"You Were Almost Painfully Honest"

Interview with Joanne Gubbay

I met Jo Gubbay when I was in a very dark place, on the Talk For Health training course that was the subject of the previous episode.

Despite seeing me in a bad way – or, in fact, because of that – Jo invited me to speak to hundreds of people at her workplace, one of the most prestigious law firms in the world.

Jo is highly regarded in her field, as a lawyer herself with oodles of experience at the top of learning and development.

But I had little self esteem at the time, and didn’t believe I had much to offer. In this episode, recorded two years later, I ask Jo to describe what happened.

Scroll down for the full transcript.

Full Transcript

Podcast Intro

Jo Gubbay (00:02):
It was very interesting to watch people’s faces – you know, there’s always that moment of thinking, ‘am I going to enjoy this? Am I going to find it interesting?’ I remember you saying that you had had this incredibly painful experience that you were going to talk about, and that you welcomed questions, but that you would reserve the right not to answer questions if you didn’t feel it was appropriate to do so. And I could see people actually sit up and take notice at that point. Because that’s not something you hear very often.

John-Paul Flintoff (00:34):
Hello, you’re listening to an ADEQUATE podcast by me, John-Paul Flintoff. It’s about creative self-expression through writing, drawing and speaking – and it’s adequate because I can’t do perfect. The voice you just heard belonged to Joe Gubbay, a woman I met when I was in a very dark place on the Talk For Health training course that was the subject of the previous episode.

Despite seeing me in such a bad way – or in fact, because of that, Joe invited me to speak to hundreds of people at her workplace, one of the most prestigious law firms in the world, Slaughter and May. Jo is highly regarded in her field, as a lawyer herself, with oodles of experience at the top of learning and development. But I had very little self-esteem at that time and didn’t believe I had anything to offer. In this episode, recorded two years later, I asked Joe to describe what happened.

The next thing you heard was an ‘ooh’ sound, which had nothing to do with Jo. I downloaded it from Freesound.org, the website that I also mentioned in the last episode…

Meeting at Talk For Health

Jo Gubbay (01:46):
The point of it [the Talk for Health course] was to teach a group of lay people some basic therapeutic tools to talk about themselves and their experiences and to listen to others, talking about their experiences.

John-Paul Flintoff (02:05):
And I, and I know because I read it to you from my book that I’ve slightly got it wrong, and I’ve, I’ve put a motive onto that wasn’t there at the time. So, why were you even on that course?

Jo Gubbay (02:20):
I was on the course because my daughter, Rachel, who is an aspiring psychologist, was working with the Talk for Health team at the time. She told me about this group, and these techniques, and the incredible results they were having. And to be honest, I didn’t quite believe that something that sounded as simple could be that high impact. And I thought I would come along and see for myself.

John-Paul Flintoff (02:46):
So it was probably a bit of a professional interest. Could you say how that roughly correlates with what you were doing in work?

Jo’s Role as Head of L&D at Slaughter and May

Jo Gubbay (02:55):
Yes, absolutely. There was a professional interest. I was head of learning and development at Slaughter and May, which is a city law firm, and one of those firms that has put a great deal of investment into supporting the mental health of its people. I was always looking for ways in which we could bring mental health tips and techniques into the organization, so I did have half a mind that I might be able to use it at work at some point.

John-Paul Flintoff (03:28):
Yeah. And as it happens I was recommended to go by my friend, Philippa Perry, who’s a psychotherapist. I know Philippa from other things – she’s not my therapist. She suggested Talk For Health after I had been in psychiatric hospital, because it was a sort of cheap way of getting ongoing support, but you didn’t know that about me. So I wonder if you could, if you can remember your sense of my state at that time. And of course you didn’t have a clue who I was and there were lots of other people in the room. I remember that the crypt was very full.

Importance of Opening Remarks

Jo Gubbay (04:07):
I remember you most because you were the first to stand up when they asked for a volunteer. And I do remember thinking that was incredibly brave in front of a group of strangers to stand up and talk about yourself and you didn’t just talk about yourself. You did, I think, in that first two minutes say that you were currently under psychiatric care. So you were almost painfully honest from the very beginning. And the reason that that was so important was because it, I think it really set the tone for everyone else. So instead of the often facile stuff that you get in these introductory sessions, people followed your lead, and disclosed the true reasons why they had joined that group.

John-Paul Flintoff (04:54):
And you said the other day, when we were talking about this, that you have had that regrettable experience of being a facilitator, when the first person says something that’s not particularly inspiring. Can you describe that again?

Jo Gubbay (05:08):
If somebody says something glib to start off with everybody follows, you know, that sets the tone for the rest of the conversation. And so I think the fact that you were so brave and so authentic in those first couple of minutes, really, you took the lead. Now I know a bit more about you and what had brought you to that point, I realize that you had had the benefit of some therapeutic conversations, which obviously made you a bit more willing to talk about yourself in that way. Whereas I suspect most other people in that room, myself included, would not have been that brave.

John-Paul Flintoff (05:50):
Yeah. It’s a funny thing listening to you because I feel very happy talking to you, and you’ve been a great support to me and so I don’t feel any of that discomfort – but I feel a bit uncomfortable being told this word ‘brave’ because I was kind of desperate, actually. I just wanted more recovery. And I also knew, having done some talks in the past and having done some facilitating in the way that you’ve just described it that if, if I, if I didn’t get up and someone [else] did do something pointless, then I would waste the whole, the whole thing might not work. So I kind of wanted desperately to make it work. And I thought I might be all right to do this. It’s weirdly double, a sort of splitting my mind, because I knew I could talk, but I also thought I was really worthless and had nothing to say. I can’t quite rationalize that. Can you…

Jo Gubbay (06:42):
I get that. And I think that actually one of the things that Talk For Health does so well is set those boundaries up at the very beginning. So of course, what you did was exactly what they encourage people to do. And they did create a safe space. Now I know that’s a bit of a cringe-worthy expression. But I think they did – they were so explicit about the rules of engagement with this group. And that was probably quite empowering.

John-Paul Flintoff (07:11):
It’s it’s such an interesting thing, isn’t it? Why is it cringe-worthy? Cause it’s so, I mean, I get it! It is! It’s really cringe-worthy and you hear people say that sort of thing, and it’s a bit like ‘coachy’ talk. Coaches use coachy talk like they’re on a slightly different planet. And actually it’s just true. If you don’t have a space that’s created for someone to say that sort of thing, then it won’t happen.

It’s Hard to be Honest

Jo Gubbay (07:37):
I think people are not that used to being honest in public spaces with strangers and you know, they feel a bit uncomfortable. So sometimes that can present itself as, as taking the piss, you know, being cynical about the way it’s set up. But that Talk For Health experience really showed me the importance of setting boundaries and being very explicit about enforcing them – which is one of the things I thought that program did so well.

John-Paul Flintoff (08:09):
Can you, can you briefly describe some of the other things that the program called on us to do? What did we do on it?

Jo Gubbay (08:18):
It’s interesting to try and deconstruct. We didn’t do very much, or at least it felt like we didn’t do very much, but I think we covered a great deal of ground. Mostly we took turns talking about something that was important to us. Often something that had troubled us either in the present or in the past and other people listened and reflected back what they had heard.

We also did some other exercises, some of which were easier for some than for others. And I do vividly remember an art exercise, which filled with complete horror. And of course for you was just great [laughs] because you were used to using your art to express yourself. Whereas for me to think visually was a completely different medium and one that I’m – well, still not comfortable with. But that experience showed me that I can do it. You’re trying to create four images of four specific experiences. I felt really, I found that really difficult.

No ‘Hierarchy’ of Suffering

John-Paul Flintoff (09:25):
Yeah, it was difficult. And it seems so simple – you just said it, it is simple, but I remember when you were just saying a second ago about what we were asked to do and they didn’t seem to be all that much and so on and talking about something that’s important to you.

I remember that one of the greatest gifts of their boundary setting and creating a safe space was the insistence that there is no hierarchy of what’s what’s ‘worst’. Someone could come in with what appears to be an absolutely terrible, terrible thing, and someone else is allowed to care very deeply about something that’s not so terrible.

Jo Gubbay (09:58):
Yes. I agree with that.

John-Paul Flintoff (10:02):
One thing that really stuck in my mind and which I do mention in my book is that you asked me to do a talk – well, you didn’t quite do that, but you said something else. Can you remember that moment?

Middle-aged Men and Mental Health

Jo Gubbay (10:10):
I do remember that moment. It was in one of the breaks. We were standing by the coffee machine and I came up to you and I said, I’ve been mesmerized by listening to you talk, I know you’re a journalist cause I’d picked that bit up. And I said, I think you’ve got something very important to say. And I hope that that’s something that you will feel able to share with other people. When you, when you are feeling more up to it because there is not… there are not enough people out there who are willing to share their experiences so that others can learn from them.

John-Paul Flintoff (10:50):
Is it that there – I mean, probably full stop, there aren’t enough people – but is it also, you know, middle-aged men, or something like that?

Jo Gubbay (11:00):
I think when, when we talked a bit further, I think I probably with my professional hat on said to you, I think there’s a niche there, actually. Because middle-aged men are of course the highest suicide risk in our society now. And I certainly hadn’t come across any other middle-aged men who were sharing their stories in the way that I thought that you have the potential to do.

John-Paul Flintoff (11:26):
Do you remember how I responded at the time?

Jo Gubbay (11:30):
I don’t, really! I think you looked a bit bemused, wondering who this woman was, who was coming along trying to get you to talk in public!

John-Paul Flintoff (11:40):
I don’t remember feeling anything other than gratitude and, and also I really wasn’t in a good state at that time. So probably, I’m very sure that I thought that you meant it but that you were deluded because I couldn’t have anything to say. And then, you know, obviously time passed. And I, I think it was quite a few months later that you did actually ask me to come in – or I said I think I might be ready, or something. And I wonder if you could tell me about that talk. Because I came into Slaughter and May you know. And you said they’re ‘a city firm’, but this is a really big, hot-stuff firm – one of the finest – and so everything about going to do a talk at Slaughter and May felt high stakes, even though I knew that I would be all right. What was your best hope for what might happen?

Big Crowd, High Stakes

Jo Gubbay (12:38):
My best hope was what actually did happen, which was a room full of people – and when I say a room full I think there were over 200 people in that room, which is probably unprecedented – listening to, and engaging with not only your story, but the lessons from your story, about seeing signs, noticing changes, asking for help, or offering help at an early stage before things became catastrophic. And those lessons, in a room full of high achieving driven individuals, as they often are in city law firms, I thought was really, really important.

John-Paul Flintoff (13:28):
It felt like a very safe place to do it. And it’s a testament to your work that so many people turned up because nobody knew anything about me. But one thing I think might’ve helped is that you chose this title ‘From High Flyer to Rock Bottom’. Why was that?

Jo Gubbay (13:45):
I chose that because I thought it would resonate with my, with that audience. And indeed it did, because it got the bums on seats. So I will take the credit for getting them into the room. But I think you’ve got to have the credit for what happened once they were in the room.

And let me tell you that there is nothing more scary than being the head of learning and development in a law firm where people charge for their time – nothing more scary than risking wasting their time. And it was quite clear to me from the first 30 seconds that it was going to go well, and it did go well. I think we probably got some of the best feedback we’ve ever had for a talk. It really resonated with people.

John-Paul Flintoff (14:33):
I’m really pleased to hear that. Um, because, happily, you said your best hope was met by what actually did happen, can you give a sense of what you had worried might go wrong?

Jo Gubbay (14:45):
Well, if people haven’t found it interesting and relevant, they, some of them would have voted with their feet and, and left, you know, everybody’s always under time pressure in those moments. But also, you risk discrediting the rest of the program. You know, if you have one bad experience you may not even come into the room for the next one. So it did feel like high stakes for the mental health awareness program more broadly. And for my personal reputation, because I was the one who brought you in, and on that topic you were untried and untested.

John-Paul Flintoff (15:24):
Yeah. Do you remember much about the sequence of events? Because you said you were very quickly assured that it would be okay. Can you remember what it was about how events unfolded that made you feel that way?

Rules of Engagement

Jo Gubbay (15:42):
Yeah. You connected with that audience immediately. You stood in front of them and you started talking to them about rules of engagement. And it was very interesting to watch people’s faces. Because there’s always that moment of thinking, am I going to enjoy this? Am I going to find it interesting?

The things you said obviously connected with people. I do remember you saying that you had had this incredibly painful experience that you were going to talk about and that you really welcomed questions, but that you would reserve the right, not to answer questions if you didn’t feel that it was appropriate to do so. And I could see people actually sit up and take notice at that point. Because that’s not something you hear very often.

But you were doing it all with a very nice, easy, conversational tone. Nobody felt threatened. You weren’t aggressive about it. You were just in a room chatting with a group of people. And you know, I think that’s a real art.

John-Paul Flintoff (16:47):
Thank you. And I showed pictures. I don’t need to ask you to describe that, but these were the pictures that I had drawn in psychiatric hospital. And I talked along to the pictures. Is there anything that you would think needs adding to that, about the fact that there were pictures?

Striking Images

Jo Gubbay (17:06):
I guess it was one of the things that made your talk stand out. You know, often people will illustrate a talk with some sort of visual aid, but I’ve never seen anyone do it with their own art before. And your art is really striking, and some of those images so reinforced some of the experiences that you were talking about. And I think, well, at least for me as a member of the audience, it made me see quite viscerally what you had gone through. So there’s one thing hearing you say ‘I was at rock bottom’ and quite another thing seeing a drawing of you hunched in a chair with your hands over your head and a big black cloud hanging over you. I mean, it was amazingly visual and really powerful.

John-Paul Flintoff (17:55):
Thank you. And the point of my, well, the reason as I explained for asking you to do this chat on, on this podcast is actually also to inform an article I’ve been invited to write for a newspaper or their magazine about how talking helped in my recovery. Can you see how that might be the case?

Jo Gubbay (18:19):
Well, I can really see that you gained in confidence as a storyteller of your own experience, and I guess it gave you some sort of putting words into your mouth really, but I think it gave you a sense of purpose and there is nothing more powerful than helping other people to improve your own mental health. Does that sound right to you?

Effect on the Audience

John-Paul Flintoff (18:51):
It does sound right, because I think there’s, I mean, there are such obvious differences between public speaking and sharing in a therapeutic space. Yes, of course. But actually the similarities are quite profound and enormous, particularly that ‘I am being heard’. And as you said, I think one of the reasons why middle-aged men don’t tend to make it, sometimes, is because they’re scared of telling their truth and how shameful that may be. And, you know, there is clearly a certain risk of shame and indeed actual shame, but you know, one can live with that, ultimately.

Jo Gubbay (19:32):
Yeah. I’m interested in whether you felt validated by having such a sympathetic audience…?

John-Paul Flintoff (19:41):
I really, really did. Yeah. I felt that you had introduced me in a way that made it just right for people to be willing to listen. You know, I could still fail on my own account, but you had created a willing and interested audience and afterwards you know, there were some people who came up and said things along the lines of, ‘Wow that was a really powerful talk’, but more than that, there were one or two people who wanted to have a quiet word with me and who had tears in their eyes, because they had been through something, or were going through something. And that is the greatest validation of all.

Jo Gubbay (20:21):
So you knew you were not alone, and they knew they were not alone.

John-Paul Flintoff (20:25):
Yeah. And they said, Oh, well, I will go and talk to so and so, whether it was you and members of the team internally, or even – and forgive me, but I may have muddled it up with other people in other firms – I can’t do that, but I’m going to try Samaritans first. So that, that really helps.

Jo Gubbay (20:47):
I guess for some people you were holding up a mirror.

John-Paul Flintoff (20:49):
Yeah, I think so. Do you have any questions for me?

Jo Gubbay (20:58):
I’m really interested in how it feels to bare your soul to strangers. I’m not sure I would ever have that capability.

John-Paul Flintoff (21:09):
It’s a strange thing. I know, because of having had the great good fortune to be asked by you to do it, and then subsequently by others, that it’s okay. I will make it. But I did a talk for a law firm the other day, and it was on zoom, and it was a large number of people again, and I can’t see them because I’m looking at my drawings – and I sometimes have this wave of feeling they’ve probably all gone. And I wouldn’t know: the visual feedback of being in a room with people isn’t there. And yet it worked really well. Why am I telling this? Because I’ve done it quite a few times now – and they asked me beforehand, ‘How are you doing? I bet you’re used to doing this…’ And I said, ‘Honestly, I feel a bit like a condemned man walking up the scaffold, but I know I’ll be all right.’ It’s excruciating. But it’s also, I suppose, it’s just a habit of knowing I will be all right. I mean, I will not die! So far, no audience has rushed at me with knives. And I suppose that’s a useful lesson.

Jo Gubbay (22:15):
I can only say that it’s a very important thing that you are doing, and I thank you for it.

Jo Gubbay (22:24):
Thank you, Jo. You absolutely kicked me off on it. So my gratitude towards you is eternal. Thank you. And thanks for doing this interview.

Jo Gubbay (22:36):
That’s a great pleasure.

Podcast Outro

John-Paul Flintoff (22:42):
In the next episode, I’m going to tell you about an opportunity to join me in April on a ‘virtual pilgrimage’ from north west London to Canterbury, without leaving your desk. In which we’ll be swapping stories as we walk, just like the pilgrims in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It’ll be a great opportunity to improve your storytelling skills. And I hope it will, more than that, be good fun. I’ll be putting up details on my website soon. So make sure to pop into flintoff.org and check out the Events page.

Thank you for listening to an ADEQUATE podcast with me, John-Paul Flintoff. If you want to hear more episodes on the theme of self-expression please subscribe. I’m very keen to make this podcast interactive. Send me a comment or a question and I’ll try to build it into an upcoming episode. Bye for now.