Flying tankers and a rush for answers: a lesson from Notre-Dame

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures as he walks on South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., before his departure to the Customs and Border Protection National Targeting Center, February 2, 2018.(Photo: Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

Like many I was shocked to see the images of Notre-Dame in flames earlier this week. Quickly, my social media timelines were filled with friends and family sharing pictures and memories of their time in this beautiful place of worship.

I always find the response to these type of events fascinating. In days gone by, the only thoughts given or prayers publicly offered would have been from world leaders releasing statements or taking over TV or radio schedules to share their condolences. Even they now turn to the quick and short opportunity of Twitter.

British Prime Minister Theresa May Tweeted: "My thoughts are with the people of France tonight and with the emergency services who are fighting the terrible blaze at Notre-Dame cathedral."

The Australian leader Scott Morrison wrote: "I fondly remember standing outside Notre Dame with Jen almost 30 years ago. So sad to see this beautiful cathedral in flames this morning. Our thoughts are with the people of France and emergency services who are fighting this fire. They will rebuild as Parisians always do."

Former US President Barack Obama offered: "Notre Dame is one of the world's great treasures, and we're thinking of the people of France in your time of grief. It's in our nature to mourn when we see history lost – but it's also in our nature to rebuild for tomorrow, as strong as we can."

Canadian Primer Minister Justin Trudeau Tweeted (in both English and French): "Absolutely heartbreaking to see the Notre-Dame Cathedral in flames. Canadians are thinking of our friends in France as you fight this devastating fire."

The Archbishop of Canterbury sent this from his official account on behalf of the Anglican Church: "Tonight we pray for the firefighters tackling the tragic Notre Dame fire – and for everyone in France and beyond who watches and weeps for this beautiful, sacred place where millions have met with Jesus Christ. Nous sommes avec vous."

It's quite a skill to be able to convey so eloquently in just 280 characters how you or your nation or your denomination responds to an event of this scale. I imagine the list of proof-readers is a lot longer than the message itself. But amongst the prayers and memories, affirmation and solidarity, one world leader took a different approach:

"So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!"

Yes, President Trump took the opportunity to offer some firefighting advice to the French both in terms of machinery and urgency. His suggestions were both unhelpful (flying water tankers might not only have caused more structural damage to the cathedral but also to anyone in the vicinity) and unnecessary (reports would tend to suggest they were acting incredibly quickly already, even if the fires location took some time to discover).

It would be easy to be cynical about this (my favourite response came from @SeriousCharly who Tweeted "Can you please teach us how to put a fire out ? We the French have no clue, we're currently blowing on it but it doesn't work. Please help us o mighty world ruler.") but what President Trump did here was something I've often been incredibly guilty of. You see, like the 45th President of The United States of America, I sometimes find myself facing someone's situation or confronted with another's problem and before I can help it, I've blurted out some unsolicited, unnecessary advice.

Problems at work - let me tell you what I know.

Problems in your family - let me tell you what I would do.

Problems with your kids school - let me tell you what I would write...better yet, let me write it.

It's never done with any bad intention, I'm not trying to make things worse, but my instinct has often been to rush to "help" before I've stopped to listen. To offer up my "fix" before the other person has even had the chance to finish.

Over the past few years I've become more aware of this trait. And while it comes from a very real and genuine desire to help, I'm pretty sure there's an unhelpful dose of ego in there that can lead me to believe that I have the answer.

This realisation has led me to reach out and apologise to some of those I now realise I didn't support in the right way in the past. And whilst I still find myself jumping in from time to time with a three-point plan or a "strategic solution", I try these days to offer less and listen more.

It's funny how when something is pointed out in yourself you start to notice it more in other people, maybe that's why President Trump's response nudged me like it did. But I don't think I'm alone. So, if like me and Mr President (a pairing of similarity that makes me more than a little uncomfortable), you find yourself offering advice no-one asked for and solutions no-one ordered, I've found two simple things that have helped me shift my mindset and slowed down my advice-reflex.

**In an attempt to escape the irony police I should also say, if you're not like this, or even if you are and you have no interest in what I've learnt, feel free to stop reading...I wouldn't want to be offering advice you didn't want or need.**

SILENCE OVER SPEAKING: One of the hardest things for me was learning to stop talking. I now actively tell myself that in situations like this, I'm not going to talk until I'm asked a direct question. That might seem extreme but it takes the pressure off my brain to be thinking of what to say when I should be listening and it means I'm actually listening without feeling any pressure to have "something to say".

QUESTIONS OVER ANSWERS: This is totally obvious to anyone who does this naturally but I had never considered asking the question "why did you want to share this with me?"

It immediately makes things clearer.

If the other person says "I just needed to unload" then I know that my job is simply to listen and be present. If they say "I wondered if you might know anyone who can help", I know that they're not expecting me to have the answers, but would like some help to find someone who might.

Whatever the answer, it means whatever comes next isn't being led by my own agenda or need to fix. On that, if the answer is "I wanted to get some advice from you", that doesn't give me permission to launch straight in. I've found that more questions are always the way forward. Asking questions unlocks other people's answers and stop mine becoming the focus or goal. Questions like:

"How would you respond to someone asking you for advice in this?"

"What do you want the ending to look like?"

"What would be the worst outcome for you?"

As the fire subsides and the rebuilding begins, much help, advice, money and support will be needed. Already financial benefactors are making themselves known, and experts from across the globe are offering their services to restore Our Lady of Paris.

Funnily enough, I won't be turning up with my tool set or writing to the billionaires suggesting other ways they could spend their own money...it feels like in this situation, as I strive to do so more in others, I know exactly what is and isn't needed of me.

Matt White is a Northern Irish TV producer living in Essex and working in London. Follow him on Twitter @mattgwhite