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  • Writer's pictureSimeen Kaleem

Fixing what's broken inside, before we fix what's broken outside

Prioritizing wellbeing of change-makers

As an organization that aims to bring about social change, our work is difficult and demands deep commitment, overcoming failures, and having faith in ourselves when most people don't. It is like being a part of a marathon where we fall on our face over, and over again, but find the strength to stand up tall again and keep running!

We also have to bear in mind that beyond being change-makers, all of us are also partners, parents, children, and play various other roles in our lives. We have personal struggles and concerns that we are battling each day. To be a social change maker and drive change, while also managing our personal challenges, requires us to have self-awareness, resilience, positive attitude, and a growth mindset. Cultivating these qualities while leading social change is essential for creating deep and sustainable impact without burning out as leaders or burning out our teams.

But all of this is too much to ask, and not easy to achieve!

At Gramhal, we strongly believe that we can't fix what's broken outside until we fix what's broken inside. It is one of our core values. We encourage all our team members to take care of their minds and hearts before we get on to tackling one of the country's biggest social problems. We not only encourage our team members to do so on their own, but we strive to create an ecosystem for inner wellbeing.

An effort in this direction is having a professional emotional intelligence leadership coach at Gramhal, who can support and encourage us to cultivate self-awareness and emotional balance, and build our capacity to lead from a space of wisdom.

We felt extremely privileged and grateful when we onboarded – Bela Shah to coach us. Bela is the former Director of Dalai Lama Fellows, a meta coach with Goleman EI, and a Vipassana meditation practitioner. She is passionate about connecting our inner wellbeing to social change and, coaches emerging leaders and professionals from across six continents in cultivating the core capacities of emotional intelligence (EI). Bela has facilitated reflective workshops and retreats for various leadership programs, including the Social Innovation and Change Initiative (SICI) program at Harvard and the Princeton Alumni Corps at Princeton. So, to have Bela agree to coach us was a privilege and an opportunity.

Bela started her coaching with us by first leading our team through a series of group coaching workshops focused on learning and practicing foundational EI skills such as self-awareness and emotional balance, followed by a heart-opening session focused on the perils of perfectionism and the urgent need for self-compassion in leadership. We openly shared our self-limiting beliefs and inner narratives that were standing in the way of us stepping into our inner power as human beings and also as leaders. We shared stories about our dissatisfaction with ourselves at work, things we are telling ourselves that we can't do, and things that are holding us back.

It was so surprising to see that most of us on the team have similar struggles that we were dealing with individually.

Many of us felt that we are not doing enough and have the capacity to do much more, most of us need validation to keep going, and some of us were hesitant to explore new ideas. When we shared these stories with each other, we realized that we are not alone in it – we all have our shared stories, fears, and struggles. This breaking of the wall between just seeing the outer self of team members to really knowing them through our shared struggles, built a sense of deep connection, empathy, and belongingness towards each other. From suddenly being fearful of sharing our vulnerabilities, we found that sharing these very vulnerabilities created a safe space for us and brought us together. Rather than us struggling individually, we learned how to support each other and solve it together.

One of my team members puts it rightly, "It's funny that often we tend to hide our fears and insecurities, and don't want to showcase them, fearing that the world will see us as weak. With our sessions, the opposite happens - I feel confident and strong."

This session was a surreal experience. It made us more human, more real, and more authentic – we were much more than product design teams, fundraising teams, and names to each other. During this session, I shared vulnerabilities about myself with my new team members that I haven't shared with teams I have worked with for many years! This drastically changed how I felt about people I work with and how I work with them!

Bela also guided us through self-discovery and created a reflective space for us to share how we were able to show up, and also, not show up with our core values and how this impacted our work together as a team.

After some of our initial sessions, a team member shared his excitement and said, "this is something very new to me. I went in, not knowing what to expect, and came out, not believing what had happened. After a very long time, I had had the chance to introspect and was able to understand my own feelings. Highlights of the session for me were where each member pointed out positives about others - which helped to build self-confidence, and when members shared their vulnerabilities and warning signs and ways to take care of themselves, which helped the team to understand the required support mechanisms in a better way. These sessions will take us a long way in building a team where everyone cares about everyone else."

During one of the group exercises, we spoke about our preferred interaction style and our warning signals. One team member shared that his preferred interaction style is knowing beforehand about what we are going to talk about, rather than giving him a lot of information during the interaction itself. His warning signs are that he goes quiet (because he is trying to think of how to bring up his objection or challenge), and he tends to immediately agree with things if he is unsure of how best to object. He usually prefers time to voice agreement/disagreement. When we see these warning signs – we should let him be, and give him some space and time.

After this session, all of us were mindful of how to interact with other members effectively. We are able to give each other constructive feedback and feel safe to take risks even though we have only known each other for a little over one month. Before this session, we usually started meetings and discussions without giving heads up to members and would wrap up with the final next steps and suggestions at the meeting itself. Learning that everyone works differently, we changed our style of meetings, and it has really helped us grow. Since then, we are inspiring more input and receiving constructive feedback. Being aware of such things has allowed us to collaborate better and work together effectively.

After a few sessions, we asked our team, how were they feeling – B shared "As a new team with plenty of work lined up for us, getting to know one another was important, but also difficult. After all, it has been proven that the most important factor for a startup's success is team dynamics. Bela's facilitation of our group provided a safe and encouraging space for us to be vulnerable with one another and share deeply personal stories- it was amazing! I would never have expected so much depth from myself or my team members. In addition, it helped me reflect on myself and figure out ways that I could develop into a better leader, and a better version of myself. This was a great way for us to start building our 'culture' and I am so glad leadership in the team took the initiative to arrange this. As someone mentioned, this process helped us learn more about one another in 4 days than we probably would have in a whole year!"

Bela has a gift for facilitating vulnerable spaces and conversations, where we feel safe and brave to step into our authenticity. The deep reflection in a safe space held by Bela created psychological safety amongst our team and within a few sessions, we experienced increased empathy, trust, and connection, which has allowed us to work together more creatively and effectively.

Since we started coaching, we have witnessed a real change in ourselves and team dynamics.

We are communicating better, finding possibilities and peace in hard times, rooting our work in our values, understanding who we are and what matters most to us, and allowing us to handle difficult conversations and situations better (which literally is every single day!) It has enabled real collaboration, build our emotional muscle, cultivated deep awareness, and self-compassion – all of which strengthens our capacity to impact social change.

We are aware, that as we grow as an organization - our challenges will grow, and each day our learnings and values will be put to test. But it is really for those days that we are preparing ourselves now. Social change is not a sprint but a marathon, and we need to be preparing for it from day one.

In my next blog, I speak to Bela herself in detail about her coaching and how it can help social change makers.

About the author: Simeen is Director at Gramhal. She builds processes and contributes to the verticals of communications, fundraising, strategy, and HR.


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