Let me tell you a story....
I was working with a group of managers from Telecom NZ a few years ago, and teaching them how to juggle three balls. The purpose of the session was to draw the new team of people together and break the ice between them. I was also aiming to get them relaxed and focussed on something outside their work so that the social connections they made during the session would build their professional bonds and create a stronger team ethic.
One of the older men in the group of about 12 people was obviously having difficulty with grasping the concept of three-ball juggling, and I could see that he was struggling and becoming more and more frustrated and discouraged.
I helped and supported him as much as I could through the session, but in the end he sat down and stopped taking part. Now this would normally signal to me that I should work closely with him, cajoling, encouraging and gently 'forcing' him into getting back into learning the process. I knew he could do it but I suspected that he was giving up too easily. However, for some reason I didn't zero in on him, and I let him sit things out for a while. As I finished the session with the rest of the team, I went over to have a chat with him and see if I could help.
He was probably in his mid-fifties, conservative in nature, with greying temples and the kind of pleasant, trustworthy face you could happily bank with. He politely thanked me for my efforts in teaching him, and added that he had enjoyed the session. Perfectly normal behaviour for a professional person of his background and education, but then he went on to tell me a story....
"You've got me thinking," he said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. Then after a brief pause he took a big breath and went on. "When I was about six or seven years old, I was at school one day, walking across the playground. Someone shouted out my name and told me to 'catch the ball' which they had just thrown high into the air. I turned, looked up, and saw a tennis ball up high, heading in my direction. I put out my hands to catch it, and when the ball hit my hands, it bounced out of my fingers and hit the ground. The whole school saw this, and they all laughed at me and made fun of me. From that moment on, I have never taken part in any ball sports."
I was amazed at his candid honesty and asked him why he was telling me this. He said "Your session has made me think about that again, and do you know, I reckon that I can do this. I feel that if I stick at this I'll be able to juggle three balls."
This man revealed his soft white underbelly to a total stranger, and the learning experience he had just been through made him feel powerful enough to close a loop that had been dangling in his life for over 40 years. The end result was that this man did learn how to juggle three balls, and discovered that because he had overcome a lifelong difficulty, he could use his learning experience to help him get over any new difficulties that came his way.