Monthly Archives: June 2013

A short wooden sword

When I was living in South Korea my Hapkido master decided to start teaching us sword fighting.  Amazing right?  Yeah I thought so too until he handed me a rather short wooden sword.  In response to my frown he gently pointed out that I was too tall to have a normal sized sword because I would keep hitting the roof.  As much as I could appreciate the practicality of that, I could not help but feel slightly insignificant and childish as I glanced down the row of would-be sword fighters with their full-length weapons.  Mentally I could not reconcile my black belt status with my short sword.  Three months into my new job that same feeling of conflicting status is creeping in.  I may like to think of myself as a black belt in communications but as a humanitarian I am still very much holding a short wooden sword.

Humanitarians love to tell war stories.  On the whole they are great and really make you want to light a fire, toast marshmellows, listen and learn.  Sometimes however these stories can take on a life of their own and, in some circumstances, be used as a way to determine whose sword is bigger.  There is a sensitive balance between technical and context experiences.  Technical expertise gives you the theories, best practices, and transferable skills but context experiences give you the nuances and credibility.  Unfortunately the only way to get context experience is, well to be in the context.  Somehow when I am sitting in a room listening to my colleagues talk about Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon in support for the Syria Response, or their experiences in Rwanda, Pakistan and Sudan, my usual stories of the lengthy international negotiations over the great brussel-sprout shortage of 2004, running 16 events in one week, having articles published, or achieving market leadership of a canned meat product just don’t seem as impressive.  I am once again the black-belt with the short wooden sword.

So how do you deal with a short wooden sword?

I need to be honest with you here.  I stopped writing just after I finished that question because I didn’t have an answer.  I get the whole learning, developing, experience and knowledge takes time but I am not naturally a patient person.  I am not good at not being good at things.  And, well part of me feels as though I have done the training and the learning.  I have attended internal training, I’ve been part of simulations, I’m nearly finished my Masters in International Conflict Management, I’ve read books by former humanitarian workers, I read their blogs, I’ve even read the Sphere Standards and I do have some limited field exposure.  And that all paid off cos I am now in my dream job.  But I still have so much to learn and experience.

It is now a day later.  And after a night of red wine, delicious food and wonderful conversations with my new colleagues I just decided to get over myself.

As my Hapkido Master said when he was toasting our achievement of our black-belts after a year and a half of training twice a day, five days a week, ‘Now the real work begins.’

And just as my Hapkido Master was always there for me as I fumbled my way through learning new wrist locks and Jackie Chan like moves, I do feel rather confident that my new colleagues will be there for me too.





Filed under Emergency Communications, Preparation, Training

“I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers”*

I didn’t like the play but I loved the line.  There is something incredibly telling in this line and the more imbedded I am in the humanitarian response world the more acutely aware of this I become.  Humanitarian response wouldn’t exist without the kindness of strangers.  Money, goods, petitions, volunteering, even working as a humanitarian all involve an array of strangers committing acts of kindness to help someone they don’t and probably never will know.

If I could be so bold as to add to Mr Williams’ words, yes I rely on the kindness of strangers but I have never been so dependent on my growing global family.

I’ve been in my new role for three months.  Anyone who follows on me Twitter or Instagram will know I have taken to tagging everything with #Ilovemyjob.  Honestly I do.  It is without doubt one of the most rewarding and challenging roles I’ve been honoured to hold.  More than that though the people I get to meet and work with are remarkable.  And I mean that as literally as it can be meant.  These people are worth taking the time to remark on.  In previous blogs post I have talked about different people I’ve met since starting this humanitarian journey; women, children, colleagues, even school principals.  Some of these people you meet for an hour and will never see again.  Some are forever imprinted in your mind and their faces haunt you at 3am.  Those special few become like family.

I am travelling a lot at the moment.  I’ve just started the first week of a three week trip across three countries.  My suitcase, which seems to be getting larger and heavier every time I use it, is filled with files, reports, equipment and cords.   I have meetings, in offices, over meals and via Skype booked solid and when I am not in a meeting I have emails to respond to, stories to write, strategies to prepare and reports to digest.  Yeah, I do love my job but this is not glamorous as some might think. And as much as you are always around people, the demands of work, if not managed carefully, can make you feel lonely very quickly.

Something rather special happened for this trip though.   I was invited to stay at people’s houses.  In the whole three weeks I am away I will not see in the inside of a hotel room.  I get that this might sound horrible to some people but I was giddy with excitement and so honoured by the invites I may have gotten a tad teary as I clapped my hands with glee and rushed to buy company appropriate PJs.

Now I am nothing special.  I am not being invited to people’s house, invited to join in family dinners or parties because I am amazingly hilarious and entertaining. Though for a single woman I do know some great Dad jokes!   It is simply because these people are really, truly, genuinely kind.  And they get it.   When you travel a lot, when you work odd hours in order to be globally connected, when the things you see, do, read about and work on get serious, when you miss birthdays and farewells and brunches with your friends and family back home, they get that having that human connection, that kindness, that sense of support is important.

So thank you.

Thanks for your kindness for it is noticed, valued and relied upon more than you will ever know.

*Blanche DuBois, A Street Car Named Desire, Tennessee Williams

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Filed under Emergency Communications

Farewells, Credit and The Mintie Strategy

Before I even start writing this post I know it is going to be all over the place, it’s been that kind of week.  So when I don’t know where to start I always go to the end.  I like the big picture.  There is a certain level of comfort there.  Knowledge of the end game makes retrofitting strategies easier, it also makes contingency planning so much more fun.

The week ended in a farewell.  It was fun, great company, amazing food and my favourite brand of apple cider was sold at the bar.  But it was odd.  It was an end and a beginning in collision.  There is something humbling about seeing someone else’s farewell when you really don’t know them or their history.  There are jokes, looks, comments and, in this person’s case some rather interesting photos that you don’t know the details of but at the same time, being free from those details means you have the privilege of seeing the big picture.

This big picture was fascinating.  It was hope, regret, frustration, appreciation, bitterness, kindness and genuine friendship expressed through the chink of beer filled glasses.  It made me slightly sad at times.  Like seeing a great end of a movie but not finding out what the title was and realising you’ll never know the story behind the final scene.  At other times it made me happy because there was a sense of family, real family, warts and all we’ll be there for you family.

A couple of weeks ago the guy who is leaving made a comment to me.  It was one of those comments that sends your mind spiralling out of control and things that seemed impossible just unravel in seconds and are suddenly so unbelievably simple.  And no I am not going to tell you what he said cos that is not the point.  The point was it made me realise some very obvious, embarrassingly rookie mistakes that I have been making.  I was caring about credit.  In my enthusiasm for my new role and the excitement of being able to achieve a degree of forward thinking strategic communications that I was never quite able to achieve in my previous role I forgot the most basic of basic communications rule.  Never, ever care about getting credit for your work.  Most writers get this, as we are used to being edited, re-worded, writing for others and unnamed in publication but every now again, when you are really passionate about something, your heart gets a tad too attached and suddenly any sign of red pen makes you want to clench your fists, stamp your feet and throw a childish tantrum.

Enter the Minties.  Now for non-Aussies, Minties are a chewy mint flavoured lolly/candy/sweet.  They also happen to have one of the best packaging graphics of recent times.  Their slogan is “It’s moments like these you need a Mintie” with an array of amusing graphics that capture those little moments in life where you just know you have to laugh cos otherwise you’ll cry.

I’ve been a Mintie Strategist for about three years.  I stumbled across the Mintie strategy accidently.  A few years back I was invited to attend a conference.  When I arrived I was placed, with some other colleagues on a row of tables at the very back.  On the table was a note saying that the back table were not allowed to speak, make comments on the proceedings and nor participate in the activities. We were there purely as observers.  Also placed on the table was a bowl of Minties.  Honestly, I was rather put out.  Asking a communicator to forgo all forms of communications is really just asking for trouble and I am sorry but the moment you tell me I can’t do something it is all I think about.  Two things made the situation worse.   One, the people allowed to participate, well I don’t want to say my colleagues and I were smarter than them but if you wish to draw that conclusion on your own I understand.  Two, I was under strict instructions from my boss to behave; he had started to threaten me with Botox if I did not learn to control my facial expressions.

I had not had a Mintie in years.  I don’t normally eat lollies but in an effort to occupy my mouth I started chain chewing these little treats.  Every time the desire to speak up made my lips part I found my teeth stuck together with minty deliciousness.  The Minties achieved in one afternoon what my parents, teachers, past bosses, friends and ex-boyfriends had all failed to do.  They shut me up.  Suddenly I found myself listening.  And I mean really listening.  Not to their words and ideas, but to the sentiments behind them; their fears and hopes; their concerns and excitement.   In some cases their underlying motivations for power and control.  I started to really read the room.

When you communicate you have to think about your audience.  You have to consider not only the message you want to share with them but you have to think about how are they going to receive this message, when are they going to receive it, what else is going on in their world that will affect how they hear your message.  Most importantly is what they are telling you they want to hear truthful or are they just saying that to look good.

All of us, unknowingly or otherwise, share and receive information with bias.  We listen for things that affect us and put conditions and personal meanings into words, tones and actions.  As a communicator you have to be aware of that.  As a humanitarian communicator you really have to know that.  You have to be so very human in your choice of words and message.  Sometimes though, as I said before when you are overwhelmed by the task at hand, when you are tired, passionate, excited, frustrated and eager to just blurt out your message it is so easy to forget that.  These are the moments when I stop and have a Mintie.  The Mintie slows me down, stops me from blurting out something inappropriate and gives me a few seconds to pause and re-read the room.

It creates the calm and stillness of mind that reminds me everything that I am trying to do and achieve is not about me at all.  I will and do achieve more when I don’t care about the credit.  It brings me back to the end, the big picture.


Minties. Keeping me out of trouble.


Filed under Life