The End of Cautiousness

“Drive cautiously”… this winter it will again be a frequently heard message in traffic information, unless if it were up to me. Don’t we have to take into account circumstances like iciness anymore when we’re on the road? Is this an invitation to recklessly do whatever we want? No, it isn’t.

It’s all about the message that is given with ‘cautiously’, and to be more precise: it’s about the mindset underneath ‘cautious’. When we used to take off for school on our bikes, the last words we heard when we left were: “Be nice, learn well ánd be cautious!”. Being a teen-ager before heading for the riding stables: “Be cautious!”. Every time we stepped into the car: “Drive cautiously!”.

I never reflected upon it, it belonged to a range of rituals of our very motherly mother. What I probably heard most in these messages was the underlying love that created these rituals. Until working with horses made me aware of the actual message underneath ‘cautious’. I’m never cautious anymore. And I advise everyone not to be it either.

It’s about what the message ‘cautious’ puts attention on. In the ritual messages mentioned above, ‘cautiously’ meant ‘Make sure nothing bad will happen to you’: make sure you don’t have an accident, make sure you won’t fall, make sure you won’t get bitten nor kicked. First of all, ‘be cautious’ invites to avoid something, out of fear, which turns it into anything but a solution focused message. What exactly do you have to do to avoid an accident? To avoid falling? To avoid getting bitten or kicked? Next to that, nature doesn’t understand ‘not’: if you don’t want something, you actually put much attention to it (Don’t think about a rabbit… What is the first thing that pops up in your mind?). And last but not least: fear puts noise on reality out of assumptions and interpretations. The message “Be cautious!” I heard when I took off to the riding stables, originated out of fear that horses bite, kick and bolt whenever they are frightened. The more I got caught up in horses’ natural behaviour, the more those assumptions were refuted. Before a horse actually bites or kicks, it will give first subtle and then clear signals, unless there’s trauma in the behaviour. And bolting? Horses take good care of their energy. Being flight animals, they can’t afford to waste energy. Horses do what is needed, when it’s needed, in the volume that is needed. A horse in balance will check whether fleeing is necessary. If it is: run! If not: stay.

Looking at nature I can’t find any examples of ‘cautious’: a monkey doesn’t jump through a tree cautiously. That would mean that he would direct his attention to avoiding those branches that aren’t strong enough, or that are too far apart from each other. In nature I also don’t find many examples of reckless behaviour, being the opposite of cautious. After all, “Whatever’ is not a mindset that helps to survive in nature. Animals’ natural state of being is alertness: their radar is constantly turned on, their attention 360°. Not out of ‘making sure nothing bad will happen’, but out of ‘paying attention to be able to do what is needed’. This is not caution, nor recklessness: this is thoroughness. Thoroughness is a mindset that really makes a difference. It starts from observation instead of from fear, it makes you look at opportunities and invites to undertake constructive action. A monkey jumping through a tree looks for branches that are strong enough and estimates what distances he can cover. A monkey jumping through a tree will do that thoroughly.

Not only is “Be cautious” a message that – however well-meant – is given out of fear, it also invites towards fear, towards directing attention to potential danger. Is there a thorough alternative? Yes, there is. The message “Keep it safe”, for example. “Drive safely” directs attention to what to do instead of to what to avoid. If it were up to me, from now on “Drive safely” will be the message that is to be given in traffic reports. If it were up to me, from now on everyone will act thoroughly instead of recklessly or cautiously, also in communication.

After all, also in communication we are too often reckless or cautious, causing messages to become respectively aggressive or invisible. Only thorough communication leads to unencumbered assertiveness. An example of cautious communication is “It would be nice if you might try it”. The actual message is wrapped up a lot, possibly out of insecurity or to avoid snubbing the other. The reason actually doesn’t matter, the result is that the real message is not clear: what exactly does the one who gives this message want? A recklessly given message could be: “Just do this”. This is a message which is thrown to the other rather than communicated. Especially through using ‘just’: the one who gives this message apparently assumes that the other of course has the same perspective as he has. What could be a thorough version of this message? “This mailing has to be sent today before 4pm, my question to you is to do this. What do you need in order to get this done?”. Fact, expectation, check: these are some basic ingredients of thorough communication. Aggressive and cautious communication are reactive and I-oriented, thorough communication is unencumbered and leads towards genuine inter-action.

“Be cautious”… My mother is the only one who still can say this to me, out of nostalgia for the loving rituals. Even she doesn’t do this anymore, though. “Drive safely” is what she tells me with a kiss on my forehead every time I get back into the car. It is a new ritual, as loving as the old one, and with a much more constructive message.

Next step: the traffic reports… To be continued!