International Civil Servant, Coaching for Global Peace

The three-month MMS coach training program was starting that night in Bangkok. It was dark, I was tired, and as much as I wanted to, I didn’t have time to join this three-month course. Too many things were in the way – family trips, a book I was working on, taking care of the kids. But something drew me to it, and I decided to observe just the first session. So, I left the family at home, hopped from a tuk-tuk to the Skytrain, then walked the rest of the way to the Pathumwan Princess Hotel. There was a small sign pointing from the empty lobby down a set of steps to the small basement conference area.

I hesitated at the entrance. Immediately, Lynn Stewart made eye contact from across a room full of people. Then she was standing next to me, somehow comfortably holding onto my hand. I quickly listed all the reasons why I could not join this cohort of coach trainees. She listened carefully and nodded at each one.

Then she said in a whisper, “You can have it all”.
“You can have it all.”
“So, you mean I can join the course and do all the other things that I have to do”, I said, not wanting to sound rude.
“Yes,” she said.
“Perhaps, but I think the next course, starting later in the year would be better for me,” I hesitated, “except then the kids will be on summer break and . . .”

As the chime rang for the start of the session, she smiled, “I know you are struggling to decide whether to join this session, but I think the answer will come to you sometime during the night. One of the things we emphasize in coaching is that the client can have what they want.” I laughed nervously as we parted. “You can have what you want!” she said to me, as she ushered others into the room.

We flowed quietly into the small adjoining conference room, with desks forming a rectangle around the room. I was mesmerized by Dr. Cherie Carter-Scott’s coaching demonstration. At the end of the very real demonstration session, the volunteer client mapped out a way to bridge a gap with her mother. The client, many of the coach trainees, and I had tears starting to well in our eyes. So did Dr. Cherie. Too bad I would not be able to join – this was amazing. But the next session would start early the next morning and take the full weekend, and I was too busy. . .

After the trip back home, I went to bed, I replayed that session in my head. Somewhere between 2 am and 4 am, the answer came to me. When the sun came up, I told my wife my decision, made a quick call to Lynn, and found myself back in the Pathumwan Princess Hotel at 8 am for the first full session, all in for the three-month course.

* * * *
Years earlier, I had left my job as a lawyer at one of the top Washington, D.C. law firms – a firm that included within its ranks the House Counsel from each of the three preceding presidential administrations – to serve as a volunteer lawyer helping to strengthen the rule of law in Albania in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. Here, I felt like I could make a difference in people’s lives, much more so than when representing large corporate clients.

After three years in Albania, war broke out in bordering Kosovo. When Serbian President Slobodan Milošević pursued a campaign to eject Kosovo Albanians from Kosovo, NATO intervened with an arial bombing campaign. From Tirana, we could hear, and sometimes see, NATO bombers following jagged paths on bombing runs towards Kosovo. After the war ended, my boss asked me to move to Kosovo to start a program helping to rebuild the rule of law there. I pondered if for a week, then decided to say yes. The job meant helping to rebuild institutions in a place newly freed from oppression – to help restart courts and other rule of law institutions.

After two years in Kosovo, I followed my wife-to-be to New York City, where she had found the job of a lifetime. I followed with little or no plan, other than to be with her. After just a few months, an opportunity found me and I started working in a large international organization. I thus flowed from one dream job to another, each time feeling that I could make a difference in people’s lives. My new role was to set up and oversee programs to help strengthen the rule of law in places that had just emerged from violent conflict. Strengthening courts and prisons was essential to equip countries to sustain peace. Holding violent offenders accountable before the law would hold in check some of the worst perpetrators. Functioning judicial systems would offer a peaceful way to resolve disputes. This work mattered more than representing large corporations in their legal fights with other large corporations.

I built a team of legal and prison professionals to support and guide this work from New York. Together with these amazing colleagues, we developed programs to strengthen the rule of law in many countries that had just emerged from war and in others where the war was still raging. We deployed hundreds of personnel to dangerous settings such as Afghanistan, Mali, Somalia, and Sudan. The work had many setbacks, and I was too far away to see the direct impact on people’s lives, but I pursued it with passion.

* * * *
It was this feeling of wanting to help that drew me to coaching and MMS. Rather than building large institutions of justice, coaching let me directly offer my support to individuals. I loved this addition to what I was doing. So, after completing my coach certifications, I sought to apply a coaching approach to the management of my team in New York.

I believed that the most important thing I could do as a manager and leader was to support and enable my team members, to make them believe that they “can have it all”. We worked to challenge the status quo, improve the corporate culture, free ourselves from bureaucratic self-limitation, and see how the world could be, rather than listening to the voices that said that our work was impossible. I also listened a lot more to my team members. “Be comfortable with the silence,” Dr. Cherie would say.

I conducted performance reviews through questions, and I learned that most team members were shy to speak about their strengths and often did not fully appreciate their skills. Often, when asked what went well, they meandered into a discussion of weaknesses or failures without being asked. Almost every team member had a deep understanding of what they wanted to improve, and if I helped create a safe space, they would speak freely about it and in a much more meaningful way than if I had provided the feedback.

I became known for my background as a coach, and I ran some leadership training sessions within my organization. This expedition into coaching led to something that I did not believe I would do. Without applying, I was selected for a very senior position with my organization in Kosovo – this dream was so wild and unlikely that I would call it a fantasy. Again, I brought a coaching approach to my job, listening to those in the office, and sorting out conflicts that would arise across the large team. Perhaps the greatest skill I brought was helping those involved in a conflict to see the perspective of the other side.

Many of the world’s most treacherous conflicts might be softened if we, as humans, were only able to do that – see the situation through the eyes of the other. This thought haunts me today, as we watch the terror continue to unfold in Sudan, Ukraine, and the Middle East. If only we could live in the shoes of the other for just a short time, maybe this suffering would soften and start to fade away.

Robert Pulver dreams of coaching leaders in conflict-affected countries, with the hope of bringing about peace and reducing suffering.

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