Monthly Archives: October 2012

I’d rather pick my nose than worry about picking my battles

Champagne, disappointment, and dilemmas: I’m starting to realise my life unfolds like a trilogy.  Like most trilogies, with the exception of Empire Strikes Back, the middle one is usually disappointing.  I don’t like disappointment; it seems a rather stupid emotion with no productive outcome insight.

Every time I am disappointed I get the inevitable lecture about picking my battles.  I am a humanitarian not a military strategist.  I think every battle I fight is worth fighting, I wouldn’t be fighting it if I didn’t it.  Losing a battle, no matter how painful it can be, doesn’t in any way mean it wasn’t worth the effort.  People are worth effort.  And even in defeat, knowing that someone stood beside you in the fight is often enough to make a difference.

When facing defeat I turn to a few select people for guidance.  I like to call them my sanity pillars.  These are people whose intelligence, integrity and humour help bring me back to what it is all about.  One of my sanity pillars is moving to Ethiopia in a couple of weeks.  After his farewell filled with cocktails and travel stories I started thinking about my visit to Ethiopia earlier this year.  I don’t even have to read over my notes to remember the people I met and the stories I heard.  I see their faces and hear their voices each night before I go to sleep.

When I think of fighting battles I think often of these people, specifically the women I met.  This trip was investigating and gathering stories about food insecurity and the impact this has on communities.  Many people in the north of Ethiopia face food insecurity.  The land is dry and rocky, the heat extreme and the water scarce.

Many people leave their villages in search of food and a better life for their families.

Many people see no alternative but to leave the area and hope the streets of Addis Ababa will be more generous.  They rarely are.  Too many end up begging on the streets, scourging for food scraps, in abusive labour or worse.  The women I spoke with had lived on these streets and eventually returned to their villages.  They weren’t proud of their deeds in Addis but they were defiant in their fight for their family’s survival.  One woman stared at me with a set jaw and steely glance and said the abuse she suffered in Addis, the defeat and hopelessness she felt, makes her fight now for all children.  She is now a volunteer community worker in her village, training, educating and protecting child’s rights.

My weekly battles aren’t always so meaningful.  This week I won the battle with a stubborn Champagne cork.  I lost the battle of self-control and ordered a pizza.  I won the fight against my credit card debt.  I lost the fight against keeping my mouth shut.  This week though someone who thought no one cared thanked me, I felt the appreciation of another who didn’t think they could face something on their own and I received the warmth of a hug from someone who saw it all unfold.

Great things, small or big, can come out of defeats.  If we pick our battles too carefully, if we pick only those we think we will win, what are we at risk of losing?



Filed under In the field, Leadership

Why would I want to share that? The art of interviewing

It started with a story.  A story told by a man that you know has seen and felt too much.  He’s pretty open about it and if not for the occasional lost look and catch in the throat I’m not sure if people would notice.  I know some didn’t.  It could be because he is someone I greatly admire or because his past is my future but I felt every word he did and didn’t say.  As he recounted his experiences in war zones and humanitarian catastrophes I flipped between wanting to ask him to stop and wanting to sit beside him and hold his hand.  I did neither.  It was a training session and we all needed to be trained.

This training session was on the art of the interview.  More specifically the art of interviewing within the humanitarian or development context which loosely translates as how to interview a stranger who has limited or no experience with foreigners about predominantly personal and upsetting topics.  We all have our different styles for this.  I tend to pull funny faces at children to make them laugh – only when culturally

She looked curious so I gave her my hand. She responded with a smile…just before she bit into my finger.

appropriate of course.  I ask general questions about a woman’s clothes and hair and share embarrassing stories about myself.  And then in the moments where we are laughing or smiling quietly at each other they, for some reason tell me their story.

I’m not sure if I would be as trusting with my vulnerability.  As an exercise in the training we were asked to role-play an interview where the interviewer has to ask their subject about the saddest day in their life.  With the exception of one person no one told that story.  They still told a sad tale but not the saddest.  Even I, as an observer and support facilitator, mentally self selected a sad story but knew it wasn’t my saddest moment.  Why would I want to share that?  Why would I want to go to that place again?

I think the only funny thing about telling this joke was my facial expression.

When I tell a story I want people to think I’m smart and funny.  Ok funny might be pushing it, so lets downgrade that to interesting.  Most of all I like to pretend I am tough.  I like jumping about in the boxing ring throwing punches at stuffed bags.  I like to drink, wine mostly but will take to shots if I sense a challenge coming my way.  I hold people’s stares, I cross my arms, I do a lot of things to try to convince the world I am tough.  I don’t think anyone really believes me, but generally they seem to indulge the pretense.  But we all know the truth.  Things get to me, I get sad, I cry and yes I even occasionally hug my favourite childhood teddy bear for comfort.

During the training one of my staff members looked directly at me and asked if I considered them not doing their job properly if they didn’t push someone to tell their saddest story because you could see it causing distress.  I instantly felt my inner marketer, communicator and humanitarian fighting it out.  I babbled out an answer in the pressure of that moment.  I don’t recall what I said.  But I do know I have backed away from questions that I probably should have asked and I have switched off my recorder when the conversation got too painful and I was asked to do so.  Somewhere in the midst of gathering a story there is a place where your inner communicator and conscious sit at peace with each other.  Some call it compromise, some call it decency, and some call it integrity.  I just think of it as being human.  And being human is very important for a humanitarian.


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Filed under Emergency Communications, Training