Social Group Work: Endings, and Transitions

The temperature this week was 115 degrees most days!  That is even hot for here.

As always, we start and end every day with meditation:

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During the first part of the trip, Fr. Paul and I led the "social group work" course for 15 current PPCC counselors, 2 PPCC administrative staff, and 2 BPG animators. (See September 4th, 2015 entry for full names of both organizations.) In addition, about 16 past PPCC counselors and BPG animators attended, most of whose positions ended in March when funding for them stopped.

As usual, Fr. Paul and I teach together. I am the subject matter expert and course designer. He translates for language and culture. (The counselors' primary language is Tamil.) A number understand written English; some also speak very limited English.

The workshop was in many ways bittersweet.  Even tough they lost their positions, all the former counselors still attended.  I found this very inspiring. The counselors here really consider counseling work as a vocation, rather than just a job.

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The fact that international funders are leaving Sri Lanka  is discouraging, but typical in periods of development. The international community tends to pay more attention to countries during and after wars and disasters.

Originally, PPCC leadership requested this "social group work" course focus on the administrative and practical aspects of starting and running groups for a variety of social problems, like unemployment, widowhood, trauma, etc. We focused on these for the first two days.  Here is a partial list of groups counselors thought would be useful here:

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All counselors have completed at least one course in group counseling.

With decreased counseling services in the area, groups and group counseling become even more vital to help people in need. The challenge remains that most Sri Lankans feel stigmatized about seeking counseling, let alone group counseling. We discussed ways to design and run groups in a manner that reduces self-consciousness among potential members.

As always, we leave ample time for movement, which can include dance, music, or games mid-day, after lunch. This is often a chance for people to decompress from stress related to what we study.  It is also a great way for counselors to connect, that is customary in their culture. 

Counselors learn so much through "sharing," i.e.  exercises that help them understand and master various concepts and techniques.  During such exercises, they act as peer counselors for one another. At the end of day 2, Fr. Paul approached me, and said, "Mike, we need more sharing." Based on past experience with this class, I predicted this. For the final 2 days of the workshop, we had very brief presentations and lots of time in sharing groups. I believe this gave people time to grieve the loss of their positions.

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Our final exam for this workshop involved writing up a proposal and plan for a current group each counselor is running or for a new group he or she plans to start. Hopefully this will help counselors to remain active, and serve to protect the capacity for counseling we have worked so hard to build here in Batticaloa over the past 11 years.

Training & Consulting with Trainers, Counselors & Teachers in Foreign Countries: Some Tips

I am a foreign trainer from Evanston, IL USA, teaching with a local trainer, Fr. Paul Satkunanayagam, SJ, in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka. I have also presented in other areas in Sri Lanka on my own.

My start as a trainer here was baptism by fire. I came to Batticaloa 3 weeks after The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami to train counselors at the request of Fr. Paul. Known throughout Sri Lanka as an expert in counseling, he is a counseling psychologist and Sri Lankan Tamil Catholic priest, who is the founder and executive director of two agencies that provide an array of mental health services in his local community.

I have traveled here 19 times (approximately twice a year.) Anything I share I learned through trial and error in my efforts here.

Here are some tips for trainers working in other lands:

1. Lose your ego- As foreign trainers, we all travel to other countries wanting to share something new to make a difference. Due to language and cultural differences, doing so is most often much more complicated than anyone realizes. When we lose our egos, we are freer to honestly evaluate the classroom or workshop process, i.e., what people are really taking from our consultation and training efforts.

2. Be humble - Assume that people you train or consult with will know much more about their context than you, because they do. Once they know you understand this, they will be much more likely to reveal more authentic perspectives. Share information and ideas, but encourage them to integrate what you bring to them with what they know. Ask them to let you in on that process. Then you are really positioned both to train and consult if your expertise is truly needed.

3. Let those you serve become your teachers- Being attuned to the backgrounds, needs, experiences, and perspectives of trainees and leaders in an area helps foreign trainers adjust and modify lesson plans to create more "aha!" moments. This is always an ongoing process.

4. Don't assume - Trainers do better when they do not assume things about the cultures and the people they are trying to reach. Preparing one's self though extensive reading about and interviewing people from a culture helps. Ongoing dialogue and establishing a feedback loop while on the ground with representatives from target groups work best.

5. If possible, find a local trainer to partner with - If there is anyone on the ground who can translate for language and culture, get to know him/her. If that person is like-minded and a well respected, dynamic presenter, consider partnering and co-presenting. Welcome sharing the stage or a podium with a local trainer who can help trainees more fully comprehend your presentations. Make sure to have ample time to dialogue with that person before and after trips and presentations.

6. Embrace questioning - If your trainees understand the ideas you present and feel comfortable questioning their relevance to the local culture, you have done your job well. They understand you. They are trying to integrate the ideas you present with their work. Rather than sitting with their questions, they feel comfortable enough to question.

7. Adopt one area - The whole process I describe is complicated. Rather than re-constructing it over and over again in various parts of the world, try to focus on one foreign country. In time, this helps a trainer to establish a repertoire, relationship, and a deeper understanding of an area's culture(s) and issues.

I hope these tips are helpful. I feel they have served me and the people I serve well. When we provide training in an international context, the more we can do to attend to the learning process, the more the better. Through so doing, we will fulfill goals of helping those we serve learn, and make use of the information and techniques we attempt to bring them.

Training Trainers and Supporting Counselors in Sri Lanka: Sometimes the Blog Comes Last

And this is one of those times....

I have been here in Sri Lanka for the past 11 days, on a Fulbright Senior Specialist grant.*
During that time, I have taught two workshops with a prominent local teacher and translator, counseling psychologist, Fr. Paul Satkunanayagam, SJ., founder and executive director of The Professional Psychological Counselling Centre of Batticaloa (PPCC) and The Butterfly Peace Garden (BPG).**

The first week, we taught a course called "social group work" to counselors who participate in a program called Portable Accessible Counselor Training (PACT). These lay counselors are current or past PPCC and BPG employees. PPCC received significant funding to provide counseling services at the time of The Tsunami; toward the end of Sri Lanka's 35 year civil war; and in the aftermath of the war (2009-2014.)

Much of that funding ended this past March.  The counseling unit has been reduced from 35 lay counselors to seven. Funding for counselors is easier to come by post disaster, during war, and post war. Securing funding in a time of development is an upward battle.

We held the social group work course to encourage former PPCC counselors to keep their hand in counseling, even on a part time or volunteer basis. We helped all attendees refresh their group work skills, and learn to develop proposals and plans to provide groups for people here in need.

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We also held our first PACT graduation ceremony, awarding bronze, silver, and gold certificates to lay counselors. (Each counselor was awarded a certificate; the level of which was determined by the number of courses he/she completed.) Forty plus lay counselors received certificates.

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During the second week, I led a 7 Principles Educator Training with the support of The Gottman Institute.***This workshop included members of the university community, a psychiatrist, counselors, clergy, and volunteers. We awarded 23 Gottman Educator certificates. These new Gottman 7 Principles Educators will bring this excellent curriculum to couples halfway around the world from the USA.


Finally, I presented a Gottman "Emotion Coaching" workshop to students and faculty at Eastern University yesterday, Sept. 2.

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I will also present the same workshop at the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission tomorrow, Sept. 4, in Colombo.

The following entries will describe all my experiences with these projects. I hope to shed light on what I have learned here teaching in Sri Lanka, a country I love for its beauty, people, and cultures.

* I would like to thank the Fulbright Commission and Eastern University in Chenkalady, Sri Lanka, my sponsor, for their support. This is the 3rd of three visits covered by the grant.

** PPCC provides counseling and training throughout Sri Lanka, and programs for orphaned children, widows, and other vulnerable populations. BPG is a program which helps children heal from exposure to violence through the expressive arts.

***I would like to acknowledge Dr. Dave Penner, clinical director of The Gottman Institute, who developed this program, and Laura Heck, LMFT who wrote the companion workbook.  I would also like to thank Etana Kunovsky, Co-Founder of The Gottman Institute for all of her support and backing of the project.  They all have graciously permitted me to lead The 7 Principles Educator Workshop here, and trained me to do so.
Of course, I would like to also thank Dr.s John and Julie Gottman for their ongoing support and inspiration.

Supporting Sri Lankan Counselors Through Dreamcatcher

Ir's been a number of years since I have posted here, but I still have continued my twice annual visits to Sri Lanka.

Today, we begin the "social group work" workshop here at Dreamcatcher Training Institute, sponsored by The Professional Psychological Counselling Centre in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka (PPCC).  It is my 20th or so, two week trip to the area to support local lay counselors, in collaboration with their leader, Fr. Paul Satkunanayagam, SJ, MA, MEd., a Sri Lankan counseling psychologist, who is founder and executive director of PPCC.

Almost 11 years since The Boxing Day Tsunami (2004)  and over 6 years since the end of the civil war, the work here has shifted from a post-disaster and post-war orientation to an emphasis on  human development.   With that shift comes an overall decrease in funding for counseling services.

Our current focus is that much more on "social group work." We seek to help counselors help individuals and families here to further support one another in their efforts to successfully face common issues or problems, such as poverty, injustice, and adjustment issues. Here is a video (see below) about one of my favorite stories called "The Allegory of the Long Spoons."  We will watch this video as we begin our workshop on social group work today.

We are all the same, in so many different ways. . .

October 16-28.  This trip went by so quickly that I did not have time to write in my blog. At the counsellors' request, I led another workshop with Fr. Paul on The Gottman Method. They really like this material. It speaks to common problems which occur in relationships in such a clear way.  They believe all the trauma in their society has kept them from having the luxury to think about how relationships work.  This material also fits with all they have learned about nonviolent conflict resolution. (For more information, about their comments about The Gottman Method see the entries immediately prior to this one.) The counsellors liked the information so much, they brought their spouses on the last day to listen to an overview of "The Sound Relationship House," Gottman's framework for healthy relationships, and to practice a sample exercise.  They asked me to present the full Gottman Couple's workshop some time soon.  They would later state the material really helped them with their own relationships and their counselling work.

One counsellor brought her fiancé to "The Sound Relationship House" presentation.  I asked him how they met.  A slightly round, bald man, in his later thirties, he said, "My mother sent a picture and I said 'OK!'"

We are all the same, but we're all so different.  The counsellors here related so well to the the Gottman material, which is based on research in the States, that one can quickly forget that more than half of their marriages here are still arranged.  I asked him about the wedding.  With an excited smile,
he said, "It's gonna be great!"  He walked around giving the "thumbs-up" sign all day.

I saw him, smiling, gently reassuring his fiancé, as he held her hand later that day.  In the yard, they sat quietly together before he got on his motor bike to return to town.

Like many here, he works abroad, because local economic opportunities are so poor.  He commutes back to Sri Lanka for three months every year, while on holiday.  

The day after the presentation, I attended their wedding.  It was great to go and spend time with the whole group of counsellors.  Everyone was excited, as we piled into a van to go across town to the hall.  Most of them do not speak English, but we have this shared history together, through Fr. Paul, and the workshops. 

We try to make conversation in broken English.  They smile at me, and we will laugh.  The men often say, "Mike, Come, Come!" and we will be off and running to explore some aspect of this city and culture, which fascinate me. 

Prior to the wedding, I was trying to buy a gift and a card.  Not knowing what people buy in Batticaloa for weddings, I asked Little Auntie, one of the senior counsellors. With authority, she replied, "Before you buy a gift, you have to know your limit!" Where have I heard this before?  (I felt like saying, "Yes, Mother.")

After shopping, I see this counsellor, and he says, "Mike, Come, come!" The next thing I know we were off and running, first, to visit his friends at work.  Then, we dropped in on his cousin's wedding ceremony at a local Catholic church. Later, we visited his aunts and cousins, making candles in the church basement. His English is very limited, most of our communications are nonverbal.  We smiled and laughed on this little adventure.  I said we have to get back to PPCC to go to the wedding!  He smiled, moving his head back forth.  In our culture, this gesture might be interpreted as if he is saying "no" or confused or rolling his eyes with amusement.  In Tamil culture, this simply means "OK!"

The ceremonies here seem to occur mid-morning on weekdays.  A smaller group goes to the church, and everyone else meets at the hall, which is a small auditorium.  There, a DJ plays music plays and acts as an MC. 

The couple arrived and went immediately to the stage, where there is a loveseat facing the audience.  Everyone applauded.  The bride, beautiful, in a white sari and veil, (the Tamil wedding gown,) exits stage left with her attendants to change into a different sari for the party.

Looking handsome in his suit, the groom sat on the loveseat.  His face was serious. He avoided making eye contact with the guests.  With a smile and a quizzical look, I dared to make eye contact, to see if I could get him to smile.  Subtly from my seat, I gave him the "thumbs-up" sign.  He would have none of this!  He shot back a serious look (but also cracked a tiny smile.) 

Later, I learned he is shy.  During this time, grooms may greet the guests.  His shyness made him reluctant.  (I felt for him!)  Luckily, many here are shy.  (When I first met the counsellors, they said, "You are very shy."  My heart sank, a little, but then they continued, "So are we!"  In fact, they say that they really like me, in part, because of our shared quailty.)

First, small pieces of wedding cake were passed out to everyone wrapped in golden boxes with bows.  Then, a full meal was passed out in fancy dishes.  It is the custom here, to eat with one's hands.  The counsellors always let me off the hook.  They quickly ran to get me silverware, and, of course, a Pepsi!  (They know me well, and work hard to make me feel comfortable.  Water would have been fine, but it was not bottled.  If I had drunk it, I could very well have become ill.)

After the groom suffered for about an hour, the bride emerged in a beautiful red sari.  Then, they formed a reception line.  As guests went through, they were able to wish the couple well and pose with them as they sat on the loveseat.

After greeting them, we all had to get back to work, as did many of the guests.  (That is as far as I got with the Tamil wedding.  It was truly a delight.)


On the last night in town, January 7, Fr. Paul, Maxie, and I had dinner. One of their old friends, a nun from Batticaloa, who is currently serving in Kenya, joined us.  She is home on holiday.

I was impressed that her order, which originates from India, is so concerned about Africa. There is such great need in their immediate area. I was struck by their level of empathy and social concern for other parts of the world that are also in turmoil.

All three lamented the current war time situation. With the cease fire, for three years or so, they had some semblance of peace. They could move much more freely, with much less tension. Now, they cannot. They had to complete forms to request to return to Colombo, the following day. In the past twenty six years, they have only had three more peaceful years, which came to an end over the last twelve months.

The sister, who is in her early sixties, spoke of living in other areas in northeast Sri Lanka, during the 1990's. Warned of impending conflict by the militant group, the people in these places escaped to the jungle, where they would live for days, where they resided in cave like structures formed by trees.

Sometimes they would go, and nothing would happen. However, had they not followed instructions, they risked being killed. On one occasion, everyone was ordered to go to a church. Those who resisted the orders were murdered in their homes.

Now people in those same areas are fleeing to Batticaloa under similar circumstances.

Monday, January 8, Fr. Paul, Maxie and Zoyalyn, the nun, a mechanic, a student returning to university in India, the driver and myself, all went to Colombo.

In Batticaloa, one of the militant groups had called a strike, so the town was essentially shut down that Monday and the day after. The strike was an apparent protest against the Sri Lanka' High Court’s decision to consider Batticaloa part of the west. This action essentially takes Batticaloa away from that part of the country controlled by the militant group.

On the ride to Colombo, I thought our van would be waved through checkpoints. After all, how could they stop a van with a nun, a priest, and a white man? We were stopped three times. The van was thoroughly emptied and searched on one, and semi-searched, the other two. The atmosphere had changed from my initial visits.

Maxie, the student, the mechanic, and the driver, were all ordered out of the van. Their identification was checked. As men from Batticaloa, they are immediately suspect. It was disturbing to be so close to their shoes. How could one not become paranoid?

Reflecting on our week together, Fr. Paul said that the main militant group and the Sri Lankan government were groups with two different dreams in perpetual conflict. They are so entrenched in their own dreams that they will never listen to each other and understand. They will never accept influence from one another to achieve compromise.

Obviously, this conflict is central to everything that goes on in Batticaloa, and has had a dramatic, negative impact upon human relationships. In some strange way, the concepts we covered in our workshop were more relevant than I had ever imagined.


We went on to teach the counselors, who all came out on a Sunday for the last day of the program. We worked with the Gottman intervention called “Dreams in Conflict.” Presenting this technique to the counselors was very powerful. It helps people who are stuck in significant conflict, find compromise or, at least, live better with their differences. The goal is to increase understanding.

The two in conflict, attempt to find the dream or “symbolic meaning” (i.e. the feelings, needs, history, and hopes behind their individual positions.) One person is the “speaker.” The “speaker” is encouraged to sort through the feelings, needs, history, hopes, and aspirations, behind his or her position. The other person is the “listener.” This one listens.

One spends a number of minutes listening to the other, and then they switch roles. The goal is not to solve the problem, but to increase understanding. Over time, those stuck in conflict discover ways to understand each other’s dreams.

I read some case examples of the positions of people stuck in common marital conflicts. Amazingly, the group correctly identified the relevant dreams that were involved, much more quickly than I thought they would.

Sometimes, the speaker is referred to as the “Dream Thrower” and the listener is the “Dream Catcher.” Coincidentally, Fr. Paul has chosen to name the new program he is starting “Dream Catcher.” This program is for trauma survivors, and has a residential component. It occurred to him, “This is why I named the program ‘dream catcher.’ I want the people to find the symbolic meanings behind their struggles and their dreams.”

For an exercise, I had the counselors think about a conflict they have with someone else where they feel stuck. As they did so, they identified the symbolic meanings behind their positions. A chosen partner at the conference helped each person do so.

One counselor said his late father was very overbearing. He has a dream of “independence” for his mother. He is in conflict with his siblings who want to make decisions for her. Another discussed her fear of leaving her adolescent children due to the history of sudden disappearances in the area. She talked about being in conflict with them, when they want their independence.

Finally, a young woman noted that she often becomes irrate when people joke with her child, saying to the child that he was adopted. She realized that people had teased her in this way her whole life. When she heard others say this to her child, it reminded her of how painful she found the teasing. Usually a clown, who loves to tease me, this young woman was amazed at what she discovered about herself.

Fr. Paul concluded that finding symbolic meanings was a missing piece in their training. (He often tried to teach the group this point, but had not pinpointed the language for the concepts that would help the counselors understand it.) This exercise slid their capacity for reflection and meaning making to a deeper level.

We concluded the program with the counselors revisiting their mission and legacy, and sharing this in a large circle with the group. This helped them to understand the top level of Gottman’s Sound Relationship House, which involves creating shared meaning, including rituals, roles, goals, and symboles that come to characterize a strong relationship of any kind. It was very moving to hear them articulate their mission and legacy as individuals, partners, and counselors. They gave me a picture of a woman holding a baby to symbolize how nurturing I have become to them, over these four trips. Fr. Paul also gave me a small sculpture of a Sri Lanka couple on a swing, swinging through life together.

My Own Dali Lama

Day 5

Today, I went to mass at the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged. Fr. Paul says mass here every day at 7:15 AM. The mass was entirely in Tamil, with beautiful music and people. (The people here are as beautiful as their land.)

One of my friends recently referred to Fr. Paul as “my own Dali Lama.” I feel that way too. As I sat in the pews, I realized he was probably saying his third mass for the day. He never gives the same homily twice, so, at that moment, he was giving his third homily.

He tends to connect spontaneously with his thoughts, feelings, and the people he is with. In this profound way, everything he does is spontaneous, with great depth, from the heart and the soul. All the while, he is one of the most modest people I know.

Each trip, I go to this Sunday mass. Afterwards, I get to have breakfast with “my own Dali Lama” in the little dining room behind the sacristy. A sister prepares it, and it is great. I get thirty minutes alone with him, which is rare, given how many people turn to this man. I always leave thankful and inspired. Today was no exception.

A Part of Paradise Restored

Today, we used a Gottman tool called the “Aftermath of a Fight or Misunderstanding” to process conflicts. For an exercise, counselors thought about a recent conflict in an important relationship, and then tried to apply the tool. Many were struck by their increased understanding of their part in these conflicts.

We then moved on to “accepting influence” and “compromise.”

We worked with a compromise technique.

Women are socialized more than men to accept influence from the spouses. None of my representatives from the Tamil community disputed this finding.

The group shifted from being excited about the material, to wondering about how to use the material with more problematic cases. These questions were a sobering reminder of how hard life is in this part of the world.

At night, I visited the rebuilt children’s home at Navalady, the area between the ocean and the lagoon, where 3000 were killed in Tsunami. It is still eery to come here, as rebuilding is just beginning, and so much evidence of the Tsunami remains. I helped one of the counselors, whose family lost five children here. We drove by the former site of the temple, where three of them died. Seeing this area was still disturbing.

Amidst, all these traumatic reminders, stands the rebuilt childrens home, which functions as a community center. A number of young children were playing there, under the supervision of a young adult graduate of one the group homes and her friend, which felt so symbolic of Fr. Paul and his work. It is this area that makes Batticaloa feel most like paradise. Now, at least one piece of it is paradise restored.
The father of one of the nine year old boys was killed by Indian Special Forces. This little boy goes and helps his sick mother every night sell food at a stand. Half joking, he and his friend tugged at my heart strings when they asked me to adopt them.

(I remain a strong believer that the children do better here in their own culture, with its emphasis on groups and family. The community within the group homes is so supportive.)