Soft Skills in Hard Places

This article first appeared on the Training Journal and gives an insight into the training I take into conflict zones.  You can read more about Integration Training’s embodied approach which is used both in conflict zones and the corporate world

Leadership, Communication & Stress Management Training in Conflict Zones

I divide my time between European business training and more relaxing work such as with the Sierra Leonian Armed Forces, with peace charities in the Middle East and with children from the slums of Brazil. Before entering the corporate training world I worked for a non-profit sector organisation that specialises in conflict resolution and this experience still underpins my work. It occurs to me that the two environments are often closer together than they might at first seem and that I teach very similar material in both high-pressure areas. This article is about the lessons from one which apply to the other.

Some Non-Typical Soft-Skills Training Work…

Some of the training jobs I’ve enjoyed most outside of Europe over the last five years:

  • Two weeks training military personnel in post-conflict Sierra Leone in NonViolent Communication (an emotional intelligence and communication system), trauma prevention (resilience training) and conflict mediation (2010)
  • Three months teaching martial arts, communication skills and leadership to the management of a HIV awareness circus in Awassa, Ethiopia (2006)
  • Six months living in the favella slums of Sao Paulo, Brazil working with street-children and high-level executives, and bringing the two groups together for leadership skills training (2005)
  • Sharing leadership, communication and resilience training with various Israeli peace charities (December 2010)

As well as my training company I lead the “Achilles” resilience training initiative – which supports the mental health of people working in conflict zones. This is just taking off with trials beginning for a major UK emergency service and various international aid agencies are interested so I expect to have some more colourful work in 2011! Get in touch if you work somewhere crazy and want to stay sane.

I feel very lucky to have had a life that has taken me to some interesting places and have met some wonderful people along the way. Much of the learning from abroad applies to say, teaching stress management or appraisals workshops back home in Brighton and London. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learnt:

Top Twelve Things a Corporate Trainer Can Learn from Conflict Zones

–  Be prepared…and know you can’t be

Before going to a new location preparation is key, with climate, geography, language, economy and culture all being critical to know about. The CIA have a good website if you’re in a hurry and need reliable basics on any country.  While PPPPPP and all that, I also accept that “no plan survives the first shot” to use a military metaphor. Flexibility and adaptation; which are hampered by being attached to any plan; are vital. The serenity prayer is at the heart of much resilience work and my own resilience as a trainer – “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” This applies to business training too – get your act together, AND it’s all OK.

– Manage yourself first

In any challenging/hostile climate, whether it be boardroom or the bullet-ridden, self-management is vital. Looking after yourself first as a trainer is the key to success – put on your own oxygen mask. Managing health, stress, time (commitments and energy), mood, and of course your own communication and soft-skills is the foundation of a good training. Aid workers like executives find achieving work-life balance a challenge and the better ones recognise that working oneself into the ground is a form of selfishness and not altruism. Many NGOs will actively enforce down-time and holidays for emergency relief staff who are as reluctant to take time off as corporate CEOs.

–  Culture matters

In my travels I have seen how vitally important understanding the local culture is for a successful training programme. In Sierra Leone recently for example, tying aspects of communication training in with local religious beliefs and power dynamics was vital. There are several cultural factors which are particularly important to consider in regards to training such as attitudes to time, power and how learning occurs. In Ethiopia for example high status is given to teachers but open discussion is very hard to illicit; in highly individualistic Israel it is important that everyone has their say. Hofstede and Hofstede give the best review I have seen of some of the main cultural variables (national and institutional – Apple is not Microsoft for example) and Spiral Dynamics is a useful system for seeing values trends.

–  We’re all the same

The corollary to “culture matters” is that we are all fundamental the same. Having worked with some of the most diverse cultural differences imaginable I conclude that on one level we are not different at all which as both a trainer and a human is kind of a relief. See NonViolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg for how we can connect through universal feelings and needs for example.

–  Respect your delegates

Respecting delegates comes up again and again as a critical success factor. In some places I have worked this is a matter of personal safety and the “no guns in the training room” rule is hopefully to one that will ever apply to the corporate world (though I’ve never worked in Texas). Getting buy-in and establishing rapport are however vital for any training so this is always key

–  The body matters

Having spent a lot of time places where people don’t speak English or speak it as a second language I’ve learnt that the body is vital for communication and even when people do speak your language, looking at what they embody is often more revealing than what they are saying.  Understanding the embodied nature of training is vital for any trainer. Google “embodied management training” or read Richard Strozzi Heckler’s books for more on this.

–  You’re there to teach (back to basics)

As trainers we are called because people want to learn something and if we can’t help them we are out of integrity. Having worked in places where education was very badly needed and valued, I now do not shy away from this. Even if your methods are participatory, respect the beautiful inner unique snowflake genius of participants and contain non-directive elements (which I highly recommend), you are not a “learning facilitator pedagogical pixie-wizard” or whatever is trendy – you are a teacher whose job it is to help people learn stuff. You are equal as people but not in knowledge (you should have more clarity and participants will know more than you about culturally relevant application).

–  Leadership is always up for grabs

I’ve worked in several countries that have frequent coups and numerous rebel groups. Delegates will also rebel (or worse comply) if as a trainer you do not lead them effectively and show how your material relevant and useful. Your leadership as a trainer is always open for contention; do not take it for granted.

–  PowerPoint is the real enemy

OK, let’s face facts – PowerPoint is the work of the darkest daemons from training hell and should be taken outside and shot against a wall. If you rely upon it you are a bad trainer -FACT. I know, I know, that’s a little bit of a soft-line but I’m in a generous mood. Seriously, having done training in a number of countries where the electricity would periodically fail I have found not relying on PP or any other computer technology makes training not only more resilient to problems (what can go wrong will go wrong) but actually much better. Use it only as a back-up.

–  Conflict is disastrous…and fine too

Conflict can be deeply unpleasant, harmful, wasteful and bring out the very worst of human nature (watch Cry Freetown if you really want to see how bad things can get). It can also be a process of much needed dynamic change that brings people together. It’s about how it’s done and trainers can learn much about their profession from studying it academically, somatically (e.g. through the martial arts) and through travel. Learning is about change which I would say always involves conflict.

–  Non-violent training works better

For me much training is “violent” in the wider sense. It is done without permission, from a sense of superiority and without taking trauma into account.  The way delegates are is a result f what has kept them safe in the best, so I always cringe when see article on “difficult behaviour” for example. Safety and trauma are of course relevant in war-zones and the like, but equally important for a corporate trainer to understand and this world is often almost as brutalising.

–  Always bring your own pens

Last but not least the most important thing that I have learnt from training in difficult environments abroad that applies to UK offices too is that you should ALWAYS bring your own pens – the ones there will be rubbish. This is a universal truth.

Why Soft Skills Matter

Daniel Goleman talks about the “hard case for soft skills” to describe why emotional intelligence matters in the workplace, and the wisdom of this has become very apparent on my travels. You may ask why would someone in a developing nation like Ethiopia or Sierra Leone care about soft skills however, when there are perhaps more pressing needs. Let’s look at the very hard example of starvation to show why soft skills matter. I would claim, that people do not go hungry simply because there is not enough food, they starve because of how it is distributed and the politics of food. This in term is determined by leadership, communication, empathy (or lack there-of) and conflict. So if you want to stop people starving long-term, looking at these factors, among others, is vital. The work on values development done by Don Beck in the Middle East similarly points to the need for internal development to support external development, and therefore peace. Likewise Goleman states numerous examples of how emotional intelligence and leadership skills make a massive difference to the performance and bottom-lines of businesses. Soft skills matter.

Top Five Things Non-Profit Trainers Can Learn from Business

The learning between those working in conflict and post-conflict zones and those in the business training world can occurs in both directions. Since having been involved with training executive groups in big business I have learnt a lot that has benefited my non-profit sector work. This side is not this article’s focus but for those working on the non-profit side of the tracks here are a few business orientations I have found useful:

  • Results emphasis – “what works”
  • Excellence – it’s OK!
  • Accountability is necessary to get things done – what, by who, by when?
  • Measurement is useful to assess effectiveness – what did we actually do?
  • Systems and processes support effective work – get organised

Of course not all businesses have these and not all charities don’t. However I’ve seen a trend and mutual leaning can definitely occur.


Much can be learnt from training in challenging locations and I hope this article has been interesting and useful. I need to learn things the hard way, I hope you don’t have to. Big love.


–  Cultures and organizations: software of the mind – Hofstede, Geert; Hofstede, Gert Jan. (2005)

–  NonViolent Communication – Marshall Rosenberg (1992)

–  Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change, Don Beck and Christopher Cowan (1996)

–  The Leadership Dojo – Richard Strozzi Heckler (2007)

–  Working with Emotional intelligence – Daniel Golman (1998)

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