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Sink or Swim: How the White Star Line’s Most Famous Ship Can Help You and Your Teams

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

Some years ago, I was chatting with my sister trying to explain how I work with people on their quality of thinking and why I felt it was so important. Sitting at my kitchen table and looking for a simple analogy that would be easy to grasp, I ended up talking her through what would soon become 'Titanic Thinking'

I would like to think that the RMS Titanic doesn’t need an introduction; I haven’t met anyone yet who wasn't familiar with her ill-fated maiden voyage in 1912. The sinking of the Titanic is still classed as one of the worst commercial maritime disasters of all time. It’s one of the most infamous, in part because she was confidently proclaimed to be unsinkable.

One of the reasons for that was the 15 divided walls (bulkheads) in her hull, all of which extended above the waterline, creating 16 watertight compartments that would keep her afloat even if two or all of the first four compartments flooded. When she hit that iceberg a 300-foot gash ripped down the side of her and six of those areas were breached. At that point, sinking was inevitable as the icy North Atlantic seawater spilled from compartment to compartment pulling her down, sending her to the ocean floor.

Over 100 years later at my kitchen table, I explained to my sister that personal resilience and strength of mind are not dissimilar to the ship's structural engineering.  Some individuals can deal with multiple setbacks and manage very full compartments whilst others spill over and start to sink.

Imagine one or two aspects of your work or personal life are making you unhappy. How often do negative thoughts about other things creep in making you dissatisfied with other areas of your life? How many times have you said or heard: "Nothing is going right”? 

This generalised 'all or nothing' thinking creates self-defeating or limiting beliefs and becomes a cycle that is hard to break. It can feel incredibly overwhelming and lead to debilitating stress and anxiety. In 'Titanic Thinking' terms: the water is spilling from one compartment to the next. For some of us, that breach isn't manageable and leaves us sinking.

It's sobering to think that just like the Titanic, it’s all happening below the surface, out of sight where no-one can see what’s going on. 

So, can we do anything to identify if we or someone we care about is close to flooding?

  1. Take a plain piece of paper and draw 16 compartments. (It’s okay if there is more or less than 16). Label each section with different areas of your life; issues you are struggling with and also areas that are going well. Take each compartment in turn and think about how you are feeling, how flooded is the compartment?

  2. Take a pen or pencil and mark where the flood line would be. Fill the area. Are emotions high and about to spill over or are they low, manageable and near the bottom?

The exercise has two benefits. Firstly, as soon as we start asking ourselves questions, we engage our neocortex; the logical part of our brain. This action slows our lightning-fast emotional hub down helping us to regain control, manage and regulate our feelings. It's a good step toward breaking the cycle of negative thinking as we are factually assessing multiple areas rather than the sum of all parts. This, in turn, will aid people in gaining perspective leaving them feeling less overwhelmed. Secondly, the visual illustration will give a clearer understanding of what needs to be addressed to strengthen our 'bulkheads’ enabling us to attach specific actions and outcomes to each area.

I use it as a core part of my Coaching Toolkit creating a working plan that individuals can use to identify, understand and analyse their thoughts around what’s going on in their lives and/or what they’re struggling with inside the workplace. Managers can use it to support with empathy and understanding.

Critically, it also serves as affirmation that positive things ARE happening too, ensuring that the good stuff doesn’t get lost amongst negative cognitive distortions.

We all have mental health. Even the strongest minded people are not strong all the time. Regardless of what image people portray and how ‘together’ they are perceived, we never know what’s going on below the waterline. 'Titanic Thinking' should never be used in place of seeking or recommending medical advice however I do hope it will help facilitate conversations in the workplace, creating awareness and giving people a go-to self-help tool that will help them regulate and improve their thinking.

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