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Being a mother-in-law is no joke

“Mother-in-law” – The most maligned role in our society.

Does any little girl ever dream of becoming a mother-in-law?

When you were pregnant with your baby (who is now your adult offspring who is married), were you eagerly anticipating becoming a mother-in-law?

If you answered ‘Yes’ to either of these questions I’d love to know how it turned out.

I believe one’s mindset has a lot to do with what happens next. 

I had a mother-in-law. I was married to her only son.  We had our moments.  My children were her only grandchildren so I felt I owed her the family connection.

I grew up in a close-knit family where a brother-in-law at times described himself and everyone else who married into our clan, as ‘the out-laws’.

I have two adult sons. Between them they’ve provided me with three daughters-in-law.  I keep learning from them. I trust they learn something from me too.

I’m surrounded by women who have hair-raising, hilarious, deep and moving, and unexpected stories to tell about their mother-in-law experiences.

Add a grandchild or two into the mix and things get a whole lot more complicated.

I’ve worked with many families that were struggling with difficult issues, where the “in-law” factor almost always featured, and almost always as something deeply problematic. 

We’ve had some great successes in breaking the paradigm of ‘Bad Bad Mom-in-Law… the baddest gal in the whole damned town…’ and shifting the family dynamics into the realm of constructive, co-operative and respectful relationships. 

This is my request and invitation:

I am developing a series of resources for women who struggle with long term family tensions and unresolved issues, which includes this matter of mother-in-lawhood.  I would love to hear from you – from the women who have “mother-in-law” as one of their many roles; from adult sons and daughters who have a view on how mom’s doing in that role and what could be done differently (by ALL of you) to make this a meaningful and respected role in your family and in our society; and of course from the sons/daughters-in-law.

Picture one of those do’s and don’ts lists

  • what should we not be doing (and explain why);
  • what should we be doing more of (and why); and
  • what should we start doing (and, yes, please do tell, why that would be a good thing).

Please add your thoughts in the comments section below, or email me privately at delphine@delphinedutoit.ca with the subject heading “MOM”.

Alyce doesn’t live here anymore

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Alyce fell in her basement a couple of months ago.

She banged the back of her head quite hard but came away without any major injuries.  There were some long-term effects though.  Alyce, who has been living alone on her farm since her husband died about fifteen years ago, had become nervous about staying on her own.  She’d had a stroke about a decade ago and manages her diet very carefully; and keeps moving, as much as she’s able, with her 85-year old muscles and bones.

Fortunately for Alyce, her son, Roman, moved back to the farm just before his dad died.  Roman and Marcy built a home a short distance away from Alyce’s, on the family farm.  Roman walks over at least twice a day to visit and check up on Alyce.  If it wasn’t for his decision to give up on life and work in the city, Alyce would have faced the tough decisions about her future much sooner – with her husband’s death.

The stairs become an issue

Alyce has been staying with Marcy and Roman since her fall.  When they originally designed the house they conceived of her staying with them at some future point, except they didn’t know much about the frailty of old bodies. They imagined she’d occupy the lovely large bedroom in the basement, with a fabulous view over the field and the lake beyond, where they installed a shower, toilet and sink, for her use.   They didn’t factor in that she would not be able to negotiate the steep stairs leading down to the basement.   So, the room which gave her access to that wonderful shower with a built-in seat was at the bottom of the stairs; and the other room, on the same level as the rest of the household – where all the action is – has a bathtub. By the time she moved in she was no longer able to get into and out of a bathtub, and so needed help.  Getting help with bathing was more logical, logistically, than having her live in the basement with those stairs.

The three of them have established a new way of being.  Marcy no longer sits on her favourite couch because Alyce sits and lies there for most of the day, but that’s ok because Marcy has other very comfortable chairs.   Roman has to put up with his mom’s anxiety around his daily activities: She is still inclined to tell him to chew his food more thoroughly, although Roman’s approaching 60 himself and so you’d think he’d know how to chew by now.

Alyce still does some of her meal preparation herself – she’s fond of boiled eggs, she makes toast, tea, and experiments with the muesli I produce when I’m there, and the concoctions I create from leftovers.   She’s unsteady on her feet and walks with a short-stroke slow shuffling motion, holding onto the kitchen table and the chair backs, door jambs and walls to maintain her balance.  She didn’t walk like this before the fall.   It is a new thing and I think it has more to do with her lack of trust in her capacity to avoid falling than that she can’t bend her knees and lift her feet.

Alyce doesn’t think she will ever move back into her own home.

On her good days she talks about perhaps going next door and spending the day.  Sometimes she does go, but only if Roman is around.  If anything does happen to her she doesn’t want to be lying there too long before he discovers her. But she won’t sleep there by herself – that’s too much to ask now.  She is a sweet woman with a charming sense of humour and an open mind about things that my far more worldly mother would pucker up her lips about.  She has a great awareness of the people around her – who they really are; not only the façade that they present in public.

She doesn’t want to be a burden to her daughter-in-law.

She knows that she’s becoming frailer and that she is increasingly going to require care.   In fact, in the past month she’s been receiving assistance from a home care worker to bathe and take care of herself:  When I visit I see these young women come into the house – the rules are that the dog is to be locked up for the duration of the visit, so I always have to grab Sugar and take her down to the basement where I’m working on a book (but that’s another story).

Often the care worker is not the same person.  They all seem to have the gift of the gab: they chat in an easy going way and will tell their life stories whether Alyce expresses an interest or not.  Sometimes they hang around after the ritual of bath, hair wash and getting dressed are all over, to chat some more.  Their slightly patronizing tone, when they speak to Alyce bothers me, but she doesn’t seem to notice. I don’t know if that visiting and chattering is part of the contract, but I do know that Alyce is bemused by that aspect of it: When the job’s done the job’s done; how does one get the helper to go?

One day there’s a quarrel.

Not with the daughter-in-law (Alyce is slightly nervous of her) but with the son.  For decades their views on religion have diverged. Her faith is all-important to Alyce.  In fact, the local priest regularly comes to do a little private communion with her – they’re more or less of an age and she always treats him with the greatest respect and humility. Roman likes and respects the priest – not as an agent of God or anything, but as a human being. He appreciates that the priest comes all the way out to the farm for Alyce.  As he becomes more and more cynical about the church they all belong to (except for his wife who grew up in a different church – also a Christian one, but not quite the same), Roman is always very cautious to avoid any controversy with the Father.  They talk about things like tractors and the weather.  The closest they get to religion is when the summer comes along and Roman has to go down to the cemetery to mow the lawn between the grave stones.  It’s a tradition he inherited from his late father and it is a labour of love – all of his family who have gone before him are buried there. He expects to be laid to rest there too, when his time comes.

But one day over lunch Alyce discovers Roman’s attitude to the church she belongs to. He uses strong language in speaking about certain key people, and refuses to retract.  She picks up the phone and calls her daughter in the city, who comes and takes Alyce away, no questions asked; no judgments made. That’s just how the daughter is.  A good person.  She and her brother talk about the practicalities but not about the quarrel.  The other brothers and their wives are informed.  The entire family, including grandchildren, accept that this is a natural, logical thing to do.  Two kids have to share a room in order to make space for their grandmother.  It happens. No whining; no controversy.  It’s just what families do.

Alyce returns to the farm a few summers after that, to visit; never again to stay for any length of time.  Nobody ever talks about the quarrel; nobody ever suggests that she should be moved to a ‘retirement home’.   She sits quietly, observing the family’s frenetic summertime activities.  Her eyesight isn’t so good anymore but I never see her with glasses on.  She occasionally mentions that she feels a bit ‘muddled in the head’.  It is as if she gradually disengages from life.

And then one day she was gone.

The funeral was well attended by all the tall good-looking members of her family spanning multiple generations.   “Alyce had a good life,” somebody says.

How much of this is true and factual?  I don’t really know.  These are my memories of Alyce.  I was not a significant person in her life; nor she in mine.  Our paths crossed, that’s all.  But it is how I recall her last years and I think that funeral celebrant’s observation is true.  Of course there were struggles, but all in all, she had a good life.

I tell this (names altered) story to remind me of the alternate reality to the distress and anger I’m sometimes called upon to mediate in families who can’t agree about ‘what to do about mom.’


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Many years ago, when I was working with my first ever coaching client, I saw in real life the power of sensible vs. audacious goal setting.   The client was the plant manager in a manufacturing concern, part of a global conglomerate.  He was thrilled at his recent promotion – a skilled and experienced engineer, now working on his business and people skills.   He was ambitious as anything.

Strategic goal setting and ‘stretch’

The multinational parent company followed a liberal strategic planning process: it expected local management around the globe to do a realistic assessment of their market; their resources and capabilities, and then to commit to certain targets pertaining to quality, volume, reliability in delivery, growth in sales. Of course ‘stretch’ was part of the equation – when you say you can deliver x, then we want (x+5).

It was the era of World Class Manufacturing; bench-marking; Best Operating Practices.  By sharing performance results across the business competition was created – the Slovakians wanted to beat the Swiss, the Swiss the Brits, and so on.  My client, the plant manager, wanted to be in that competition. He therefore based his production goals on the ‘best in class’.  His staff complained to HR that he was too hard on them – demanding endless hours from them, being angry and shouting all the time.  I was invited in to coach him on his leadership style.

His plant is in Tanzania, in East Africa.

The goals are impossible and the boss is rude

I asked his management team about their goals and targets. They knew what the numbers were but they were astonishingly dismissive about them.  “We have never even come within 40% of those numbers. We never will. We just can’t do it. Why bother?”  “But you must train our boss not to be so rude – he shouts at us all the time and there’s nothing we can do.”

Comparative data

I asked his CEO for data on how his plant was tracking against the other plants. He told me that the parent company actually doesn’t track this plant – its performance is SO poor that it’s not worth the bother. They’re in that market because there IS money to be made there, but their expectations are a reasonable ROI*; not establishing any world records. And they’re also not exactly spending money on upgrading it, because the plant doesn’t generate sufficient income to be able to pay for it and the rest of the business isn’t going to subsidize it.  The CEO showed me the numbers and I understood.  Imagine you had to map all the plants on a graph.  There wouldn’t be enough space on the graph to do justice to the size of the gap between my guy’s plant and the cluster of the others.

Old equipment and lazy workers

The CEO knew my client had it in him to turn the plant around, but there were things that needed to change – that’s why I was brought in to coach/mentor the Plant Manager.

I asked the CEO how fixed the annual targets were – was there room to shift some of them down, considering the big hairy audaciously unachievability of them. “Sure – they can all be shifted down. It won’t make a difference though.  The equipment is old, constantly breaking; electrical supply is unreliable; and the workforce is lazy. You can pick any number for the target. It won’t happen.”

Plotting a graph

In the next conversation I had with the Plant Manager I asked him for the production figures of the past 5 years.  We plotted those on a graph.  It was close to a straight line, with a distinct right-hand slope. Performance was gradually getting worse.  He was frustrated beyond what was bearable. We had a coaching conversation.

I asked questions and he did the thinking.

He concluded that he would set new targets. He would look for but a 6% improvement on each dimension. He also concluded that he had to explain to his team that his focus has shifted. It was no longer to try and compete with the Europeans but rather, it was to compete with their own history.   He picked a theme for the year “Hatua ndogo” (Small steps).

He invited me to sit in on his talk with his team – he wanted feedback on his communication style. Of course I would do that. I also wanted to see how his new approach in goal setting was going to go over. He explained that he understood the difficulties.

Understand your resources

It was an old plant. Spare parts were hard to come by and when they could be found, sometimes took up to 6 months to clear customs. The country’s electrical grid was even older. The most consistent aspect of the electricity supply was its unreliability.

Sudden and prolonged power outages resulted in half-processed product in the pipeline that then had to be reworked when the power came back on – close to double the manufacturing process expense right there. It meant that they all had to work long hours, often 7 days a week. You worked when there was electricity, even if it was your wife’s birthday or your kids’ school concert.

Stock-outs were par for the course. They’d had to expand the parking area for the queues of trucks waiting  to be loaded, with the truck drivers often sleeping in their trucks for days before they could load up and head back to their delivery areas.

“Kuboresha utendaji kazi?”

He told them about the 6%.  “Hatua ndogo.”  I tried a phrase I’d learnt at another company in that country.  “This is about ‘kuboresha utendaji kazi’, isn’t it?” (Improving the way we work?) He said “I can’t do this alone – will you be willing to work as a team to work out ways in which we can reduce the impact of the terrible constraints we face on a daily basis?”  “You come to me when you need help, otherwise you work it out.” “Hakuna matata, bwana,” (no worries, sir) some muttered.


The company flew me back to Tanzania for the party to celebrate the year-end results.   They had improved their performance by an average of 10% on the standard parameters that get measured in that production environment. They’d exceeded their goals.  He had a great team of engineers and technicians. He’d given them realistic and yet difficult goals and he’d granted them the authority to be creative in resolving their greatest problems.  When they needed help they came to him. He had showed intense and ongoing interest in their work, while pulling back and letting them get on with it. He had taken some weekends off. It was a great party.

The improvements continued.

Employer of the Year

The last time I visited – 4 years later, they were entertaining visitors from other plants. They had become a benchmark. They appeared on the same graph as the European plants. They’ve installed new equipment; they’ve expanded.  The Hatua Ndogo approach – incremental improvement in small achievable steps – with a bit of stretch – just enough to make it challenging, along with courageous delegation, had paid off for them – and for me.

And the Plant Manager:   His company has won “employer of the year” more than once and he regularly spends his weekends with his family now.

Eye witness to what happens when goals are stimulating rather than daunting

I witnessed in real life; in practical terms, what happens when goals are stimulating rather than daunting. I also witnessed the culture change throughout the organization as empowered managers’ manner towards each other and their subordinates became more respectful and trusting: As a culture of shared responsibility and co-operation evolved.

So if you wonder why I love my work – this is why.



When Faltering Happens


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Faltering can happen any time, no matter how well prepared you are and how experienced and skilled and everything.

No doubt faltering has many causes but to my mind, when emotions simply will not remain in the back row of a command performance, the prospects of faltering happening significantly increases.

“I was struck with a plethora of emotions, avalanching with such intensity that I was unable to negotiate them” – Patti Smith

To my mind the most common responses to faltering, based on a lifetime of observing myself and others, are probably these:

  1. Blush, panic and rush off the scene
  2. Get flustered; look around for help and understanding, and finding none, hate everyone who is witnessing your falter
  3. Fudge it – think on your feet and invent something to carry you through, and be confident that most people won’t even have noticed (or if they did, they’d admire you for pulling it off)
  4. Pause; name it; apologise for faltering; try again and rebuild your confidence and trust in those who witnessed it by showing courage and self-empathy. Come out not necessarily ‘strong’ but beautifully validating exactly how hard it is to be courageous and dignified, and in that, open the doors to authentic shared humanity.

A few nights ago I watched Patti Smith’s performance of Bob Dylan’s ‘A hard rain’s a-gonna fall’ as she performed it at the 2016 Nobel awards where Dylan was honoured (in absentia) with the prize for literature.  In faltering she performed no. 4, above, faultlessly.  I confess, I wrote no. 4 with her in mind.

What was her subsequent experience? What was the meaning of all of it?

“When I arose the next morning, it was snowing. In the breakfast room, I was greeted by many of the Nobel scientists. They showed appreciation for my very public struggle. They told me I did a good job. I wish I would have done better, I said. No, no, they replied, none of us wish that. For us, your performance seemed a metaphor for our own struggles. Words of kindness continued through the day, and in the end I had to come to terms with the truer nature of my duty. Why do we commit our work? Why do we perform? It is above all for the entertainment and transformation of the people. It is all for them. The song asked for nothing. The creator of the song asked for nothing. So why should I ask for anything?”

We humans have a great propensity for creating meaning out of whatever we experience.

We need to believe in an afterlife because it gives meaning to this one.  We need to see synchronicity in unlikely places because it says that we are real, we are not alone, and we have a purpose even though we don’t always know.  We tell each other “there’s no such thing as coincidence” and yet we’re usually gratified when we experience it.  We have superstitions that we live by – five crows on a telephone wire and then three horses in a field, followed by 17 cars in a pile-up: Why, those are my lucky numbers – I must get a lottery ticket tonight!  We are constantly triggered by past experiences that bring old meaning in our present lives, right or wrong.

And so people in the audience in Sweden created meaning out of Patti Smith’s faltering.

I’ve not seen pictures of her in years and so was astonished to see that she’s also aged. I’d not previously heard about the faltering – I thought the Facebook postings of the video were just some Patti Smith fans celebrating her celebrity – and seeing as I used to listen to her AND was rather enthralled at Dylan receiving the nod from The Committee, I eventually watched it.

“A hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” That song haunted me.

At the time when I first heard it, I took ‘a hard rain’ to mean nuclear fallout. I never did spend any significant time figuring out the meaning of the lyrics – I have a hard time understanding poetry.   But what I do know is that the song has always disturbed me – there seems to be some dark truth to it that I can’t quite get my arms around, but my soul shrinks at the fear that the truth might be dreadful.

And so, as I listened and watched, my first thought was that Patti had aged as much as I have. And then she faltered.

My first thought was ‘oh no – it’s her memory; it’s her aging brain’. My second thought was ‘if it can happen to her….’   And then she paused; named it; apologised for faltering; tried again and rebuilt confidence and trust in those of who witnessed it, by showing courage and self-empathy.  She came out not necessarily ‘strong’ but beautifully validating exactly how hard it is to be courageous and dignified, and in that, open the doors to authentic shared humanity.   She faltered in the middle of the second verse:

 Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
 Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
 I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
 I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
 I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
 I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
 I saw a white ladder all covered with water
 I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
 I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
 And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
 And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.[1]

In my coaching training we always heard about how we, as sapient humans, are “meaning making”.[2]  And so, had Patti Smith NOT faltered on the stage on that day, this song – this poem – would not have resurfaced for the explosion of explorations of meaning and would not have caused me to create my own meaning out of her experience.

It’s really simple.  Emotions are a natural part of us.  If they press so hard to come to the surface there’s a reason for it.

If I falter in my resolve to be a positive, supportive, loving, caring human being because an emotional cloud has taken over, it does not make me evil.  It makes me human.    I need to pause; name it; apologise for faltering; try again and rebuild my confidence and trust in myself and with those who witnessed it by showing courage and self-empathy.  And in doing so, I will come out not necessarily ‘strong’ but validating exactly how hard it is to be courageous and dignified, and in that, open the doors to authentic shared humanity.

I sit here, watching a hard Nova Scotian rain falling.  I am grateful to Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and the Nobel Awards Committee for compelling me to spend days thinking about faltering and being human. I’ve found some meaning in some of it.  That newborn baby with wolves all around it:  Maybe it is not the image of slavering hungry wolves. Maybe it is the story of Romulus, founder of Rome, raised by wolves. Maybe it is about compassion. Maybe something to rejig when it feels like anger or judgement is getting in the way.  What if we’re doing the best we can? Patti Smith says “The song asked for nothing. The creator of the song asked for nothing. So why should I ask for anything?”  I wonder about that, though.  Seeing as it is almost Christmas (I bet you didn’t see THAT coming!),  I have an ask of myself: keep on shifting from judgement to compassion – one day at a time.  If that hard rain must fall, let it not make us less human.






[1] For my preferred interpretation of what the song means, go to http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=4052

[2] “Meaningmaking” is the process of how we construe, understand, or make sense of life events, relationships, and the self.

My Story of an African Farm

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Apparently it was necessary for me to have a crazy dream of registering for a farmers’ expo here in Nova Scotia.

The rule was that if you could register a VOF (Very Old Farm) you somehow could claim senior status.  I thought I might use my grandfather’s farm outside Mafikeng in South Africa – after all, the land was appropriated by the British and granted to various of Queen Victoria’ officers as rewards for good performance during the Anglo-Boer War that ended in 1902 (They thought they took it from the Boers but of course they dispossessed the local Setswana villagers of their traditional grazing lands on the edge of the Kalahari Desert). And so, through Her Highness and her conquering army, it had been part of the Empire, so arguably should qualify.

Those British officers gave their farms names like Nottingham and Sherwood. My grandfather bought up a number of farms in the area with the money he made from a very successful diamond claim in the Lichtenburg diamond fields. We always went to the bushveld for our winter vacations.


The Kameeldoringboom that stood just to the west of the farmhouse on Sherwood. (Camel thorn tree – member of acacia family – now an endangered species because people like us didn’t know any better and cut them down for firewood – extremely hard wood, with great aroma for braaivleis – BBQ)

My mom inherited Sherwood; one of her brothers got Nottingham. There was no Robin Hood although my grandfather did establish schools and a sort of clinic for his farm workers’ families. Allegedly that was more to keep the kids out of trouble with the cattle than it was to educate them.  I don’t know – but I do know that one of those kids grew up to be the ANC  (African National Congress) organizer in the area when he grew up.

But so surely Sherwood meant that I did have a Very Old Farm in my heritage? Somehow the organizers of the expo in my dream wanted registration papers. That so upset me that I woke up. How do you prove, on paper, in a country far, far away, that you spent your winter vacations in the dust of a cattle ranch among thorn trees, with leopards still occasionally ‘stealing’ new born calves, with those cows with their wonderfully curly white heads attached to their Irish-setter red bodies – staring curiously as we passed by? What about the smell of the first rain – those huge drops plopping on the hot red sand, sending up little dusts clouds as they hit the ground?

I imagine all this is triggered by the work I’m doing in putting together Matters that Matter to Seniors and their Families.

Seems my own heritage is sitting there in my head, waiting to come out.

You see, this week we had our first session of Matters that Matter in the lovely old school house in Musquodoboit Harbour, that has become a community gathering place.

It was my first experience of working deliberately, in a structured manner, with a group of seniors, to talk about the things that matter to them (us). By the time we were done at around 3.00pm we knew a bit more about wills, powers of attorney and how the living will – personal directive – works in Nova Scotia Just enough to know that there’s a reason why one uses a lawyer for some of it and that there’s a reason why it is important to talk with our families about end of life issues  even when they don’t want to.  And we all got to know new people – not well, but enough to have a sense of who they are. Isn’t that where human discourse begins?

Towards the end of this week’s workshop we were invited to talk about our memories of the best time in our lives as part of wrapping up – we’d had enough talk about when we die, let’s talk about how we’re living, right?

And so I think that’s where my dream of the bushveld farm came from. Those memories of the people – the cousins, the grandparents, the donkeys, the rugby games – those were the best times of my life – as I was living it then.  Not the only best times though.  I’m having another ‘best time of my life’ right now: Planning and running this seniors’ program, living on a lake (talk about a dream fulfilled, for an African child used to dust and drought and fear of cattle dying), and finding ways of earning a living that are true to who I am, and, OK, I confess, planning my next trip back to the bushveld of South Africa, because I can and want to.

Heritage is woven through the entire program and so it’s not surprising that I would have some dreams about my own.


We’re going to talk about decluttering next.  I have some stuff still in storage in South Africa – beautiful hand-carved antique tambotie chairs as well as the lovely little stinkwood table my father-in-law made, among others.  Do I need that furniture here in Canada? No – there’s plenty of furniture here. But the look and smell of them are part of my heritage – how can I walk away?  And so for 6 years they’ve been delicately stacked in storage, waiting for me until I’m ready to dispose of them or bring them out.  An expensive way of making decisions.

It seems to me if you have managed without something for 6 years then maybe you don’t need it, but if it takes 6 years to make the decision, and you have the time and the money then maybe it’s OK? I wonder if ‘recent usage’ and ‘utility’ will be criteria we’ll hear about from  Colette, our declutter expert? I fear that as easy as it is to say to myself now, that I’ll go back to Johannesburg and put the whole lot out to auction,  when those doors swing open and I see my ‘stuff’ again…..Yes, I know – declutter, simpify, but hell, sometimes…

Integrate – Integral – Integrity

A friend of mine has a wonderful re-frame of the old ‘work-life balance’ thing. She says there’s no such thing –it isn’t a balancing act. What we need is work-life integration – where both aspects provide meaning for the other, and so in which one truly lives an integrated life – or, a life of integrity.  And so, when I come back from Africa I’m going to re-open my search for my Canadian farm.  I mean, I’m a ‘senior’ by simple progression through the years, but wouldn’t it be cool to have a Very Old Farm of my own, where I can look up at the Fall sky and see Orion’s belt?  The very same stars as I could see in the pitch black Southern sky, hundreds of kilometers away from the pollution of city lights?  It will feel just that much more like home, then.

I’ll be even more me than I am now.



Conflict Management Starts with Self

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Recipe for Conflict

A minimum of two people and an issue on which they disagree.

Add to the recipe the factors that the people each bring into the relationship:

Values, Culture & Triggers

Our values are what we judge to be important in life: our personal principles.  The rules we live by. They typically originate in our culture but over time our values may shift as our relationship with our culture shifts (e.g. young adults and their elderly parents may share a culture but have very different values as regards to how kids are raised; dealing with garbage; ethnic diversity, and so on).

“Culture is the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others.”[1]

Triggers: What sets you off causes a quick change in your mood/attitude, rooted often in values or cultural practices you hold dear would be called a trigger.  For example a South African grandmother whose half-Japanese grandson slurps his tea.  Tea slurping is what one does in Japanese culture.  Not so in ‘polite society’ in South Africa.

Conflict Style & Skill Level


RESPECT & CURIOSITY: On Elephants and Others

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I have a great deal of respect for wild elephants and am careful to show that respect by backing out of their way when they come walking down the road towards my car.

I believe I’ve learned a thing or two about elephant culture in my multiple trips to various game reserves across Africa and one of those is recognizing that elephants command a certain body space.  They also respond well when one overtly recognizes their need for distance between us and so, when I respectfully back up, just a few meters is often enough; the ears go down, the trunk relaxes, the pace slows down. Often the elephant then ostentatiously starts stripping leafy branches off a nearby tree.

I imagine that it is a face-saving gesture for both of us: The elephant acknowledges the respect I’ve shown by pretending that it was always just about that tasty combretum branch on the tree next to where I’d been when we first saw each other.

I also do know what small cars look like when an annoyed elephant vents its irritation on it. Not good at all. People do die in such instances.  I think it is better to be respectful.

My respect may have originated in fear.

When a wild African elephant stands next to your little Japanese car it TOWERS. You see only its kneecaps. It exudes awesome power with its bigness and with its agile trunk.  The tusks round off the power theme nicely. Yet, my respect for elephants has shifted from fear to love as I’ve come to be curious about them as living creatures with their own personalities and issues.

I’ll never fully understand elephant culture any more than I could ever become an elephant.  And, that fearful element of respect is still there, because of its power and the limits to my understanding.


So it is with living with ‘other’ cultures.  Even though we may all be members of the same species, it is impossible be an expert in all cultures.  Developing cultural competence is not about knowing your way around the courtship rituals in rural Tanzania, the tea making ceremonies in China or wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day although you have nary an ounce of Irish blood in you.

As the world has shrunk with the advent of motorised vehicles; jet airplanes; satellites; and the Internet the opportunities for misunderstanding and friction has grown exponentially.  Those among us who become somewhat competent at navigating their way through and between diverse cultures have a natural capacity for respect and curiosity.  Respect is a given. It can be lost (quickly, painfully) and it can be regained (slowly, painfully).

My respect for the elephant may have originated in my fear for her great size and presence but it shifted easily, as my curiosity kicked in.  It shifted, through curiosity, from fear to love.  My life is enriched for knowing that there are elephants, right now, making their way to the river, eating, playing – just being themselves – even though we will never meet and I’m irrelevant in their world.

Do you start with Curiosity, Trust, or Fear?

If the starting point, in meeting someone or something new and strange, is fear (of how different they are, how mysterious) then how is it that some of us automatically first trust, and others automatically first mistrust.  Life experience has something to do with it.  If you grew up in a small, close-knit community with limited exposure to other cultures you are safe in the depth of your knowledge of how the world works.

Something like 20% of Canada’s population was born elsewhere.

One in five of us have some kind of personal history that is, in some part, not Canadian. It means that in one in five households we practice varyingly different traditions, rooted in ‘the old country’, as we try to figure out what it means to be Canadian.

There’s a certain amount of fear (and confusion) initially, about making faux pas that born-here Canadians might find strange or might find worth mocking us for.  (I’ve been here since the mid-1970s and was mortified recently when I used a phrase that, to me, is Standard English, to find that in fact it reflects my Afrikaner/Dutch roots and is not common parlance in Canada at all. (The phrase ‘I sucked it out of my thumb’ as in ‘I just invented/created/ imagined that’ has been a standard part of my vocabulary for as long as I’ve spoken English, and only now do I find out that it immediately sets me apart as from ‘another culture’.)

In this year Canada made the great gesture of adopting 31,000 Syrian refugees in the past 9 or so months.

Meanwhile in Nova Scotia this past summer, we had public consultations about the political correctness of asking someone where they’re from.  It seems to be OK if you’re something like a Cape Bretoner because then you can have a lengthy conversation about who came from Irish Cove vs. Little Narrows and who’s related to whom.  But if you’re from, say, Ghana, it isn’t allowed because there may be some negative judgement about it. (As in ‘oh, you’re an African so you probably personally know some elephants and live in a mud hut, but you’re probably a techno-peasant and…oh yes, your skin colour…’)

As I followed the news reports about this consultative process, I reflected upon the time I met a doctor some years ago, in Canada, who spoke English with a strong West African accent and physically looked more like the people I know in Accra than the people I know in Dar Es Salaam or Jinja or Johannesburg. Yet, he would say only that he was from – Alberta.  At the time I was annoyed – I wanted to talk about Africa but he didn’t want to touch it.  The debate this summer helped me understand his reticence.

Yet, if you are white-skinned with a multi-generational history in Canada, or even as a recent immigrant, it’s perfectly OK to talk about your Irish, Ukrainian or Afrikaner culture and traditions – it is interesting and quaint, but not ‘foreign’ enough to be really fear-inducing.

Funny that it takes a government commission of inquiry to help me understand something that could have been cleared up in two sentences, had there been trust.


It is a tough balancing act – what to ask; what to disclose; how to trust.

The son of a Zulu friend of mine was recently stopped by the RCMP in the rural community where they live, in Nova Scotia. He was out walking the family dog.  They harassed him – wanted to know what he was doing there, in this closed, safe, comfortable (white) community.  They didn’t have to ask him where he was from – with his dark skin he was obviously ‘from away’ and they didn’t like it.

If your fear causes you to fail to see the human being behind the difference, you resort to stereotyping, which fuels your fear. When I consider the social behaviour triggered by fear and the inability to be trusting and curious, I understand the deep seated anger of the black and native populations of this continent, in the same way as I understand the angry elephant trampling a disrespectful tourist’s car.  (The car doesn’t represent white folk, it represents the fabric of our society.)

I worry about the pain some of the Syrian refugees would have experienced by now, at the hands of people who mistrust Arabs – such terrible pain, after trusting that the nation spoke with one voice when Trudeau welcomed them in.

It is really, really time to do things differently.

Maybe it is time to revitalize the Golden Rule.



Like a River Flows

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They say that our thoughts naturally turn to contemplation of the future when we watch water in motion.

When I was about to turn 60, my brother, Guillaume, died of a glioblastoma multiforme brain tumour and I came across ‘The Waterfall’ by Zen philosopher Shunryu Suzuki.  It is his reflection on life, upon a visit to Yosemite National Park where he observed the cascading waterfalls.  He describes the water coming down ‘like a curtain thrown from the top of the mountain’.

He says ‘…and the water does not come down as one stream, but is separated into many tiny streams….And I thought it must be a very difficult experience for each drop of water to come down from the top of such a high mountain.  It takes time, you know, a long time, for the water finally to reach the bottom of the waterfall.  And it seems to me that our human life may be like this.  We have many difficult experiences in our life.  But at the same time, I thought, the water was not originally separated, but was one whole river.  Only when it is separated does it have some difficulty in falling…Only when separated into many drops can it begin to have or to express some feeling….’

The water in the river is an analogy for ongoing and perpetual life.

Before we are born we are as water in the river: one with it all.  After we are born we are like the droplets of water that get separated from the river as it cascades down the waterfall. We are still water – we are still part of the river of life but we have consciousness about our individual life and persona and we each follow our own path down.  Then there’s that uncanny drive we all have, to be in community with others:  We go down the waterfall, each one alone, occasionally combining with others in puddles and trickles, before separating again, sparkling, creating rainbows, adding our voice to the thunder, as we reunite and form the river below the falls, after this life.

‘When you do not realise that you are one with the river, or one with the universe, you have fear. Whether it is separated into drops or not, water is water. Our life and death are the same thing. When we realise this fact we have no fear of death anymore, and we have no actual difficulty in our life.  When the water returns to its original oneness with the river, it no longer has any individual feeling to it; it resumes its own nature and finds composure.  How very glad the water must be to come back to the original river!’

I’m not a religious person, but I’ve come to understand why it remains important in so many lives.  I am fascinated by the conversations about ‘what’s my life’s purpose?’ that is the foundation piece in life coaching.  Is the coaching conversation the new confessional? (Except that the coach moves from the premise that you already have the answer within you, rather than that it was written a long time ago by a prophet or a disciple.)

I know, because he told me, that Guillaume approached death, not as the completion of a journey, but as taking an exit off the highway, heading into a new direction that he could anticipate, but towards a destination one cannot imagine. For me, his exit was that final glittering cascade into the main river at the bottom of the falls:  A river that will travel who knows where, but which represents a perpetual continuity of life.  My brother would’ve turned 72 on August 5th.  He escaped this world of escalating global warming when he was 63. It was painful to see him suffer and painful to let go.

Typically I don’t think about this stuff when I’m at my desk – I think of office and work stuff.  But just let me get out on the water and my mind naturally moves into a state of connectedness – of peace and pleasure and comfort with myself and everything that touches me in the present; and about the future.

The thing about water is that it FEELS alive.

I love swimming and kayaking on and on and on, ever further into the lake where I live.  It has always felt like my natural medium. My mind stills and I remember those who have gone down that waterfall before me and have rejoined the river. It is not a sad reflection. There’s nostalgia and there is a deep inner joy that they had been in my life.  Yet often I’m travelling a route on the lake with the people who are in my life right now, in their own kayaks too. The lake to me is a sort of holding pattern – it’s where I hang out with my friends and family and where I go meditating by myself, reflecting on those who have rejoined the river at the bottom of the falls.

I’m not frightened of drowning, so I just keep going even though I know I don’t have the stamina of a 40-year old. Sometimes it is hard because the wind blows directly against you, but it fills me with a sense of adventure and it is deeply gratifying to feel the strength in my arms and shoulders as I plough my way through and get home safely. Your sixties is a great physical and mental space to occupy – full of experience and solutions that work, full of memories of people and adventures, and also still full of creative possibilities. You can still dream although your dreams have lost the naïvete of youth.

This, the summer of 2016 is a dry one.  The lake is lower than it’s been in years. Places that were safe to kayak a mere 14 days ago are now populated with huge boulders rising up like angry hippos or lurking just under the surface of the water, ready to bring the lovely flowing motion of the kayak to a jarring halt.

Beautiful vast beds of lily pads lie shriveled up in crust-curling drying mud.  The water level in the lake has dropped by 5 feet by now.  Today I saw the first posting on Facebook, from someone in my own neighborhood, asking for advice about how to get a dry well replenished. You can call the fire department, I believe, and they go and suck some water out of a nearby lake which they then release into the well that feeds your domestic needs.

It is a very different kind of drought from the ones of my childhood in South Africa. There, when the well is dry, there IS no ‘other lake’ to replenish supplies from.

Lake Charlotte Sept 19 2016

So, as I paddle I ponder Shunryu Suzuki’s waterfall and river and I continue to miss my brother, while seeing the evidence of global warming all around me. I wonder and worry that one day the river will dry up and there will no longer be a waterfall because the infrastructure that supports it has died.  And somewhere in a galaxy far, far away there will be a star ship, its mission to go where they believe no man has gone before, and they will find this dead planet and wonder at the way in which evolution burnt itself out in what looked like it could have been paradise.

©Delphine du Toit 2016

The Roads Less Travelled


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Twice in the past 48 hours my GPS on my not so smart phone encouraged me onto roads very infrequently travelled.

My standard mode of transport is a 9 year old Toyota Corolla – so middle of the road that I regularly have to use the little red button on the remote to find it in parking areas.  It looks like every second car out there.  Moreover, it has no 4X4 capacity.

I’d been listening to Daniel Goleman’s Focus on an audio book as I was travelling.  He talked about wandering minds and I was totally engaged:  for a long time I’ve trusted my subconscious mind to sort out my thinking about things my conscious mind seems incapable of resolving.

When I was younger I thought for a time that I’d made a unique discovery in the power of the unconscious mind, but now I know better.

Nonetheless, it is always wondrously affirming when high cred gurus write best sellers about something I’d discovered for myself.

Truth be told, I constantly had to rewind to catch up to where my mind had started drifting, pulled away by the natural beauty surrounding me on these less travelled roads.  It was as if Goleman was watching me, because he went on to talk about those times when you realise your mind had been wandering and how you would return to an earlier point in reading a book – to the place you last recalled paying attention.  He calls it conscious consciousness – you’re aware of the fact that your conscious mind is at work.

Goleman talks about productive daydreaming – that artists and inventors do a lot of it – it’s where creativity lives.

He draws a distinction between the times when we deliberately gather information or when we concentrate on solving a specific problem, and the times when our brains go walkabout – where they wander off and flirt with new ideas; seeing patterns where no patterns were in evidence before and then sometimes seeing linkages that our problem-solving data-gathering brains simply could not see.

And so my G20160829_175154PS, which seems not to have much of a feel for Cape Breton  Island or Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, enticed me into the walkabout mode, in my car, by directing me to non-existent roads, where I could then choose either problem solving or just free-form exploration.

The rougher the terrain became the more obvious it was that the road was not going to take me to where I was heading.  Yet I kept going.

My curiosity suggested that there were things that needed to be seen, by me, just around the next corner.  My problem-solving mind attempted to remind me that I had never changed a flat tyre on this car and that I don’t even know where the jack is, but my wandering mind wanted to keep going.

It has been a busy and pretty stressful summer with too much going on at the same time – I realised that this mental and physical wanderlust was what I needed. A slightly risky, mildly nerve-wracking adventure, on my own (yes, I could end up being stranded on a logging road in the dark – and I’ve been told of Steven King novels that have anticipated such adventures) but I could also just enjoy experiencing what was there.

The texture of the road’s surface was fascinating: there were water puddles – sometimes slightly daunting to go through, and sometimes the surface was strewn with seriously uneven rocks, as if maybe someone is laying the drainage foundation for what might become a real road in years to come.  I wondered about the reasoning behind all the effort to cut this road here, and to prepare this surface – some of it looked old and neglected, and then, in the middle of nowhere it looked newly attended to in a sort of amateurish way.

That was the first road.

Eventually I ended up in a clear cut site – after travelling through such beautiful forest it was heartbreaking to see. I wondered about the people who earn a living doing this. What is their aesthetic taste? What are their dreams for their grandchildren?  Of course I couldn’t answer that. I turned around and gingerly made my way back to a more credible road and eventually got to my friends’ farm where I visited, ate and slept.

Then the next morning, again, I opted to trust the GPS in travelling a new road – I had never been to Mulgrave, Guysborough or Canso.  And so, with the previous day’s adventure having opened up my mind and giving me renewed curiosity for exploring, I travelled home along the coast, turning off the highway shortly after crossing the causeway that links Cape Breton Island to the mainland.  Goleman was still going on about Focus – he’d now got into climate change and then the usual leadership diatribe about Enron and the corrupt practices that lead to the 2008 meltdown. I wasn’t so much listening to him anymore as enjoying the sound of his voice for company.

I vaguely thought that by not listening but by only hearing, maybe some of his ideas would embed itself in my brain and some time in the future I’ll have a brilliant idea that I would think was my own, and then I’d be awestruck when I’d watch a YouTube of Goleman talking about the same topic, that he and I would have had the same idea.

I was so mesmerized by his voice, my thoughts and the scenery that I didn’t notice that I’d run out of viable road.

The lady in the GPS hadn’t told me to turn off anywhere, so I’d just kept going, and there I was on a very rocky beach road, gradually becoming rougher and less passable. But, the scenery was lovely and I could see – barely – a large ship on the horizon, heading north-east.   And then there were some beach peas flowering right next to the car, and some ducks – I wondered whether they might be eider ducks – they had those long straight Richard Gere-style noses – floating among the shoals just off shore.

So the dog and I got out of the car and went for a walk along a very rocky beach. It was hard going – good work for the ankles, and, I was thinking, for the brain – all those signals between the nerves, tendons and muscles of the foot, being sent, received and interpreted by the brain so that I could keep going.

We eventually returned to the car, both had a long drink of water, shared some raw almonds and as I turned the Corolla through its 180 degree arc I admired the Toyota engineers who had so thoughtfully designed a nice tight turning circle in this most pedestrian of cars.   And then we got onto the designated road to Sherbrooke, Sheet Harbour and other points South-West. I don’t know about Farley The Dog, but my mind was at peace – I’d allowed it free reign to play and it was grateful.  As Stephen Covey says, sometimes the main thing isn’t what you think it is. At least I think he said it. I don’t know. Maybe it’s my own original thought. What do you think?





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My summers in Nova Scotia are defined by the number of kayaking adventures I can pack into a week.  Sometimes I go out alone – for quite long trips – ‘quite long’ in my books usually means several hours, not several days or weeks.  Most often I am joined by friends or family and we choose our direction based on the aggregate of the skills and abilities in the group (and the direction of the prevailing wind, which is sometimes misleading because winds shift around here).

Sometimes this means that I have to pace myself to remain within chatting distance of a convalescing friend; and sometimes it means really having to put some muscle power into keeping up with a much younger, stronger, fitter (male) relative, like a son, grandson or nephew.

We’re all, no doubt, familiar with the expression ‘paddling your own canoe’. According to http://www.phrases.org.uk/ it originated in Malaysia: the following comment on the lack of community spirit among the coffee planters was published in The Selangor Journal: Jottings Past and Present, in 1807.

“If the planters would unite and use their united influence they could start a bank to advance money to deserving young planters… but they won’t do it. They let each poor fellow paddle his own canoe, and if he capsizes and stretches out his hand in despair for someone to save him… they won’t do it.”

Lord Baden-Powell, associated by most with the founding of the Scouts movement, but in my culture associated with the Siege of Mafikeng at the beginning of the second Anglo-Boer War, in later years advanced the concept of self-reliance in a book he titled ‘Paddle your own Canoe’. I’m tempted to digress to stories of the siege: how the British soldiers had to resort to eating horse-meat and the tacit agreement between Boer and Brit that there would be no fighting on Sundays. But then the Brits starting playing cricket on Sundays and so General Cronje (the hero on my side), issued an ultimatum “You stop playing cricket on Sundays or we’re going to start shooting on Sundays.” (Or words to that effect.)  (The Boers were seriously into paddling their own canoes and did not like the Queen’s armies invading their independent republics much at all.)

The Cambridge online dictionary defines ‘paddling your own canoe’ as someone who acts independently and does not need help from anyone else.  The independence of mind implicit in the phrase seems to be contrary to the team-based  workplace cultures that is so de rigour,  and that’s what I want to talk about, by means of telling you about last Sunday’s kayaking adventure with William and Daniel on Lake Charlotte.

Last Sunday I went kayaking with a nephew and a grandson. We each had our own canoe and paddles. We had sandwiches, some energy bars and water. We took sensible clothing to cover us up, against the onslaught of the hot summer sun on the lake waters of Nova Scotia.  There we were: A grandmother on the other side of 60, a nephew on the younger side of 40 and a grandson on the teen side of 20.  Fitness and kayaking competence was not evenly spread, but there was enough to go around to complete a 4 hour exploration not only of the lake I live on but also of the next lake – down the rapids I’ve been avoiding since I discovered them, for fear of not being able to get back home.

We each paddled our own canoe, and yet we were on this adventure together: we paced ourselves, at times lagging behind and at times zooming forward; chatting; occasionally yelping at a splash of cold water; slowing down to point out some loons or eel grass in the middle of the lake where a week ago there was nothing; and a bald eagle swooped overhead just to remind us of the sky above, causing reminiscences about cloud animals spotted in the past.

The fittest and most practiced member of the group didn’t so much set the pace as mapped the course of our journey. Most of the time he was far ahead of us, yet it didn’t feel that he was rushing us. It felt more like his curiosity was pulling him forward. The rest of the party had their own curiosity, but weren’t quite as driven.  We were happy to follow, while staying together in our own comfortable pod. Each paddling their own canoe, but in constant contact (mostly talking, but occasionally we ran into each other too, but always with good humour.)

There was an undefined and flexible gap between the first and the second kayak – it never got to be so great as to lose line of sight, but it was beyond hailing distance, except when the paddler slowed down to experience the stillness of a lily pond and to forecast that good bass fishing seemed likely in that spot.  We were each paddling according to our own understanding of our craft and within our own physical inclinations, imagination and curiosity.  The outlier canoeist is a nephew of mine.  He runs a very successful business started by his parents; his passion is sailing – the adventurous long distance kind – on the wide open Indian Ocean.  Yet his thrill at being on a Canadian lake where nothing man-made was visible other than what we’d brought with us was as great as mine.

I couldn’t help but reflect on theories of leadership and group formation as we moved across the water.  In my own experience of being compelled to work in teams, and subsequently happily to lead and then to coach teams,  paddling one’s own canoe is in fact a component of being a good team member. By failing to paddle at all, or by paddling badly, a team member causes the entire pod of kayakers (or workplace teams) to flounder, lose momentum and direction.  By paddling diligently, you contribute to team cohesion – you share experiences and insights, you make decisions together, you offer and receive help when needed, and everyone moves in the same direction – towards the destination you envisaged as you embarked. By taking responsibility for yourself, inside your own canoe (applying your skills to the best of your ability to manage your resources toward arriving at a common goal), you contribute to team success.

Yet, there are those among us who are loners – who want, not only to paddle our own canoes, but to launch out on our own.  Although we humans are social creatures, there are those among us who are unique – those who shine more brilliantly on their own than confined to a group or team.   The leadership challenge is to recognise that we’re not all equally anxious to be team players, even though we may very well be as committed to the same goals – we just have different ways of getting there.  The leadership challenge is to enable those entrepreneurial spirits to blossom in their own canoes, off on their own adventures, and to make it possible for them to come back with their creative ideas in a way that stimulates excitement and engagement in the rest of the team, rather than resentment that everyone isn’t treated the same.

IMG_20160731_202306The greater leadership challenge is in being that entrepreneur – that outlier – who wants to go further and faster, who needs to know when to come back and how to share the experience in a way that excites and motivates the stay-at-home pod. And, sometimes, in slowing down and bonding with the pod, because if the leader is too far removed, too often, the bond weakens, jealously surfaces and trust is at risk.

And, my final point is that the leader who thinks s/he has all the answers and all the dreams is bound to run afoul of the team.  As the text books all say, leaders need to be visionaries but they also need to be collaborators if they want team cohesion and trust.  So when that lone kayaker, approaching the next set of rapids, realises that the connection with the pod is at risk, he comes back, and asks what the pod would like to do next.  “Swim and eat lunch.”  And so the entrepreneurial leader and the pod agree to head to an island in the middle of the lake where they moored the canoes, plunged into the water where they each swam and floated as they saw fit, and afterwards came back to eat their sandwiches and drink some water.

©Delphine du Toit 2016

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