly adrift. I am under no delusion that when I am speaking to her (as one does) that she is actually engaging. I suspect the mantra ‘food source, food source, food source’ more likely goes through her head at such times. In fact, in some ways, she is an appalling listener. ‘Freya, stop doing that!, ‘Freya, leave that alone!’ or ‘Freya, don’t do that inside the house!!’ etc. rarely meet with a positive response.  But, at the very least, her calming influence and attentiveness – if not obedience – do suggest positive examples for mediators or anyone interested in genuine and active listening.

Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, addressed a Synod of Roman Catholic Bishops. He spoke on the theme of contemplation and its importance in shaping the ethos of the inner person and just action in the world. (He cites the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonheoffer’s words written from a Nazi prison cell to the effect that we are called to ‘prayer and righteous action’.  He presents contemplation as something rather different from navel gazing and establishes it as an integral base for transforming action in the world.

While prayer and contemplative practice – or religion per se – may not be every mediator’s cup of tea, there is something to be said for a practice that sustains and develops the mediator or active listener’s skill and quality of presence.  (In fact, a friend of mind wrote his MA thesis on the connection between meditation and mediation a few years ago.) It is the presence’ of the helper, not merely their technical skills, that is key to effective mediation or support at times if crisis.

What is it to be present to someone else? Louise Gold, in her article ‘Influencing Unconscious Influences: The Healing Dimension of Mediation’ describes ‘presence’ in terms of the mediator’s centeredness (inner stillness and grounded quality), a connection with one’s own governing set of values and belief, a connection to the other person’s humanity, and congruency. The latter quality is about integrity and consistency: being what you do and doing what you are.

Whether one comes from a religious or secular perspective, meditative practice is potentially a great enabler for those who deem being fully present to others is important. In my own experience it is vital to my vocation as a priest and my work as a mediator. It is certainly crucial to any relationship we may value in our professional or personal lives. Developing your own personal discipline of meditation is well worth the bother and may prove transformational on all levels.

Now I must go and feed my cat.



The Wisdom of Morpheus

Matrix fans will remember the scene: Neo asks Morpheus why they do not simply unplug everyone from the illusory world of the matrix. (For the one or two folk out there unfamiliar with the Matrix films, the Matrix is a computer-generated reality into which humans have been plugged into by machines, to sustain the illusion of life in what is ultimately a false reality.)

Morpheus replies: ‘You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it.’

We have all met individuals who cling to a perception of reality that flies in the face of the obvious.  This is particularly so when conflicts have reached a certain level of polarisation and people are locked in to a single narrative.  Occasionally, in the process of mediating between two individuals, I have noticed that one person in particular will remain unmoved by any fresh information or possible insight shedding light on the dispute with the other. I recall one instance where some indisputable information was presented by a person clearly indicating there were no grounds for an accusation that had been levelled against them by the other party.  But the other party remained adamant nonetheless that their take on reality was valid. One had a sense that this was one of those people Morpheus is talking about: for whatever reason, they were not ready to be ‘unplugged’ from an illusory reality.

But rather than halt the mediation and dismiss the person as ‘one of the unplugged’, to coin a phrase, the challenge is to get behind or even beyond facts and explore the phenomenon of clinging.  What are the hurts, anxieties and needs behind clinging to a perception that one has been slighted by some action (which in the above case did not even happen!)? The strategy here may be to bracket the facts and unpack the feelings of being dismissed, undervalued, un-liked, or put upon by others.  After all the feelings are real, if not the perceived facts of the case.

Getting away from the specific incident and helping the two people talk about the wider relationship between them in an honest way in which both feel safe to let their guard down and, perhaps, glean a deeper understanding of each other may possibly prepare the ground for both people to unplug themselves from their own private matrices.


‘Jezebel!’ or just Jane next doors?

One of the things you rapidly pick up as a mediator is the degree to which one easily gets hooked into one person’s image of the other. I was reminded of this recently when I visited two individuals who were part of a conflict situation. Up to that point my ‘knowledge’ of them derived from speaking and talking to others involved in the dispute. It was surprisingly unsurprising that the two people concerned were rather different from the picture I had framed. I had been there before. On one occasion two neighbours were in dispute over noise issues. The new flats had been built with insufficient insulation so sound travelled rather freely. On visiting the first neighbour we were regaled with tales of ‘the waitress’ in the flat above coming home long after midnight, loud laughter and loud sex! There unfolded the tale of a brazen hussy coming home nightly with a man in tow and… well, you can guess the rest.  When we finally met this brazen ‘Jezebel’ and rather found ourselves taking to a demur Jane whose story was rather different. The two neighbours did meet and the matter was duly addressed. But i never forgot the stark contrast between the two images.

We do tend to buy into other people’s takes on the other person and, to some extent, their own agendas simply by hearing their side of the story. This may be subtle, especially when listening with a degree of empathy. But this process can be tempered with a degree of self awareness and recognition. When we hear a story and a compelling image of the other person emerges for us, it is important to bracket that image, acknowledging it is there lodged in our imagination. It is also important to have that image at the  ready for a severe editing upon meeting other person. We all carry prejudices. But prejudices become destructive only when they are not submitted for critical evaluation and reality checks.

An insight not only vital for mediators but also for anyone who wants to see beyond appearances and connect with the other person.


Ways4Ward Ltd is now Go!

For some time I have been contemplating setting up a vehicle for continuing to support individuals and groups facing challenging issues around conflict at work, in the community or in their personal lives. We (my wife Rose and I) have now set up ‘Ways4ward Ltd.’  I am currently doing some consultancy for a school in south London, the first under the new company’s  banner.  The blurb regarding our services briefly highlights what we offer:

Benefits of our work:

  • More efficient and clear communication within organisations and between individuals
  • Enhanced interpersonal relationships & team work
  • Higher morale and productivity.
  • Clarity and energy for pursuing individual and organisational goals.


How we can help:


  1. By facilitating group processes to work through conflict issues that impede relationships, communication and morale and supporting individuals in using conflict as a positive energy for change and moving forward.
  1. By building the capacity of individuals and groups for healthy communication, conflict resolution skills and team work through training.
  1. By providing one to one coaching and support for individuals facing challenging situations in personal and work contexts.
  1. By providing structured sessions aimed at helping organisations clarify their vision and aims  and identify the optimal and realistic strategies for realising them.

I am looking forward to putting the 25 years of experience as a consultant / mediator and trainer at the service of third sector, faith and statutory organisations. Thanks to all those with whom I have worked over the years for offering the following endorsements of my work:


‘Conflict and Change was the first mediation scheme in the UK which I helped to establish in 1984. Chris McDermott has been an inspirational member of staff working in the education team and doing sterling work with schools at primary and secondary level. He is one of the leading educational practitioners in the field of mediation..’   Paul Regan,  Vice Chair of Board of Directors at Citizens UK, Chairman at East London Community Land Trust, Trustee at London Catalyst

Chris is generous with his time and talents. He motivated two very diverse churches in Newham, with a wide range of ages, cultures, and education, to develop their vision for their churches. His skills have in both instances released a lot of energy which has enabled rather fragile communities to move forward.” Fr. Pat Mossop, Rector of Parish of the Divine Compassion, Plaistow, London E13

“Chris has many years’ experience as a trainer and facilitator for community and voluntary groups. In fact I first met him when attending one of his trainings about 14 years ago, when I was impressed by his ability to combine subversive humour with deep and genuine learning. His participative approach to training ensures that the experience is always lively and involving, while his extensive understanding of interpersonal communication skills (from anger management to conflict resolution) means that he always has something new and relevant to offer.”  Mike Shallcross, Counsellor and Psychotherapist

“ Chris is a gifted mediator. His professional experience and warm personality support those who are looking for a safe space for mediation to take place. He has the ability to hear what is being said and connect with others on the level of human needs.” Natalie Mahoney, Community Mediator and Development Officer, Conflict and Change Ltd.

 “Chris worked as the team leader for Conflict and Changes school work for a number of years. He was a creative, energetic trainer and empathic supervisor. He wrote many excellent courses and materials for a number of different groups.”   Ruth Musgrave, Peace Worker for MCC in Bangladesh and Coordinator, Conflict & Change 2000-2010

 “Chris carries with him at all times an air of calm and the ability to lift spirits and motivate people, both of which are infectious. He has extensive knowledge and experience in conflict resolution and community development, working with both adults and young people, and is always willing to talk through ideas patiently and share his wisdom. Chris would be a real asset to any team.”  Lucy Hawthorne, Faith Project Assistant at National Union of Students

“Chris is a very skillful facilitator being able to spellbind trainees and engage the team members. Having been both trainee and team member I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him in action and being in action with him. He has an eye for the individual in the group and takes very good care of everybody – trainees as well as team members. Chris is very empathetic and his positive mindset influences everybody around him in a very positive way.” Lisbeth Galtung, Evaluation Consultant at Ineva, Denmark

 “Chris is a totally professional practitioner with the right life principles, excellent experience and empathy, and robust qualifications to plan and deliver high quality outcomes.”   Dan ZamoyskiOwner, Advantage Management & Marketing

 I had the pleasure of co-facilitating several training projects with Chris, and found him to be an excellent and very inspiring trainer. Not only did he have a fun and effective way of teaching conflict resolution and mediation to adults and teenagers but as his colleague, I learned a lot about facilitation and training skills from him. Intellectually curious and full of humour, Chris always sought to incorporate his own learning from philosophy, psychology, spirituality, education, et al, into the conflict resolution training programmes, creating a vivid and highly engaging atmosphere for skills learning.”  Jenny EngströmTrainer, Independent writer/researcher at Engström Unlimited

Maturity in Public Discourse

Maturity in Public Discourse

Yesterday, during a radio debate on Wales, the Tory MP David Davies lost it with a Welsh caller over differences on the importance of Welsh language. He told the woman her views were a ‘mad, chippy, anti-English’ view of the world and that she should go ‘join the BNP (a far right party in the UK) where you belong’.  Last week this same style of debate was role modelled by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, during ‘Prime Minister’s Question Time’ when he referred to the leader of the opposition as ‘a muttering idiot’: thus the level of public discourse and political debate. Nor does it fare any better on the other side of the Atlantic. One anticipates a surfeit of similar engagement as the Presidential contest ensues over the next months with innuendo and jibes aimed at Romney’s Mormonism and corporate interests and further allegations made about Obama’s citizenship.  Nor is this style of ‘debate’ the exclusive domain of politicians.  From Rush Limbaugh’s lambasting of a young woman as ‘a whore’ for taking a different position from his on the question of funding for contraceptives to the round of email circulars and facebook posts demeaning one or the other contenders for the 2012 presidential race, there is a failure to really communicate what is at the core of people’s concerns and a tendency to demonise and polarise differences rather than explore their worth as a resource.

It has been said that ‘violence is the last refuge of the incompetent’. This may also apply to the ‘violent’ character of discourse where the object is not to edify, clarify, abet understanding or otherwise illuminate but to caricature, vilify, protect entrenched positions and pursue special interests regardless of truth.

What we need on both sides of the Atlantic is more conversation rather than debate, at least as the latter is currently practiced. Such a conversation would be one characterised by what Pearce and Littlejohn call a ‘new form of eloquence’. Some years ago in the context of conflict around divisive issues like abortion, the Public Conversations Project modelled an alternative way for polarised groups to engage with each other. ‘Transcendent discourse’ is the name for this kind of engagement, which goes beyond merely stating positions and talking (or shouting) past other the other’s perspective.  ‘Transcendent Discourse’ aims at understanding even when there are immense differences; it promotes the sharing of experience and considered reflection on why people think and believe what they do and what has led them to their particular set of values and priorities. It is grounded in respect.

It would be good to see standards of public debate enhanced by a few new rules of engagement that will enable communication and thinking.  Imagine a debate between political opponents where each one is required in the first instance to say what they value about some of the ideas contained in the other’s platform; where differences are communicated without casting aspersions and grounded in clear thinking; where listening takes place not simply to repudiate the other’s views but to understand them; where politicians and others are free to admit to grey areas in their own positions and can acknowledge shared concerns; and where there is freedom to adapt to what new understanding one discovers through genuine listening without fear of cries of ‘U Turn’ and ‘flip flopping’. (What we least need is politicians and leaders committed to hard fast and unbending agendas.)

Such a sea change in standards of public discourse will require a level of maturity and character in our leaders all to rarely seen.

Hello World

Hello World

As a new inhabitant of ‘blogger land’ I will introduce myself. I am an Anglican priest who has worked in east London as a trainer in non-violent conflict resolution skills and community mediator for nearly 25 years. My own practice as a peace builder draws on different models but is rooted in a spiritual practice which emphasises mindfulness, compassion and love and is nourished by the rich resources of the Christian tradition and the insights of Zen Buddhism. I am originally from Niagara Falls, NY, worked in Zimbabwe and South Africa for many years as a lecturer in theological colleges and have lived in London, UK since 1987. My academic background combines theology, cross cultural research and communication and philosophy. I currently have permission to officiate in the Diocese of Chelmsford.

The framework of compassion and insight drawn from my engagement with Christian and Buddhist spiritual practice provides a lens through which I experience the world and will colour the commentaries offered on this Blog. I am committed to non-violence and view the growing gap between rich and poor and the ever increasing power concentrated in the hands of a wealthy few as bad news, not just for the poor but for everyone – and a recipe for escalating violence in our world. These values and priorities will be the filter through which I share my perspectives on a variety of issues while also contributing in what ever ways I can to the practice and understanding of others.

I look forward over the coming weeks and months to engaging with the ‘blogosphere’ – once I get the hang of it!