The Chinese Finger Puzzle: A Metaphor for Ombuds

chinese_finger_trapWhen I was a young boy I had my first experience with a Chinese Finger Puzzle or Chinese Finger Trap as some people call it.  You too may have had a frustrating experience with this deceptive “toy”.  My experience, as best I can recall, was when my uncle gave one to me for my birthday.  He presented this colorful woven tube to me and said, “go ahead, put your finger in it”.  I hesitated and know now there was a smile of intrigue on my face at the time.  Trusting my uncle, as children all instinctively trust adults around them, I went ahead and put my finger deep into the puzzle; not like in the photo above where she is less than “half way committed” and only to the first joint of her finger.  I inserted my whole finger all the way to the third joint where the finger meets the hand.  To make a long story short I spent a significant amount of time trying to wrestle the trap off my finger.  The other end was open, no one put their finger in with mine and I at least had sense not to put a finger from my other hand into the hole on the other side of the puzzle.  The adults “left me that way” for some time, though it seemed like forever, most likely it was just minutes, but I wondered why they were doing this with me.  Indeed, an ombudsman may get a visit from people who wonder what others intentions are with them, but in much more serious “realities” .

As ombuds we are sometimes sought after to resolve situations that people unwittingly find themselves inextricably involved in.  These situations vary widely in the types and forms of relationships, but it’s always ‘polarized’ and the complainant didn’t understand what was really happening until it was too late.  Often I’ve heard descriptions from people who became a ‘polarity’ in a situation, not by choice, but simply because someone else CREATED AN ISSUE with them for reasons unknown.  In such situations, once they recognize they are “part of the conflict” by someones “declaration”, it’s of no use to just declare their innocence, they have no choice anymore but to work it through.   The Chinese Finger Puzzle in this case can be a serious accusation in life nowadays.  Situations such as accusations of sexual assault, date rape, child abuse, physical abuse or bullying, verbal assaults and other very “stigmatizing” scenarios.  Ombuds have to be very cautious in such circumstances, follow procedure and not be too quick to discount their “visitors” claim to innocence.  It may be wise to bring in the “team” in your office or colleagues in your function to keep perspective, investigate and collect facts.  There are, more and more, individuals out there who know how to “manipulate the system” and use the law to harass, take revenge or “strike the first blow” in a dispute without resorting to physical violence.  This is where the legal system is used in open warfare and once a police report is filed the “puzzle is a trap” and one needs help to resolve it.

I didn’t know how to get that Chinese Finger Puzzle off of me.  The adults around me had “fun” with me that day, I wasn’t really harmed in any way, but I was distressed the whole time wondering, trying different things and picking and pulling at the puzzle.  The solution came from someone who had previous experience with the puzzle because my uncle had tried it on her first, my aunt.  She invited me over to her, took the “toy” and forced it deeper onto my finger and I yelled, “no, don’t put it on me more” or something like this.  She calmed me, told me to watch, and the toy opened up as she pressed it forward towards my hand.  She then “pinched” the tube so has to hold it firm, not let it relax, and then said, “now slowly pull and twist your finger out”.  She explained that if she were to try to pull it off my finger, it wouldn’t come off, all she could do is hold it still and keep it open until I freed myself.

As ethical and courageous ombuds we may well have to be or have already had to act in a similar fashion for our complainants.  Keep communication open, promote mutual support, be in it with them for the long haul in such serious situations and bring the team together to sustain the process.  As the investigation proceeds and facts bear out the truth, provide counseling so as to assist with the learning process and how to possibly avoid similar “traps” in the future.  If their “innocence” is established, they may need us to support and guide them out of the puzzle, clear their name, regain their innocence from false claims and restore what they can of their life.  Given their permission, we should not hesitate to formulate a written statement of findings to help with the aftermath of the situation.  If the whole ombudsman office team is involved, pretty soon everyone becomes an expert Chinese Finger Puzzle resolver.

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