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It’s been a while, but the concept of “home” hasn’t left me even after eleven and a half months in Cameroon.  Yet “home” is starting to mean many different things.

If how is where the heart is, then it’s not quite enough.  My heart is on what I do just as much as where I do it.  But a little piece of that heart isn’t in my here and now.

Sometimes “home” is my place in that other world I used to know.

Sometimes “home” is the knowledge that I am not forgotten even when I am not seen.  It’s the knowledge that someone cares for me, cares where I am and cares to know I am OK.

Sometimes “home” is the space where I can be myself without trying to fit into various foreign cultural rules.

That’s why having outside support while on this volunteering placement is so important.  It simply makes a world of difference to know that when you are having a “bad culture day”, a friend sends you a note saying they passed by your favourite tea/coffee spot and thought of you.

Those thoughts remind of home.  In all it’s dynamic definitions.

“Home” keeps me grounded.  It’s not a fall-back position if things don’t work out.  No, it’s more of a fall-to when the time comes to return with my luggage overflowing with stories of my experiences. It’s also a fall-in when I need to feel that connection to all that I know and all that I love.

Perhaps the emotional link to “home” and everything it means – family, friends, food, frolic and fun –just boost resilience and provides encouragement by the simple virtue that it is there.

So keep up the “random thought of you” messages.  Remind me of “home” anytime you like!

Earlier this week, I led a workshop entitled “Feedback: the good, the bad and the ugly – giving it, receiving it and what to do with it”.  There is no doubt about it, this is a topic we all need to learn more about, because one way or the other, we are all in the giving or receiving position at some point in time.

So here are some of the learnings from the facilitator’s side:

- Saying what we think critically is easier when it’s not called feedback

The minute we bring up the word “feedback”, the room temperature changes.  All the bad performance reviews and appraisals cause a direct link to sweat glands.  Then the idea that perhaps one would have to give negative information to another just adds in another dimension of fear.

If it takes a different word for people to exchange ideas that will lead to improvement, then so be it!  It’s the impact and the outcomes of learning form feedback that count.

- Reframing is key to easing into a feedback rich dialogue

Going beyond the differences between direct and indirect communication, reframing means stating the same idea using different words.  Reframing allows for otherwise harsh words to be disarmed.  It can make something negative sound perfectly easy to handle.  And that makes both delivery and receipt less difficult.

- Give room for improvement or feedback will feel disempowering

If instead of saying “You need to speak up in meetings”, one said “It would be nice to hear more of your ideas in meetings”, a space opens for dialogue as well as for forward movement.  The first statement could easily lead to a defensive response whereas the second, delivered in a cordial tone, would incite the person to think about how they might do this.  And isn’t the point of feedback to bring on positive change?

- Encouraging openness in exchanging feedback is an essential condition to learning.

Why do we learn anyway?  To move forward, to improve, to avoid making the same mistakes we have made in the past.  But if we are not open to receiving feedback, we are doomed to only use what we are aware of for ourselves – without the benefit of a second pair of eyes or a different perspective.  Self-reliance is nice, but it cannot stand on its own if we aim towards continuous learning.

Most important lesson from giving this workshop is that creating a space for change and encouraging learning in an organization means providing avenues for people to become comfortable with feedback loops.

And using the feedback I received at the end of this week’s workshop: make learning how to give effective feedback a continuous exercise, not a onetime occurrence!

thinking space

Spring cleaning.  Always a good thing in any season. I was using cleaning today to both organize my space and as a means to break free of a mental block to my creative thinking on some new projects.  That’s when I stumbled upon a magazine I had brought with me when first arriving in Cameroon.

I had tagged the article “ Schumpteter: The three habits … of highly irritating management gurus” from the October 24-30, 2009 copy of The Economist.  It brought my creative thinking blockade to something akin to a standstill.  Not because it released the ideas, but because it reminded me of why “thinking” is no dying art.

The article makes the argument that if “management” abided by the simple rules, principles and methods described in current management self-help books, that there would essentially be no further need for management thinkers.  The reality of course is that no matter how simplified, straightforward or basic management best practices are, systematically and consistently applying them is where the challenge lays… not in the thinking about it!

Finding this article again was a reminder of two important lessons:

1)    If one instantly recalled each and every one of the tools to work through every possible challenge, then there would be no space for struggle that leads to epiphany; and

2)    Rules, principles and methods are never one-size fits all, which is why we continue to need them and adapt them for various situations.

Thinking can never end.  And a mental block is one way to feel just how powerful creative thinking is.  Once one’s thoughts become jumbled or disconnected, it’s easy to see what is missing.  Once the free flow stops, a void is created.

While I will tell anyone who asks (and a few who don’t!) that coaching is one way to encourage and focus creative thinking, it is also a powerful means to connect one’s own wisdom to those of management thinkers.  A coach’s role is to facilitate that process, hence the idea of coaching as a thinking partnership.

Reconnecting the dots of the management thinkers, my own observations of working in Cameroon and the tasks at hand, the blockage that was plaguing me has started to lift.  Not because I can steal other’s thinking, or rely on a self-help book to solve my challenges, but because I can use them for inspiration.

From inspiration comes motivation, and from motivation comes performance.  Performance leads to moving forward with thinking, feeling and doing.

Thank you management thinkers.

Block lifted.  Thinking freed!

Sometimes being able to put your heart on your sleeve and speak about something you truly love is all that is needed to see the world through different eyes.

Yesterday I delivered a 3-hour introductory session on coaching as part of VSO Cameroon’s “In-Country Orientation” of the newly arrived volunteers (read more about it here).  Though only one small part of a 2-week process, this was a special session for me personally.  While I see a great opening within VSO Cameroon to develop a coaching culture, this was an opportunity to share skills that would help other volunteers use coaching in their work, as well as to plant the seed that coaching has a place in development work.

The later is probably the one aspect that I have been really been thinking more and more about in these 6 months in Cameroon.  Although there still remains a space and a need for technical assistance and service delivery, the ability to push capacity building a little further towards creating true transformational change just cannot be ignored.

When one solely fills a gap in the service delivery within any type of development work, they also tend to create a dependency.  Once the person, or the service, ends or leaves, the gap remains (may even widen!) and whatever work was done in the interim is essentially lost.  But once one builds the capacity of others to fill that gap, then a greater likelihood of long-term change is possible.

Coaching teaches us that we must be accountable for our thoughts, actions and behaviours.  We have to take ownership of what we do.  We have to be the people we need to be to succeed.  So why not transfer and capacity build this into development work?

I cannot imagine that there is even one organization in Cameroon (or indeed elsewhere) that could not benefit from increased empowerment of its workforce.  I cannot imagine that an overall outlook towards greater sustainability would be shunned.  Coaching offers a way to encourage our counterparts to take greater ownership of the development agenda, empowers them to look to themselves for answers, and ensure a durable effect of positive change.

If my personal passion for coaching reached these new volunteers in a way that incites them to think “coach-like” and to use coaching tools in their work – then great!  But if my passion for sustainable development through coaching had any impact at all as to their thinking on how to work in the field, then we are miles further along in meeting our goals in poverty alleviation.

A little coaching can go a long way…  and with some patience and determination, this coaching culture might just become the norm, here and elsewhere.

“I can’t stand it anymore!”

What was acceptable last week, or even “tolerable”, is now utterly, beyond measure, incomprehensible.  Anger rises, emotions soar.  Nothing, no nothing, will make this right.  No discussion.  That’s it.  Period.

Unfortunately, what I am terming “the angry days” seems to be a natural cycle.  What was once quaint is now a nuisance.  And then later it will regain some of its quaintness and the loop will be complete once again.  But in the middle of it – it simply isn’t pretty.  The process of settling into a new workplace, a new community, a new culture is fraught with these cycles.

The reality is that we are only human.  And in certain situations, we’re just pushed a little harder because we’re outside our comfort zone.  We don’t start from the best internal position of power.  We’re beginning with a slight disadvantage that makes finding balance even more challenging.

Angry days aren’t just about being negative about everything.  They tend to also be reactionary – as in the force of our reactions to events surrounding us.  Words that would just not have an effect on you one day, will make your blood boil the next.  It becomes just too easy to lose focus.

I am speaking of this from experience, having spent a good 3 days engulfed in the whirlwind of angry days – and knowing it too.  The worse part was having had just enough perspective to know that it was an over-reaction part of a cycle.  I also felt quite unable (or unwilling?) to break from it.  It’s not a personal failing in the least.  It’s an acknowledgement that we can’t always control everything – least of all ourselves.

Gaining a new perspective is the only way through.  This might be your own new perspective or it could be gained by enlisting the insights of someone else.  Whatever it takes, angry days cycles need to break in order for one to return to his or her most effective state.  There is value in knowing what caused the angry days –so you can work on affecting change or simply be aware of the triggers when they sneak up once again.

Give yourself a break – even angry tides turn.

You hear parents say it all the time to their kids – “I want you to clean your room”.  “I want you to do the dishes”.  “I want you to behave”.

Want, want, want.

When in a business setting, the boss saying “I want” sometimes has the exact same results as the parent-child “I want”:  NOTHING.

The freedom to choose and make our own decisions is universal: in time and place.  Imposing our will on others is, well, imposing.  If you speak about your want to someone else, how does this become their want and their need too?  Will they just try to please or appease you?  Or will they come to think it a great idea and want it as well?

I’ve been watching this in action in my work environment here in Cameroon for a few weeks now.  It’s been coming from our local leadership as well as from other international volunteers like myself who are working for the same organization.  And the results, are, well, nonexistent.  Nil.

Outside observation tells us that work in our organizations we will always stagnate if there is no effort to empower others into wanting the same outcomes no motivation to hand over ownership of the results, or no desire created to connect on any of these levels.

The hardest challenge in breaking the “directing and telling” method of management is that to be empowering to others on a constant and consistent basis is quite demanding.  Using coaching approaches that aim to empower others to take responsibility and follow a path of their own volition would be ideal.  But it is something to strive for, not something we can make happen on the spot.

In the end, it is a long-term process.  Ultimately this more sustainable approach to capacity building bring individuals to take ownership in their work, follow a common direction and, quite frankly, put in a good day of hard work.  It will take a long time to break out of the directing/telling mode, and even longer to create a culture of empowerment.

I might say “I want you to stop telling people what to do” – but really… isn’t that doing the same in reverse with the exact same effect?  Can we both impose a new “want” of behaving AND a new way of thinking overnight?  Absolutely not.  Can we be “on” – inspiring, encouraging, engaging – all the time without fail?  Unlikely. Instead, there needs to develop an appreciation for empowerment-based management that is valued by all stakeholders.

If my observations run true, we’re in for a very long haul with this management challenge.  Patience and accepting that it is a slow process is the only way to break the cycle.

Everywhere we go in the Far North of Cameroon, people call out to us.  “Nasaara” is the word for foreigner.  Unfortunately, it also refers to the colour of our skin – something we cannot change no matter how hard we try to fit in.

Nasaara! Nasaara!!

It comes from adults and children alike.  At the market it is meant to grab your attention so you will buy a particular vendor’s product.  In the streets it is plainly to say hello and be polite.  Calling out to someone in this way isn’t particularly meant as an insult – although in a North American context it would be without a question!  Hands down, it would be unacceptable.

I firmly believe in human rights and the promotion of anti-discrimination.  So responding to the call of “hey white woman” – in any language – is disconcerting.

Speaking to a local colleague here, I explained to her that calling out this way in North America would be a grave personal offence.  Even little kids pointing to a person of a different ethnicity is incredible shun upon – causing embarrassment to the parent and a stern warning to the child to behave.  There are laws preventing discrimination and harassment based on skin colour, ethnicity, cultural background, gender, etc.  My colleague was stunned!  “You come from a very strict country,” she said.

But in a context where it is acceptable – and occurs on average 30 times in a 10 minute walk from home to work – is it really worth getting all bent out of shape?  Can I change the behaviour of 30 people every ten minutes?  Is that even possible?

So, as many of my colleagues and compatriots here have done, I have adopted an “intonation reward approach”.  That is, when a little kid sweetly says “bonjour madame nasaara” in a normal voice (instead of a screeching yell), I reward them with my most heartfelt smile and friendly wave.  When an old gentleman says it in a grandfatherly fashion full of respect, I face him, put my hands in a near prayer fashion (as they do) and say “jam na”, a common Fulfulde greeting.  If a woman passes me by and-  barely above a whisper – says “nasaara” with the faintest of smiles, I give her a big one of my own in return, replying with a simple “bonjour”.

Anything else, I ignore.

It is hard, in our world of black and white – both figurative and not – to says categorically what is right and what is wrong.  Perhaps the “intonation reward approach” is entirely the worst things to do.  But perhaps, I hope, it may slowly sprinkle the seeds – if even in only a few people – that if one must point out the colour of my skin as a form of greeting, then at least it should be done in a way that will make me want to acknowledge their efforts at being friendly!

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