Chris Strouthopoulos is Founder & CEO of Ascent Empowerment Services where he provides mindset coaching and workshops to help individuals and organizations embrace challenge, overcome limiting beliefs, implement change, and achieve goals. The corporate logo for Ascent empowerment prominently features a mountain, a reference to his ongoing work as a mountain guide leading climbing expeditions around the world.
On the mountain, or in your next business meeting, navigating answers can be the difference between success or failure. The focus of this article is to examine important questions (why, what, how) that the mountain asks of all climbers. Getting the answers right (story, metaphor, theory, concept, procedure, action) is the difference between life and death.
This article is part of the High AQ Interview Series where executives, academics, and thought leaders discuss elevated answers. The following interview is edited for clarity.
High Stakes Answers and Accidents on a Mountain
Dr. G: “One can imagine that climbing a mountain asks questions (why, what, how) that evoke high stake answers (story, metaphor, theory, concept, procedure, action) that a climber must get right or risk death. What is the role of answers in accidents on a mountain?”
Chris Strouthopoulos: “All accidents could be characterized as one of the six AQ answers. Sometimes the accident was a practical piece, a technical error, a procedure and/or action. A friend of mine died at Zion National Park because the rope was rigged incorrectly, a procedural error. The rope got cut and he fell to his death.
Other times, theory or concepts are the cause of accidents. Take an avalanche… people who get killed in an Avalanche resemble a U-shaped curve that plots avalanche accidents and the level of avalanche education. Novice mountain climbers [see point A below] get killed because they don’t understand theory and concepts—they don’t understand the interplay of snow, terrain, and weather. They can’t judge complex hazards that can change minute by minute. Those expert climbers [see point B below] have the education but they have internalized the theory and concepts and are prone to cognitive errors when they over rely on emotion, or emotional decision making.”
Dr. G: “Before we move onto accidents caused by metaphors and stories, it seems to me that procedures and actions are prone to errors when one goes on autopilot. Can you discuss guarding against intuition related to the procedures and actions of climbing?”
Chris Strouthopoulos: “Absolutely. To prevent procedural accidents, go or no-go checklists are increasingly used by avalanche professionals. These checklists are modeled after the airline industry. Additionally, other procedural safeguards feature red, yellow, green lights… as you go through pre-climb, if you tally so many red lights, the climb is a no-go. Or, a combination of yellow lights, and a few red lights triggers the no-go threshold.”
Dr. G: “Returning to story and metaphors, can you explain how one of these is a source of accidents?”
Chris Strouthopoulos: “I was guiding a group of climbers on the Himalayas and stories can lead to success, reaching the summit. Or stories can lead to failure, death, or simply turning around when you could have climbed further. We were going after a 21K peak in the Himalayas, one guy trained for a year, he ran multiple marathons in preparation. He was the fittest person on the expedition, even at 60 years of age. The night before the summit, he started to imagine failure. He confided in me a story of his lack of self-belief and intimidation regarding the climb. And a 3rd of the way up on summit day he froze in his tracks. He was physically capable, and he knew the procedures and actions, but he mentally fell apart. Fear won. Fear is a concept [an answer in AQ terms], that had taken hold as a story in his mind. He told a story to himself of everything that could go wrong. This fear story was not consistent with the facts on the mountain. There were no objective failure threats; it was the best day of the season—no winds, perfect temp, no hazards. Unlike Everest, at this altitude, there is no death zone on the Himalayas. He built a narrative in his head that he was going to fail.
In addition to the failure story toward the summit, an additional story takes hold that often pulls a climber back down the mountain. Climbers create a simple story around how comfortable it would be to have a beer and pizza at a lower altitude. The simple comforts of a comfortable restaurant represent an attractive story that pulls someone back down the mountain. The comfort story beats them. The failure story of climbing up beats them. It is really the collection of stories a climber tells themselves that most determines if they reach their goal- the summit - or not.”
Taking the Mountain to the Business World
Dr. G: “The mountain evokes a heightened experience. Can you explain that for me?”
Chris Strouthopoulos: “The mountain is so visceral, I can look down and see a 5,000 ft drop. The choice and consequences are so immediate, non-negotiable. Either I rope and start up the climb, or I don’t. Either I go for it on summit day, or I don’t. Even though the mountain is complex, it is also a radical simplification of the world, compared to what occurs in a typical business setting. On the mountain, the phone is not ringing, everything is just right to get into a flow experience.”
Dr. G: “As you describe the mountain, it reminds me a lot of experimental design in psychology, the context in an experiment is stripped of non-essential elements, and only the key elements of a context that influence the experiment. In a similar way, mountain climbing evokes positive constraints that allow for these amazing experiences. How do you translate the experience on the mountain to the seemingly more mundane day-to-day in the business world?
Chris Strouthopoulos: “I simulate the heightened context of the mountain, when I consult with my clients off-mountain on Zoom calls. Today I was onboarding a new client and I set up a challenge for him and he responded to this challenge. His response demonstrated his indecisiveness, he was paralyzed and withdrawn. His response to the challenge exercise mirrored how he has responded to divorce 4 years out. In the Zoom call challenge, he had a real experience, a realization of his indecisiveness that he could not have had if he read an article I assigned to him.”
Dr G: “In AQ terms, High AQ practice 5 is Answer in Context, which recognizes that there are key elements of the context that influence any primary answer. In other words, as a coach you revealed the concept of indecisiveness by structuring the context in a way that revealed the indecisiveness. Can you tell me more about how you actively structure context that to create these high-quality experiences with clients?
Chris Strouthopoulos: “When I was doing face-to-face training [prior to COVID-19] I would create challenges for a group where I would give them supplies, such as a blind fold, and clear tasks, with outcomes that were impossible to achieve individually -- success was only possible when they worked together. I designed the context, where they would have a great experience. I was able to approximate a mountain climb where the context is so immediate and pressing, stripped away of distractions that dilute or take away from the potential of a heightened experience. Now when I do Zoom calls [during the COVID-19 pandemic] I will send clients materials in the mail and during the Zoom call we are able to create realistic challenges.
In coaching when context is done properly, it simulates the mountain. The context pushes down upon the climbers, so every answer is heightened. On the mountain, I learned how to dance with fear, talk to myself to go forward, rather than recoil from challenge. Off the mountain, the need to overcome fear is manifested in different ways, in underperforming areas of life… a bad divorce, or not speaking up at a meeting. When coaching is done properly, my clients can reach up and touch the context, which pushes back down upon them to reveal the answers they need to be successful. In this manner the mountain experience is brought to the board room, sales meeting, or anywhere they need to navigate.”
This article suggests at least two High AQ Takeaways.
High AQ Takeaway 1: On the mountain, or in business you are faced with three important questions (why, what, and how) that can be answered with six answers (story, metaphor, theory, concept, procedure, action). The wrong answers on the mountain can mean life or death. In your most important conversations in business, the wrong answers can hold you back from success and thrust you into your biggest failures. Work to get your answers right to reach the summit in your most important business conversations.
High AQ Takeaway 2: High AQ practice 5 is Answer in Context. All six answers are revealed because of a pressing context. On the mountain, the context is salient, and every answer is revealed for being effective -- or not. In everyday life, the phone rings, we are distracted, and the effectiveness of our answers can be lost upon us in a context that is diluted. Chris Strouthopoulos teaches us to “reach up and touch the context” and feel it “pushing back” upon us during our most important conversations. When the context presses upon us, it is an opportunity to discover the answers to close the sale, the answers to get a job, or the answers to persuade the board of a new proposal.
Identifying the pressing context takes effort and skill. Chris does this in his coaching, but we can all look to identify the aspects of the context that press down upon us. For example, in your next team meeting, ask yourself what element(s) in the context are most important? Perhaps, the context will be hiding in plain sight–a recent lost client; or the context is revealed through a shared story that has assumptions that have never been questioned.
The mountain presents a visceral context in which right and wrong answers stand out. As we navigate the business world and have conversations with others, we should seek to bring the context close to us, pressing upon our most important conversations to help us identify the right answers.
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Dr. Brian Glibkowski is the author of Answer Intelligence: Raise your AQ.