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When your coaching client gives back in spades

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We’re 17 days into the new year and I’ve had more things go wrong in this short time than I care to speak about, in case I fall into the trap of thinking like a victim.

I travelled into the city the other day to meet a client: She’s in a senior leadership role in her organisation and I provide her with executive coaching. I travelled in a friend’s car because my car’s brakes died at 4 pm on a Friday afternoon some weeks ago, in a community a long way away from home. I made it to the dealership OK, and they kindly inspected the problem and declared the car unsafe to drive. So, I borrowed a car.

Other parts of the back story include the airline failing to load my luggage in Vancouver. The next day the courier couldn’t deliver my missing suitcase because the driveway was iced over. Then there are the never-ending renovations of my old farm house I bought a few months ago. I’ve been living out of boxes for months and can no longer find most things that I’m looking for. And then the ISP service that was out when I got home from my Christmas trip.

I ended up exhausting my data package on my cellphone.

All the while business is booming. I migrate from my house to the library, to Tim Horton’s to wherever I can find WiFi, to respond to opportunities online and via phone, nervous about using public WiFi to check emails that may contain confidential information. I can feel the little grey cells in my head losing their grip.

Midway through my coaching session I forgot my client’s name.

And then I realised something: I was working harder than usual to practice active listening, to a degree that I stressed those little grey cells and at the crucial moment they failed me. I apologised; she laughed. And then I noticed something that had been there, right in front of me, all the time: she was calm.

She is always graceful and dignified, but now, as she updated me on things we’ve spoken about before, I realised that something has shifted for her. She was confident and in control of her narrative and of her plans. Her telling was both personal and also from a broader perspective. I told her how her changed demeanor struck me. As if she’d had a breakthrough without fully realising it.

As I described to her what I observed, and as she received the feedback, I felt my mind also slow down to a calmer pace.

I finally started feeling comfortable again in my coaching role. I told her that she had helped me over my own hurdle of stress and feeling out of control of all that had gone wrong – the frenzy I’d been in to solve all the problems as they came flying at me the whole (very short) year.

Her response was distinctly coach-like. I felt the better for it. I regained perspective. I felt balance return.

I described to her what my normal practice is in preparing for a coaching session – to be centred, mindful, empathic, and how I’d not done that. I’d rushed. My mind had been on other things en route to our appointment.

I left that meeting with a sense that I HAD after all been of service to her during that hour. She had clarified her thinking around some options; knew what she wanted to do next; and had celebrated the discovery about regaining calmness and balance. I left the meeting with deeper insight into my own nature: how rabid I can get when I’m confronted by unexpected challenges –

‘I’ll fix this; I can overcome; I always do; I’m super-fixer.’

No, I’m not. And so what fun it was to phone another friend and to say,

‘I’m so pleased I have friends who are problem solvers because I need your help.’

It’s a lesson to relearn and remember: reaching out and asking for help isn’t weakness. It’s a testament to the essence of being human: we can’t go it alone. We need to be part of the give and take of community. Know when to offer help; know when to ask for it.

Networking and Business Cards

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When you start out as an entrepreneur and you get caught up in all the ‘must do’ things like blogging, creating a list, networking, writing a book…it may be daunting; it may be exciting.  Whichever way it is/was for you, it’s pretty likely that you attended more than one networking event in your time.


There are Rules of the Game in networking.

It’s about meeting people, creating a good impression, and getting their contact details (so that you can build your list of potential recipients of your newsletter, blog, book, notices, etc.).

It’s about coming across as confident, interested and interesting; not showing your fear, your neediness, your loneliness and doubts.

It’s about knowing how to kick off with small talk, vs. jumping in and giving your 30sec elevator speech (yes, they still do that).

It’s about pretending that you’re not there in the hopes of making the coolest business contact that will set you up for life, but rather that you just love hanging out at events like that, looking for ways to be helpful to others.

It’s about knowing when the conversation is over and moving on.


You were probably told to hand out your business cards to as many people as you can, and to collect as many as you can. I was. And did.

I had a system: When I got home I’d scribble notes on as many of the business cards as I could – something noteworthy about the person., to jog my memory in days/weeks/months to come.  Then, the morning after the event I would email every single person whose business card I’d collected; reminding them of  how we met, and making some personal little reference to remind them of  me.


I took it a step further: I had a Cardex box with markers for weeks of the month (1,2,3,4) and months of the year, by name.  The business card of every person I’d emailed would be noted with the date of the email, and then placed somewhere in that Cardex box, aimed at some day in the future, when I would follow up. Not too soon; not too late.

Fast forward to this day.

I moved into a new house a week ago. I’m unpacking things and trying to find space for everything.  I came across a box of business cards, and my Cardex box, inside another box.  In an idle moment, as I was wondering where to put this lot, I started sorting those cards:

  • One pile for the cards of people I don’t remember, nor do I remember which networking event we might have met  at.
  • Another pile for people that I did recall, or even had contact with.

Both piles contained some beautifully designed cards, full of creative art work, carefully selected fonts, and filled with dreams and hopes. I felt dreadful that I’d failed the folks in the first pile: They’d entrusted me with their cards and I’d done nothing. Because yes, my beautiful system lasted only as long as it took me to land my first corporate training gig, and then it was going all out to make a success of THAT.  By the time the training and coaching had finished, the business card project had somehow shifted to the back of the closet, never to be touched again, until now.

The second pile is now on my desk, next to the stapler and my own lovely desktop card holder, waiting for me to take action, which will happen  tomorrow.


The first pile of discarded business cards fell victim to two compelling things in my life:

  • Seriously reducing clutter; and
  • Building a fire in my new (old) wood stove to fight off the first chills of the Canadian Fall.

My apologies to those folk who never heard from me after we’d networked, whose cards have now gone up in flames. (But then, I never heard from you either, so why did we do it, and what did you do with my beautiful Zebra logo’d business card, full of dreams and hopes?)

This wouldn’t be a worthy blog if there weren’t at least one lesson in it. There are several.

The lessons are:

  1. Don’t entrust your hopes and dreams to unreliable strangers.
  2. If you develop a system for building your business, it’s like any other creative work:   10% inspiration, 90% perspiration. (Might I not by now have built up an amazing list of contacts compelling me to employ a social media manager to manage my relationships with everyone?)
  3. The act of de-cluttering creates focus: Don’t just toss out – review/consider/ choose.
  4. Blogging topics arise in the strangest places.
  5. If you shortly receive an email from me with a link to this blog, then you’ll know that your card was in the second pile.  If you would like to keep hearing from me, by all means accept me on your white list in your email client. If you don’t, please unsubscribe.  More than that, I’d love to hear back from you! 

And a last thought

Networking and building relationships have served me well in my business, despite the failed Cardex scheme.

In particular, I’ve met any number of women from all walks of life at the Centre for Women in Business  at Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Water treatment specialists, a funeral celebrant, the owner of a consignment fashion store, a best-selling author, a lawyer, accountants, a fast food franchisee, the head of a company that waterproofs basements, coaches, professors.  I’ve referred business to some of them, and I’ve done some project work with some of them too. Through my networking in my professional association, International Coach Federation, Atlantic, I’ve had and given referrals and found like-minded colleagues to collaborate with.

I’ve had great responses to surveys I’ve conducted to my ‘list’ that have given me guidance on new business ventures.  The relatively recent live LinkedIn event at the Halifax public library was an interesting experience. It was an opportunity to meet a very diverse grouping of people, from all age groups, with varying technological capabilities and sometimes starkly different world views.  Something may come of that yet.

More than all of that, good friendships have evolved. ‘Let’s go for a coffee’ is a well-worn euphemism for ‘let’s get together because I enjoy your company.’

Networking can be like zebras in the veld: so much going on that you feel overwhelmed. Concentrate on what is not being said and ask a question.



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I have a sideways pear tree in my backyard.

It fell over some years ago before I moved here, so I don’t know what happened. But, by the time I moved in, it had developed a very different stance from what one normally expects of a pear tree. The main trunk, about 20 feet long, lies virtually flat on the ground, but still retains a viable root system at the base of the trunk. All along that horizontal trunk new water sprouts have sprung up, reaching up to the great blue sky above. Over some years they firmed up, becoming sturdier, pushing out their own branches that in turn pushed out their own leaves. For the past two summers the tree has produced pears.

Its determination to live true to its purpose as a pear tree greets me every morning as I wander out on the deck. The tallest branches – those original water sprouts – now sway high up in the sky – taller than the apple tree next to it.  What is that quality that caused it not to wither and die? What is that quality in so many of us that makes it possible to keep on keeping on?

Is it tenacity or is it resilience?

It is of course foolish to be anthropomorphic about a tree: It’s not like it can be motivated like a human can be. And so this isn’t really about the tree, although it is what triggered the question.  It’s an important question because there is a divide between tenacity and resilience and yet there is symbiosis too.

The one is characterized by determination; an iron will; single-mindedness; great clarity of purpose; even obstinacy.

The other is characterized by flexibility; recovery; the ability not to dwell on a failure or disappointment but instead to be able to frame positive lessons from an experience and build personal capacity to re-calibrate and move on.

It seems to me that to be successful in a world that changes as fast as ours does, where many of the changes arrive unexpectedly and where life and security seem to be more at risk than we would like, we need both tenacity and resilience. Yet there are pitfalls:

In the extreme, tenacity can be obstinate stubbornness that pulls you further and further into a hole, away from what you’re trying to be or to achieve.  Resilience, on the other hand, can result in such a level of mental double-jointedness that your twisted sense of what’s possible immobilizes you. The possibilities seem endless and they all look like they’d be fun to do.

Just imagine the extremes of these two characteristics at play at the same time:

You could end up with a bull-headed determination to attach yourself to whatever leader shouts the loudest. Then you follow them over the cliff, believing that you’ve found your divine destiny, even as you muse to yourself that this might be wrong and wondering why you didn’t contemplate some alternatives before it was too late.

Please don’t do that.

In being tenacious be courageous and keep a check on over-reach. Recognize, when  you keep on hammering in the same direction in the same way without achieving the desired result, that tenacity isn’t enough. Apply your tenacity under the canopy of resilience.  

In being resilient, be flexible, while remaining focused on the destination: sometimes the conclusion is ‘you can’t get there from here’. Fine. Where tenacity is about not giving up until it is the obvious thing to do, resilience is about finding a different way of getting it done. Sometimes it is tough-going and the temptation is to fall back and affirm the trite old saying about ‘you can’t get there….’ Before doing that, revisit your tenacity. Use tenacity in combination, and balance, with resilience. That’s what they’re there for.

As Kenny Rogers was wont to say:

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run

So the next time you reach out to pick up a delicious juicy pear – this very summer – think about the things you’ve achieved in your life by being tenacious and resilient, in a measured and balanced way. And then let us know about it here, in the comments section.

© Delphine du Toit 2018

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

[continue reading…]

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.