Truth to power

We finished the four day Coaching & Communication workshop for managers, supervisors and coaches who are responsible for reproductive health or other health services. Eighteen participants joined us, coming from the Ukraine, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, the DRC and Uganda. We had revamped an older curriculum that was based on a modular approach spread out over a long period of time. It was a test and an opportunity for us to try something new.

As usual I kept exploring and reading until I landed in Kampala to see if there was something newer, something potential more impactful that we could add to the mix of inherited sessions. I revisited and re-read Kegan and Lahey’s book about competing commitments which I sensed was just the antidote for the usual New Year’s Resolutions that we see at the end of workshops (I will work on my listening skills, I will be a better human being, etc.)

We had reserved the last session for exploring of competing commitments and the concept of immunity to change because it required some level of trust and intimacy in the group. We felt we had reached that stage because of the constant practice sessions in trios. By Friday everyone was quite familiar with the daily life struggles and challenges of each other, and recognized how universal they were.

Everyone came with five challenges they had to deal with, related to relationships with peers, with bosses, with recalcitrant or non-performing staff. All of these they considered obstacles to both the quality and quantity of service delivery. This link to services was important because both our funders and their employers had agreed that this workshop would ultimately benefit the users or would-be users of those services. This was an assumption that we had to prove. We engaged everyone in this collective challenge by creating our theory of change which then informed the development of our monitoring and evaluation plan.

We had created several opportunities each day, usually in trios, to apply and practice the various concepts we covered: giving or receiving feedback, coaching, listening, inquiring versus advocating, facilitating learning, repairing relationships, exploring why we often cannot be honest when we have to have the hard talks, and re-writing the scripts of failed conversations.

One recurrent theme throughout the process was the inability to speak truth to power. We could see how, for them, as it is for us on the other side of the Atlantic, not being able to speak truth to power is the cause of many initiatives failing to deliver on promises (at best) or terribly gone awry (at worst) with sometimes catastrophic consequences for individuals or whole populations.

We used aIgnorance is bliss Calvin and Hobbes cartoon as teaching material. Despite Hobbes’ warning that they (Calvin and Hobbes) are heading for a cliff in their red radio flyer, the wild ride continues. Why worry about later when you are having fun now?. Hobbes is speaking truth to power (we are heading for the cliff), but is unable to stop the inevitable and unpleasant conclusion of the ride from happening.

We can all come up with examples of this in real life. The US’ misguided actions after 9/11, the arms race, dictatorial regimes, and, at a micro level, the sons of powerful persons who are never held accountable for raping or impregnating school girls.

Except for a few very brave souls (many of whom either stand to lose their freedom or live(lihood)), most of us reluctantly accept what happens so that we don’t have to fight with our demons or confront our deepest fears. In the immunity to change session some people did get a whiff of those fears. Although they could be real (when the stakes are high) in ordinary life many of our fears are imagined and never put to a test. If we did, and found out that they are unfounded, lots of things would stop to be problems, and many a ride towards a cliff would be diverted in time.

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