Gordian knot title image

Myths, Magic, and the Power of Language

Sometimes, the smallest of changes can have the biggest of impacts. These changes can be as small as how we frame a challenge or goal, whereby a subtle shift in view point can be all that is needed to spark bold and meaningful action. 

Consider this Ancient Greek legend…

As the story goes, a poor peasant called Gordius arrived into a public square of Phrygia, riding in an ox cart. Although oblivious to Gordius, the people of the Phrygian kingdom had been told by an oracle that their future king would one day come into town riding in a wagon – and so Gordius, to his surprise, was proclaimed king.

To show his thanks, Gordius dedicated his ox cart to the Greek god Zeus, tying it to a post in the square with a highly intricate knot. The oracle this time foretold that the person who released the knot – what became known as the ‘Gordian knot’ – would rule the whole of Asia.

For years, the cart remained tied to the post. Travellers would come from far and wide in an attempt to unravel the impossible knot. No matter how long or hard they laboured to unravel the entanglement of ropes, no one could find a solution.

That was until an ambitious, young Alexander (soon to be) the Great heard of the oracle’s prophecy and headed confidently towards Phrygia and the challenge that awaited him there.

Alexander was resolute in his determination to untie the Gordian knot. After wrestling with the knot for some time, he stepped back from the task to re-think. Moments later he announced his realization that, “It makes no difference how they are loosed!”. He drew his sword and sliced the knot in half with one swing.

The Gordian knot is now used as a phrase to describe a problem that seems too complicated to resolve. But the tale of Gordius and his knot, reveals three other lessons in change and the power of language…

The first is where we started, that a small shift in thinking can lead to significant and meaningful changeWhen Alexander changed how we viewed the problem, new possibilities became apparent to him, that led to bold and impactful action.

Next, a shift in thinking is made possible by our ability to describe a challenge in different, more empowering waysAlexander shifted his thinking by re-describing the problem from a “knot that needs to be untied” to a “knot that needs to be undone”.

Finally, when faced with a problem, people tend to do more of the same solution, each time trying harder, for longer, or with the assumption they are more skilled (without shifting their thinking)For many years people came to untie the knot, accepting the situation as it was, thinking that they could untangle the rope by trying harder than those who had gone before them, by being a more skilful knot untier, or just through sheer perseverance.

Take a moment to consider how many Gordian knots you currently have in your organisation or life? 

It might be an on-going management issue, a persistently dysfunctional team dynamic, or even the never-ending battle of getting the kids to bed. The types of challenge that despite our good intentions, we continue to trace around the knot in an endless attempt to find an end to pull… with a defeated sense of belief that only a stroke of magic can resolve it.

One of the inspirations behind our tools, coaching methodology and philosophy at mindflick is the late psychotherapist, and pioneer of brief therapy, Steve de Shazer, who once wrote a book called ‘Words were Originally Magic’. De Shazer put forward that it is language that is both the source of our stuckness with a problem, and also the means by which we free ourselves. The magic that he was referring to was the practiced ability to use words to develop a more empowering way of viewing our goals.

As Alexander the Great has shown us, by developing our ability to describe a situation from many points of view, we subtly shift what we pay attention to and what therefore becomes more or less relevant – in doing so, we become infinitely more powerful in being able to shift our thinking, and adapt our actions to create the change we need.

To finish with a touch of magic, in the words of Professor Albus Dumbledore: 

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it”

Tim Pitt, our Head of Behavioural Science, wrote this blog in September 2021