How to avoid a sprained ankle: weak messages create bad situations

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“It’s too fast!” I pushed my hands against the overhanging rock and landed abruptly on the ledge, ankle twisting over my foot with a “scrtch” sound. Oh no, not another sprained ankle; how long before I can climb again? And how am I going to get down? I gingerly put some weight on my right foot but it hurt. My belayer shouted suggestions for how I might get down with a useless right foot, but in the end I did it in the usual way with my left foot stepping very slowly on the rock.

As I lay on the rock at the bottom of the cliff, sea crashing nearby, I wondered what I could have done differently. I’d made an assumption that my belayer would go really slowly, because that’s what had happened on my previous three climbs (with different belayers), and because I assumed everyone knew to belay slowly over overhangs. When I talked this through with Christine (founder of Vertigirls, my climbing club)1, she made the point that communication with your belayer is of paramount importance.

When you’re at the top of a cliff and your belayer is at the bottom where waves are crashing against the rock some feet away, they’re unlikely to hear, “it’s too fast,” as a clear instruction to slow down. In fact, they might hear the word “fast” and believe it’s an instruction to speed up. These situations require few words that get to the point, like, perhaps, “SLOW!” or “SLOW DOWN!” Perhaps it would even be pertinent to have a conversation before the climb to discuss the route: “assuming I make it to the top, can you belay me really slowly over the overhang, please?”

After reflecting on this experience, I completed an exercise from a book2 I’m reading regarding personal process for making conscious change. It asked me several questions and I’ll list them and my answers here:

How did it come to your attention you might try something different?

My communication to my belayer was terrible – unclear – and resulted in an accident.

How did you then choose what to cultivate or change?

It became apparent that my communication needed to be crystal clear in order to get my needs met.

Did you try something new to see what happened? Did you think about it for a while? Did you follow your instincts, your heart, your head?

So many “dids”! I reflected on it immediately after the accident, then talked about it with Christine. I guess I also reflected on it later. The accident caused pain for me and created a burden for my climbing partners (they had to rig up a way to get me up the cliff; I had to borrow a walking stick from someone who would have used it if I hadn’t needed it). It became obvious that with clearer communication that wouldn’t have happened. Back at home, a situation arose where I had a choice to either confront someone in person or avoid that and write an email to them. My default was the latter but, despite feeling uncomfortable, I chose the former. I felt I had to – like it was the right action. I stayed assertive in the conversation despite the other person’s attempts at emotional blackmail. After the conversation I felt a mix of discomfort and assuredness.

Another situation arose a couple of days later and, again, instead of avoiding the situation, I remained in it and stated what I needed clearly. This time the other person responded with thoughtfulness and care, and we shared a powerful, cathartic moment that brought us closer together.

How did you judge whether the new approach suited you?

Feelings. It felt better to be clear, even if my needs didn’t get met. It felt full of integrity. I was really ‘in’ my experience and could express it.

Which parts of your process involved thinking, feeling, processing ideas?

Most of the process was internal – I’d say it was 98% internal and 2% action, although the 2% felt bigger because of the discomfort. There seemed to be an unconscious change of belief somewhere in the process – probably when I realised that if I’d communicated clearly there would have been a better outcome. I think it’s the belief change that powered my ability to stay in the uncomfortable conversations.

Summary

An accident at the cliff face led to a belief change that allowed me to stay in uncomfortable situations and communicate with integrity in a different area of my life. Thinking about the process with the aid of some questions is really useful in identifying links between learning in climbing and applying it to other life situations. What a powerful experience!

What’s your experience of communicating with your climbing partner? Any tips or stories we can learn from?

1Vertigirls is an all female climbing club, based in Brighton, for all women, especially those with additional needs. The Vertigirls website is here.

2Pause for Breath: Bringing the Practices of Mindfulness and Dialogue to Leadership Conversations, Ridings, A., 2018, Live It Publishing, Kindle edition, Loc 348.

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