Strategy of Hope: 'When I was a child ...' those magic words

Old photographs in a wooden box
A man and a woman reminisce while looking at photographs

South Africa’s Winter 2023 kicked off early with a ferocious start. The ‘Cape of Storms’ lived up to its reputation… I wonder how the countless families who lost everything in the devastation will rebuild their families and homes. The harsh weather also liberally dispenses colds, flu and other illnesses.

In the Western Cape, when whole communities and farmlands were flooded, unfailingly Gift of the Givers reached out. They were there. With the food, the blankets and the hygiene packs for the thousands of people made destitute. The community of Citrusdal was so flooded that they had to leave their homes but they were also left cut off when their connecting road washed away. The rescue teams only reached them after a week of waiting. They ululated their relief and gratitude when help reached them. 

Once again amidst this turmoil, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman spoke words of hope. He praised what we in our nation achieve when we cooperate across our political and racial divides. He mentioned every single organization, party or group who joined hands in the operations.

His message stood out – for me and who knows how many others – as an encouragement to put our humanness above all that threatens to destroy it.

Over the years, I found confirmation in my work of what is possible when humanness prevails over calamities and conflict.

Organization development and coaching interventions often put me in situations riddled with tension and latent or open conflict – the main reason for being called upon. I then stood amidst people who reached the stage of hating and undermining each other. What had actually triggered this escalation was by then blurred or blown out of proportion, the atmosphere one of anger or cynicism. With a room full of people who have become enemies, trying to disentangle what happened in the past and to solve that problem is fruitless and only causes more dispute. 

When meetings and contacts have become destructive, the only way forward is to unlock again the humanness in the individuals. They all are caught in a downwards spiral that debases them and ultimately makes them suffer. Years later they may regret or feel ashamed of how they behaved when the conflict was at an all-time high. But it is at that point of despondency that the opportunity arises for helping enemies reach across their prejudices and divides.

Those who have worked through their conflicts with me have experienced the power of personal encounter.

I have always believed in the power of personal encounter. It is because this conviction is so strong in me that I have been able to rely on it. It helped people trapped in troubled teams, heated problem situations or cold entrenched conflicts to achieve what felt impossible: to regard and treat each other as fellow humans again.

How does it work? How can I do this?

These were my questions during early conflict interventions, when I started out with my consulting office in Ghent, Belgium, before I came to South Africa.

Searching for answers, I contacted a senior member of a Dutch consultancy that I regarded highly for its people-centered approach. ‘I wrestled with that same question,’ he told me ‘but I see promising results from tapping into people’s life stories, their biographies.’ As it turned out, I had contacted one of the ‘founding fathers’ of an innovative niche in counselling and coaching, enriching it with biographical insight into human development and new skills. Dedicated professionals in Germany, Holland and the UK started this trend.  I asked the Dutch colleague to mentor me.                                                                                                                 

‘Before you apply this, you must experience it yourself,’ he said. He offered me a space in his upcoming biographical workshops… Most participants were Dutch HR professionals who wanted to improve the anonymous and technical systems their companies were using. 
My participation was much more than experiential learning – it transformed me. It opened my horizon on what becomes possible as soon as people share their life stories and learn to listen respectfully to each other. Debriefing after the process, my mentor encouraged me to feel confident as biographical coach. He reckoned my backpack contained enough expertise and he remarked on my authenticity in relation to others. That endorsement was a great booster.

Discovering the potential and the power of developmental techniques based on biographical analysis was a moment of synergy – when many strands of my life came together.

When I was a child, my parents taught me to take a genuine interest in other people, to not superficially judge them. ‘You don’t know what is going on in that person’s life,’ they would stop me when I made an ugly comment about someone. Then I found my way to our nearby municipal library, a veritable wonderland of books. Amidst the shelves I learnt that books with a life story are called biographies. If the author narrates his or her own life it would be an autobiography. I was mesmerized by these books, and read all that I could lay my hands on. Every life story is an adventure of things hoped for or planned and the unforeseen. I became aware that circumstances and events shape and influence people’s beliefs and behaviour. These were pointers to go and study sociology.

As a student I had the good fortune of years of sharing accommodation with students from different nationalities. Arriving from the US, Spain, Germany and Indonesia, they had very different backgrounds and cultures. In our communal kitchen we told each other where we came from, how we chose our field of study and landed together at the same university. Along with our stories, we exchanged our dishes of potato or pasta or rice and, going along, we realized that our paths and challenges were very different, but as young women we mostly had a lot in common. These unforgettable friendships have remained my inspiration, living amidst South Africa’s complex diversity, to always look out for what unites us.

Really building bridges among people simply is based on taking an open interest in each other.

This is then what I put into the mix when facilitating group dynamics where the men or women struggle to find their common ground to cooperate or heal a rift between them.

When the moment feels right, I engage everyone in listening and speaking from the heart. From that deeper point in everyone where honest feelings reside, overriding the prejudices and stubborn opinions that we tend to pin on people we don’t like. Gently but surely I create an experience where everyone in the group has an equal opportunity to share something of their life. To reflect upon and select some moments, people, decisions, changes that brought them to where they now are. I encourage them to think back, from where each of us started: things that happened when we were growing up and made deep impressions on us. 

It is then remarkable, when the persons in the group take turns to share their experiences, that – as if by some unspoken cue –  nearly everyone begins their story by saying ‘When I was a child…’ When these words resound, they have a magical impact. Listeners do really listen. The words ‘when I was I child’ intuitively unite us. The time when we were children is something we all have in common. Sharing something that goes back to childhood, and filling in with significant things that happened later, puts a person in a more complete light. It lifts us over the hurdles of the fixed negative ideas that dominated our view of that person. Indeed we catch a glimpse of the humanness of that person.

Intervening in people’s interpersonal sphere requires diligence. To do this, in an attempt to transform a conflict, is certainly no quick fix. When there is no trust or if trust has been broken, it takes time to build it up. Often people are traumatized, having lost control over their situation. But such low points are in a way similar to other disasters: everyone struck by it has a need to be rescued and find a way out. This is the common platform on which humanness can be experienced again. The moment that we realize ‘we are in this together’ is a humanizing moment.

That humanizing moment I have seen born, amidst people who were tense and embittered with each other, but willing to go round their circle, taking in each story of what happened since they were children.  

A case in point

It is a professional skill to be a good guide in such personalized work processes, especially if the groups are in turmoil or there is sharp conflict. It is not a mere social game. It takes willingness of the coach to endure and keep the faith in the process alive for everyone. One of the most desperate conflict situations in which I was asked to intervene had divided a team of 20 people – the governing body of a large organization – into two camps. They opposed and blocked each other every step of the way. When I suggested it may rather be time for them to  split up than stay together, they begged me to try to keep them together and sort out their grievances. It was a long journey with weekly sessions, where working together had to be learnt right down from the basics. The turning point came when I decided to subdivide them into 4 small groups, placing fierce opponents together. Their assignment was to NOT talk about anything related to our work process or the conflict. They were to give each one 15 minutes to talk about their life and how they got to be in the  current position they held. They were not to interrupt – just listen. After each had their turn, they needed to allow for a few minutes of silence. To round off they could give a comment on how someone’s story had affected them or ask someone a question that arose while they were listening. That person need not answer the question.

I must say I held my breath, but I knew it was the right thing to do. I observed the 4 groups and saw that the ‘magic words’ were effective again. When this session was over, I sent everyone home.

More than a year later, we were debriefing on the journey and what it had achieved.

Everyone agreed that the most important thing they experienced, was that evening – discovering the person behind the colleague. Seeing this person in a new light.

I asked them then why they had been willing – after sessions with sharp arguments and slamming doors – to go through with that particular sensitive activity of personal encounters. Their answer: ‘Because we trusted you.’ TRUST. Trust is of course key.