by Dina Fuad
February 2022, and the post-pandemic impacts were continuing to be felt across the board. In a brightly painted children’s library above a row of shops on Chow Kit Road, a group of community engagement workers briefly exchanged stories about their current challenges and how Covid had increased the vulnerability of the people they support.
But the conversations soon took on a cheerful note, as the women turned their attention to the day’s programme. It was no ordinary day. For the past few months, they had been waiting for this day to mark the successful completion of the introductory course in coaching, which they undertook virtually in October last year.
For these professionals, it had been a balancing act of juggling work, learning and putting their new skills into practice. In addition, they had to address the unpredictable moments that came with the new territory.
Introducing these new communication and engagement techniques with the vulnerable individuals they support and practising among colleagues had brought its own set of challenges and even initial resistance.
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Nevertheless, the excitement was palpable as the women anticipated the presentation of their coaching participation certificates from their trainer, Teamcoach International.
Coaching for Community Enablers was a taster course, which ran as part of Teamcoach International’s (TCI) corporate social responsibility (CSR) project over three weekends last year.
It was, as TCI’s founder, CEO and course trainer, Captain Dr Shan Moorthi pointed out, “a way of showing gratitude towards community organisations and the people who work tirelessly to serve marginalised communities, especially during the pandemic.”
The women in the room were all experienced professionals who have been supporting refugees and undocumented migrants around Kuala Lumpur for years, but no one has ever applied coaching at work. Counselling, mentoring and therapy – these were familiar tools of the trade, but coaching was a new approach to engagement and support work altogether.
Perspectives on coaching gathered at the start of the course indicated that many were inclined to perceive it in the vein of sports coaching or mentoring. This is because concepts of training, instructing and giving advice were put forward. But this could not be further from the truth.
Coaching, as Dr Shan reiterated, is not a prescriptive tool but one that supports self-discovery and enables personal choices to be made.
Although corporate companies and some public sector institutions,in such as Intan [National Institute for Public Administration] are now embracing the coaching culture, the idea is still relatively new to NGO communities. This group of dedicated women had sacrificed their weekends to initiate the move towards coaching adoption, which they hoped would build capacity and, more importantly, bring immense benefits to the communities they serve.
“Coaching is a powerful tool which they can use to help individuals facing challenges and hardships learn to be self-reliant and create their own paths towards change.
“Helping struggling communities become more solution-focused rather than problem-focused is one way in which coaching works to enable self-discovery and transformation,” said Dr Shan.
With professionals originating from Yemen, Sudan and Malaysia attending the event, it was a gathering of a diverse group of dedicated community enablers – teachers, social workers, human resource personnel, coordinator, manager and the CEO of Yayasan Chow Kit (YCK), the host of the event.
The venue, YCK’s Activity Centre for Children, is a hub of activity with classes for marginalised seven to 12-year-olds running above the library.
The YCK teachers had taken time out of the classrooms to join their colleagues, a teacher and a Focal Point volunteer from the Malaysian Social Research Institute (MSRI), an organisation which serves refugee communities from the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.
The discussions would have even been livelier had the course participants from two other organisations, Doctors without Borders and Mitra Enrichment Organisation, been able to attend.
However, as it turned out, there was adequate feedback among the attendees to demonstrate that coaching certainly has its place in community organisations, whether it is at the grassroots or management level.
Once the presentations began in earnest, the din of the traffic and the worldly cares below paled into insignificance as the women talked candidly about their new engagement experience.
Conclusively, they concurred that coaching was a welcome addition to the string of roles they were already undertaking as community enablers. They address, support and manage a range of cases and demands on a daily basis.
The heavy workload and stresses come with the territory as the demand for support for the displaced and marginalised has grown phenomenally in recent years. As of end-January 2022, there are some 181,510 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Malaysia. Some 45,650 of them are children below 18.
“Recognising the dedication and hard work of community workers towards improving the lives of others, we want to share this gift of coaching with them, so that they can support those they serve in more effective and meaningful ways,” said Dr Shan.
The International Association of Coaching defines coaching as “a transformative process for personal and professional awareness and growth”. Not surprisingly, the general consensus among the new coaches reinforced this developmental aspect of coaching. The women reported that after a couple of sessions, there was a gradual shifting of mindsets among their ‘coachees’ – the vulnerable and socially displaced men, women and children on whom they practised coaching.
Changing mindsets and building self-efficacy
The process, they observed, did slowly encourage a way of thinking which enabled individuals experiencing socioeconomic difficulties and emotional setbacks to uncover their strengths and reflect on their weaknesses. It brought clarity of purpose, prompting a steady move towards adopting a positive outlook, as the communities continued receiving everyday basic support from their respective organisations.
Some coaches were at pains to point out that attempts to instil positive thinking within individuals and families beset with problems were not always an easy part of their daily professional interactions and seldom yielded results.
But weaving in coaching conversations and asking thought-provoking questions seemed to have given unexpected results – the new communication process managed to stir emotions and brought hidden issues to the surface. Indeed, a refreshing change for those caught up in the challenges of being refugee.
As Seham Hassan Ali, a teacher from MSRI, shared, although the changes were small, overall, coaching helped her students to be more expressive and constructive about the pathways they would like to take.
The new coaches recalled feeling an overwhelming sense of relief and achievement as they saw the majority of their coachees opening up in the course of the coaching conversations. These discussions went over several sessions.
This, they said, made the individuals, who were usually anxious and uncertain about their lives, more focused and confident, having gradually been encouraged to uncover their personal strength. The participants believed that this personal development would eventually help their coachees gain a level of self-efficacy.
Indeed, in the eyes of these professionals who have long understood the barriers experienced by the beneficiaries of their programmes, this was what the beginning of the road to empowerment looked like.
Hazdalila Zai Ibrahim, one of YCK’s pioneer teachers who has been at the centre for eight years, put down the success of using coaching techniques with her pupils to being able to apply an innovative way of interaction which does away with traditional, directive roles of teaching.
“Working with kids who do not have a safe and secure environment at home or proper parental guidance, you come across so many issues. And you worry and get stressed and want so much for them, so that you always end up telling them off when things are not right.
“You become strict and directive to help them through the difficulties. Yet you don’t realise how important it is to inspire them towards self-learning.
“There’s a child who always walks into class without a pencil, no matter how many times he has been given one. My repeated scolding had not changed anything. But after learning coaching, I engaged in an informal conversation with him and asked coaching questions.
“This made him aware of his attitude towards attending class and why a pencil was important. I stopped scolding. The next day without me asking him, the first thing he did was to show me a pencil he had brought with him! I was so pleased!”
“Coaching is such a powerful tool, so that under the right conditions where there is a good professional relationship, you can see its impact quite soon after the initial sessions.
“For these community enablers who know what refugees have to endure daily, to see the latter finding their own voice and wanting to be proactive after being disempowered by socioeconomic inequalities, must mean a lot to them,” said Dr Shan.
The World Health Organization (WHO, 2020) refers to community empowerment as “the process of enabling communities to increase control over their lives … a process by which people gain control over the factors and decisions that shape their lives”.
Community professionals and volunteers do not have all the answers to the challenges faced by the diverse communities they serve, but they have a role to play in empowering individuals towards affecting their own change through facilitating independent thinking and decision-making.
However, one participant, Ananti Rajasingam, YCK’s CEO, stressed the need to understand that ’empowerment’ would not work in isolation in the context of serving marginalised communities. It has to work alongside consistent and genuine efforts to help refugees access basic needs first and foremost.
“Empowerment is a big word, but it is important that the immediate needs of those struggling are being looked into first of all. Only then can we help them to be more open and confident to gain skills to sustain themselves in the future as we support them to manage the present. It has to work both ways.”
Echoing this sentiment, the humanitarian affairs officer for Doctors Without Borders, Venisri Shanmugavelu, maintained that “whilst advocating for the basic humanitarian needs of refugees such as access to quality health care and protection is crucial, it is also important to enable refugees to do more for themselves.
“One of my coachees said that the process was an eye-opener, enabling her to autonomously develop practical solutions to her existing problems, learning what to prioritise and understanding her inner fears.”
Despite their limitations in terms of resources, many NGOs try to do much more for the growing number of displaced individuals who knock on their doors. Attending to the needs of refugee children, for example, is much more than providing classrooms and health services that the state does not provide.
NGOs undertaking such roles would naturally also extend the support to include the protection and development of the mental and emotional wellbeing of their respective communities.
As an additional tool, coaching does a good job of maintaining good emotional, mental and spiritual connections between coach and coachee. Notably, according to Dr Shan, the best solutions often come out of a good partnership between the two. This is because there is mutual trust and respect and a genuine desire to move upwards.
With the introduction of coaching, community enablement is enriched as the focus switches to the coachee’s agenda, as opposed to maintaining conventional engagement styles, where communities survive and function largely on a basis of dependency on professional advice and suggestions.
Ananti offered a glimpse of this shift in engagement practices. “With my current position, I engage with many older children above 18 years old, as they come to me to seek advice on family and employment matters. I find that I can use the techniques I learnt on the course to help them find their own answers.
“I have learnt to be not so focused on giving them solutions so that as a leader, coaching empowers me to support individuals to take their own responsibility.
“So, whilst understanding their basic needs and rights and ensuring that these are taken care of, it is also good to work towards empowering them so that they are able to think positively and independently as they face the current challenges and prepare for the future.”
Indeed, working towards longer-term goals that promise sustainable outcomes is particularly crucial for organisations dealing with exceptionally vulnerable communities living without access to government healthcare, education and social services.
For community workers and those responsible for steering the visionary paths of organisations supporting groups at risk, their mission has often been one of holistic engagement that goes beyond addressing current predicaments.
Inevitably, for the community professionals whose task is to support refugees and asylum seekers, their work has made it necessary for them to undertake continuous professional development to grow their skills in different capacities as enablers. Coaching not only does this, but facilitates personal growth as well, bringing lasting benefits to both the coachee and the coach – and the organisation. – The Vibes
Dina Fuad, an Aliran member, is a freelance writer, coach and English language teacher. An ex-BBC journalist, she also has vast community engagement experience, having worked on refugee integration projects in the UK for over 15 years