Difficult Conversations Training

Like many international organizations, Saha is made up of a combination of well-educated, goodhearted Westerners (in this case, American women) and motivated, prominent locals (6 men and recently Saha has added its first woman). The differences in culture, language, gender roles, education levels, access to opportunity, and finances are vast and contribute to divergent opinions, perspectives, and methods; as well as complicated power dynamics. It is an environment ripe for difficult conversations. Which is why last Thursday’s workshop material introduced new ways to think about having difficult conversations. In fact, the material has the potential to be so valuable to the team that I’ll add another session in the future. In general, “difficult conversations” can be defined as any conversation that runs the risk of damaging a relationship, which can apply to a wide gamut of subjects. Based on theories developed at Harvard, the training provides opportunities for skill development and practical application so that the staff improve communication in times of disagreement and discord.

Coaching from the back of a motorcycle

I was pleased with how the training went, but the follow-up private coaching sessions have been the most rewarding. Besides giving me extra time with each participant to make sure concepts were understood, it has also been fun finding ways to help them apply the content in professional situations. The monitor’s workdays are long and hard. They wake early, drive long distances on bumpy, dusty roads, and once there, they walk from household to household under the harsh African sun. If at all possible, I wanted to avoid adding extra “work” to their days, so instead of coaching at a table here in the office, I join them in the field. As we drive to the communities, we typically review concepts from the training, taking time to practice and role play, all while I’m riding on the back of the motorcycle.  Once we arrive, I observe and assist as they problem-solve with the water entrepreneurs, and make their rounds of the households.

Simply (Saha’s female monitor), interviewing the mother of a household

All of monitors’ interactions are in Dagboni, but it’s pretty easy to spot when they enter into a difficult conversation. Most often, they get irritated when families aren’t using the Saha safe storage container the way they were taught. This leads the monitors to assume that the family has reverted to drinking dirty dugout water. While the benefits of drinking clean water may seem obvious, encouraging communities to make the switch is an exercise in behavior modification. It requires women to adjust the rhythm of their daily routines, and change their organizational systems at home. When we see families not using the containers properly, the common response is to tell them that they are wrong and try to convince them change is needed for the sake of their health, and that of their children. While there is a time and a place for this sort of advocacy, my coaching objective has been to encourage monitors to get curious and have learning conversations with the family first. It’s in these conversations that we come to understand how people reach the conclusions that drive their actions.

For example, we came across a woman with dugout water in her bucket and the monitor became visibly upset. He started telling the woman to dump the water and scolded her for not taking care of her children. In that moment, I was able to pull the monitor aside and ask him a couple questions which lead him to shift from a place of certainty (the woman is wrong to have dugout water in her bucket) to curiosity (I wonder why she did that). The transformation was incredible, and led to a really constructive conversation. Turns out, a PeaceCorps member, who lives in the village, was handing out small packets of Proctor and Gamble water cleanser. The woman was under the impression that the cleanser was an extension of the Saha project and that she could then treat the dugout water on her own. Because we were curious, we decided to stay and treat the water as she described and took samples back for testing. In the end, the treated water still revealed traces of e-coli, so it isn’t a viable solution for community members yet. But the shift to curiosity led to an improved relationship with that woman and a couple of the other villagers who passed by while we were experimenting, as well as a new relationship with the PeaceCorps member and more opportunities for dialogue with the entire community on the benefits of drinking clean water.

Only time will tell, but I think its very likely that this curiosity will result in greater trust between communities and Saha, which is key for the long-lasting impact that Saha seeks to have in the world around Tamale.