When I was invited by Marlou de Rouw over a year and a half ago to join the facilitation team for a blended SALT-CLCP course with the ASEAN Institute for Health Development (AIHD) in Thailand, I gladly accepted the invitation and looked forward to co-facilitating the course which would combine face-to-face learning events with online coaching, with 2 long-time friends who were highly-experienced Constellation coaches: Marlou herself and Sirinate Piyajitpirat. I knew it would be quite a challenge because we would have to work together across a triangle of 3 different time zones as Marlou was based in Europe, Sirinate was based in Thailand, and I was based in the US, but I trusted that together we could make it work and just took a leap of faith to join in.
Then Covid-19 happened and plunged the whole world into turmoil. And our nicely-designed plan was tossed in the air.
Because of travel restrictions, Marlou and I could not travel to join Sirinate for the first planned face-to-face 3-day learning event. Fortunately another friend and highly- experienced Constellation coach, Jean-Louis Lamboray, happened to be in Thailand at the time, so together we scrambled to have Jean-Louis join Sirinate for a one-day mini-event to introduce the participants to a taste of SALT-CLCP instead. The bulk of the course’s learning and sharing would have to be carried online, with materials available in the online platform, plenaries sessions on Zoom for each step of the process, and small-team coaching meetings on Zoom before and after participants’ practice of step in-between the plenaries. But Covid surge caused the delays in some steps because our participants were not allowed to go and practice the step in their respective communities. The delays extended the length of the process and our contract, and we lost some participants along the way. During a brief pause in Covid surge, Sirinate could manage to join a follow-up visit with some teams, to support the teams as well as to demonstrate in-person how a key step could be facilitated. However, Covid re-surge led to travel restrictions which again caused us to cancel the last planned face-to-face 3-day knowledge fair, and had to do all our discussion and conclusion online.
Indeed because of Covid-19 challenges, our blended course ran the serious risk of becoming a rival of the popular “A Series of Unfortunate Events” that would cause everyone to lose heart and produce nothing but doom and gloom. But, as we were believers and practitioners of SALT, we looked for strengths rather than problems and just adapted our strategies every step of the way. And gratefully our participants adapted with us to the end. Together we learned and shared as best we could in the circumstances. In fact, I was impressed with some of the participants’ reflections.
Here are some of my favourites:
What did we learn about SALT-CLCP?
- SALT enables community people to express their concerns and dreams, so they realize they’re not alone. This makes them feel empowered, and confident to take action together.
- The shared dreams are the magnet that attracts people together. CLCP is a different participatory process which does not start from people’s problems but from their dreams.
- SALT-CLCP Is a process/methods/tools to be used with communities. It creates inspiration and bonding, making community people feel like wanting to work together. It develops like a spiral that takes people onwards and upwards on their journey to ownership of their actions.
- Listening, appreciation, sharing, and reflection help with conflict management. People felt they were appreciated by us because of our active listening.
What have we learned about working with communities?
- In the beginning, we were not sure whether it was possible to get some results. But now we see that the community can do it. The community is not an empty vessel. They have capacities and strengths. People love their community and want to improve the community.
- In the past, community leaders were the thinkers and planners. The CLCP process enables people to think together and do it by themselves. So people are now realizing that they cannot just wait for the community leaders to do things for them/community, but they are the ones to do it themselves. This will be more sustainable in the long run.
What changes did we see in the community?
- With this process, even people who do not have any formal roles in the community can share their voices and their dreams in the community.
- Learning and sharing during different steps of CLCP enabled the community people to clearly see the way forward, the resources and strengths that exist in the community, the different strengths that different people have. So they can now see whom among them can work on a particular action. They become enthusiastic to take action, and even started to take their own action before the action-planning step.
- The community feels ownership of their dream, plan, and action because everything comes from themselves, not from outsiders.
What changes did we see in ourselves - the way we engage with people and groups?
- From anxiety and worry to confidence and pride. “In the beginning, we were a bit nervous, not relaxed. But now we are more confident and relaxed. And we want to follow up to learn more from them. CLCP teaches us how to approach the community with different methods... There’s light of hope so we know we’re on the right track, because the community now understands and starts to take their own action. We feel encouraged now” (Aj.Oum).
- “I have been living here for 20 years but still could not understand the community. With this process, I got to know the community better. I want to go back to the community. I want to hear from them more. The community is like a book, and we can learn from them. We are equal to them. I feel I am part of them - the community. We are like part of the same flower. We’re not at the centre, but we are just one of the petals of the flower, alongside other petals” (Aj. Hong).
- “I see changes in myself. I used to do qualitative research and focus group discussion, starting with finding the community’s problems and needs. Now I start with looking for their strengths” (Aj. Vijj)
- “Apart from getting to know people better, the process helps me reflect more. As a facilitator, I have learned from experience and understand myself better, recognize my strengths, and see areas where I can improve myself. The process helps us to be part of the community. They see us as their children and we respect them like our elders. We have better relationships with community people and they want to share with us” (Oak)
- “SALT has helped me to develop my humanity in several ways. It helps me to open my heart, listen, respect, and empathize with others. SALT makes people in the community listen to each other and respect each other more as well, which creates bonding and solidarity. It is a good lesson for working with others”. (Noey)
What I’ve found equally impressive is that 2 communities already started taking their own action towards their dream, and the participants -- who have worked together in 3 facilitation teams-- are still committed and keen to continue to visit and accompany their respective community on their journey towards their dreams. In addition, some participants already started applying SALT-CLCP in their own contexts. Aj. Vijj, for instance, has already started applying SALT in his teaching at the university, training, and research. Aj. Oum has started to use some of her new skills with her students, and Aj.Hong believes she can apply it in her work with patients.
So, despite many challenges, the course has managed to achieve its objectives. Several factors have contributed to the success:
- The course was well-designed, combining face-to-face learning events and online learning, individual and team learning, plenaries and small-team coaching sessions. Face-to-face learning and support, even less than foreseen, proved to be essential and crucial to the success of the course;
- Having a combined team of international facilitator and national facilitators, thus using both English and Thai, the participants’ national language, helped ensure that participants understand the concepts, the approach, and the tools as well as benefit from learning about international perspectives and experiences in various countries and settings. Having one facilitator based in the country also proved to be highly beneficial;
- There were regular communications among the facilitation team as well as between the team and the participants.
- Both facilitators and participants were flexible and open to suggestions, always adapting to the changing circumstances, and always trying to accommodate each other;
- Both sides were practicing SALT: always looking for strengths rather than problems/challenges, always appreciating and accepting each other’s realities/ strengths/concerns/limitations, regularly reflecting together thus learning and sharing together.
Overall, the experience has been very rewarding for me. My most important takeaway from this experience is that we have to trust the approach, the process, and our team mates, and just look for strengths as we go along. The journey was challenging, but it was possible. Both the adventure and the outcomes exceeded my expectations, because we believed in the process and kept practicing SALT in all our facilitation and interactions. Covid-19 didn’t manage to ruin the course or beat us. We beat it. With SALT :-)