Holding the mirror for others: a key skill in coaching individuals and institutions

By Jean-Paul Chami |

John Dewey once said: “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience”. This year, Dewey’s words surely resonated well with me. The amount of experiences I had has been so overwhelming that I declared to my colleagues towards end of August that “I had enough experiences for one year” and it was time for me start reflecting in order to digest, a word that I use frequently and which seems to entertain one of new colleagues at Peace Labs, a peacebuilding NGO I founded back in 2011.

However, as soon as I embarked on my own reflective process, I came to realize that I was not able to perform it on my own. The amount of information exceeded my capacity to manage, sort, catalogue and document things in my own head, talk about making sense of them. I needed someone to help me reflect, someone who could relate to some of the experiences I had; someone to accompany me on a retrospective journey and to guide me whenever needed. Someone to hold the reflection mirror for me, a reflection buddy.

Luckily for me, that person already had name: Mr. Koenraad Van Brabant1. It was in Lebanon back in 2010 when I first met Koenraad, Reflective Practitioner, Trainer, and Institutional Coach. We also worked together him in South Libya with Interpeace, a lead Peacebuilding Organization, in the summer of 2013 delivering a peacebuilding capacity building training to local researchers through Participatory Action Research methodology.

Not only I had the privilege of having Koenraad as reflective buddy, it seems 2016 wanted to give much more than I asked for. World Learning, a lead NGO working on education and training, and the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) granted me their signature yearly award, the Personal Development Award (PDA) which provides individuals the opportunity to strengthen their personal and professional skills by attending a training. The Swiss Federal Department for Foreign Affairs (FDFA) generously contributed to making this event a possibility as well.

Before leading change, one has to revisit the past.

Joindre l’utile a l’agreable” was my main objective. I wanted to make the best out of this opportunity while also enjoying it to the fullest. Hence, I immediately started thinking about a way for me the best usage possible of this unique opportunity. Soon enough the scheme got in place. I decided to host Koenraad in Lebanon as the facilitator of a strategic retreat exercise to be attended by myself, the staff at Peace Labs, and two interns Oday Nofal from Jordan and Elhachemi Ould Medjeber from this year’s Leaders for Democracy Fellowship program (LDF) which I had the chance to attend in 2008 at Syracuse University in the USA. Both interns benefited a lot from being part in the preparations and in attending the retreat. Elhachimi realized afterwards that he, too, could benefit from the PDA and already had some plans for it.

In the coming years, I will consider applying for the PDA to work on a peace building and mediation project in Algeria. The PDA fund will allow me to host a TOT workshop to train local mediators on conflict transformation and how to on how to help their own society to solve their issues.” (Elhachimi from Algeria)

Overall everyone got something out this. Peace Labs got itself a good 3-day exercise which helped her1 look into the coming 5 years, extending by that its perspective and views on different matters. The participating staff got to improve their understanding of the organization they worked for while taking part in assessing its current potentials. Our two interns learned a lot and one of them, Oday, said that:

We had a chance to visualize Peace Labs through the next 15 to 20 years in terms of vision, mission, staff, positions, this visualization among many other discussions helped to set the team on the same page in regard what we are going to do on the long term plan, I see this as an essential key for a team to grow together. (Oday from Jordan)

On the personal level, I gained a little bit more than everyone else as I got to be coached directly by Koenraad during the many Skype calls and live conversations we had prior, during and one month after the retreat.

The process in itself was very revealing and said a lot about coaching leading individuals and institutions. Here are four key observations:


Paula, one of our colleagues as Peace Labs during an exercise reviewing the quality of the decisions made at Peace Labs

[1] Attention: It is all about timing

Lifting the lid on something that may not put us in the most comfortable of states can be proven anxious at times. Ultimately it leads to the unfolding of traits that ourselves have found to be both innovative and worthy of amplifying to the collective benefit of the overall outcome. However,

a main prerequisite is that the person or the group of people involved need to be “Ready for what’s gonna come” 

The first day of the strategic retreat was very heavy. I thought that everything we did was wrong and that left me with a feeling of disappointment and frustration” (Paula Hayek, Finance Manager at Peace Labs)

[2] If you are not ready for it… then forget about it

What makes this reflective exercise work”, said Koenraad, “the readiness of the institution’s lead individuals to accept change and work towards it”. Change occurs first in the minds and hearts of the leader before it gets to be translated to other individuals within the same entity.

The desire that is of Jean Paul to a more institutionalized organization and have it less to be around him is something that is not so usual.” (Koenraad Van Brabant)

[3] Shock therapy?

The other thing about strategic change is that it takes time and is built slowly. Quick change shocks individuals and normally they are not able to cope with it. Therefore, once a need for change is identified, a change process should to be engineered and built one step at a time.

[4] Listening… Listening… and… more Listening

What I think made this experience a powerful one was the fact that Koenraad asked countless numbers of questions and listened for hours and hours to me, helping me often listen to my own words and guiding me towards coming up with my conclusions. “I cannot tell people what to do with their ideas and experiences, but I can hold the mirror for them reflect and analyze.

Finally, it is with a high sense of gratitude that I would like to thank everyone who contributed to this year’s reflections. Donors, partners, staff, interns and friends of Peace Labs. A work of thanks goes to Koenraad for personally investing in the growth process of our NGO and for embodying and reflecting the true qualities of a leader from within.


Share on Facebook0Share on Google+0Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn0

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *