“RUOK?” is an Orthogonal Question

Today in Australia is “RUOK? Day”, a “national day of action dedicated to reminding people to ask family, friends and colleagues the question, R U OK?, one thing everyone can do to make a difference to anyone who might be struggling.”

The question introduces a new intention into most workplaces. Workplaces tend to be spaces that most people have an automatic set of assumptions about, and since they use these to relate to an existing set of intentions, changing or expanding the intentions is an unfamiliar challenge. One of those existing intentions will be something like “perform a job function in exchange for financial reward”. “Authentic action-bound concern for my colleagues” brings a new intention into the workplace-as-a-space, and to bring clarity to why this is a challenge I’d like to talk about what I mean by “space”.

Apparently it’s not the “physical space”. “Spaces” are created by stated intentions and declarations and agreements. So, “space” is a context, and what’s more it is a social context — it involves more than one party. Physical spaces provide support for these contexts, and doorways are transition points from one context to another.

That last paragraph holds an enormous number of implications.

One of the implications is that every room that you occupy during your waking day has a context. And that the more you honour that context, the better it can serve the participants of that context. Effective honouring of a context is to give it your attention and your commitment. This is what “holding space” is.

Most people move through doorways with barely a thought about the context they are operating in. Their spaceholding is limited to personal habit or social mimicry. It is not possible to honour a context that you are not conscious of. A test of this might be to ask a fellow worker, “what are we doing here?” and see how long it takes for them to parse what you are referring to. Does this sound like a dangerous thing to do?

It is an example of an “orthogonal question” (orthogonal, meaning to move at right angles to an existing line). It is “orthogonal” if it is a question that would not normally be asked within a context, and by asking it the context is shifted to one that is in service to discovering how conscious the participants are of the context they are occupying. This is called “navigating space”, which requires that the navigator is conscious of the context and in solid “contact” with the other parties in the space.

Adopted behaviour and mimicry is how we learned to “hold space” while we were growing up. There’s nothing “wrong” with it. Conscious spaceholding is an adult responsibility that somehow nobody told us about. Part of the nervousness around introducing a question like “Are you okay?” is that we intuit that it is an orthogonal question before we are even really aware that we are in a context that it is orthogonal to, and that there might be an adult responsibility involved.

“R U OK?” asks us to pay attention to our context and to introduce a new intention into that context. It allows us to be in service to the wellbeing of the people around us, and them of us. It also presents an opportunity for us to become aware of and be in service to the other intentions in our context. We can pay attention whenever we pass through a doorway and ask, What is the purpose of this space? and grow up our relationship to how we hold it.