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PROSOCIAL combines two bodies of knowledge to improve the efficacy of groups. The first is the Core Design Principles (CDP) approach pioneered by Elinor Ostrom. The second is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) pioneered by Steven C. Hayes. Both of these bodies of knowledge have roots in various academic disciplines and have recently been given a more general formulation based on evolutionary theory.

The design principles provide a functional blueprint for building an efficacious group, but their implementation requires a capacity for change, which is not always easy. ACT increases psychological flexibility and therefore the capacity for change. That’s why PROSOCIAL requires both bodies of knowledge.

The number of groups that can benefit from PROSOCIAL is potentially unlimited. For this reason, the PROSOCIAL development team has created an Internet platform that provides a home page and training course to any group, along with a network of trained facilitators for guiding groups through the course. The Internet platform also allows groups to communicate with each other. We hope to reach thousands and even hundreds of thousands of groups with this method of delivery (go here for an early example).

However, this is not the only way to deliver PROSOCIAL. Merely learning about ACT and the Core Design Principles without using the Internet platform or a facilitator can be useful, which could be called a low-end application. At the other extreme, professionals who consult with groups for a living might be in a position to deliver PROSOCIAL even more thoroughly than the Internet platform, which could be called a high-end application.

Dr Robert Styles, a social scientist, business consultant and accredited leadership coach based in Australia, recently described two high-end applications in an interview with Paul Atkins published in the PROSOCIAL magazine titled “Solid Evidence for PROSOCIAL within Government Agency Settings.” Styles had both the professional experience and the authorization to implement PROSOCIAL in several Australia’s government agencies far more comprehensively than the Internet platform’s training course. In addition, the implementations took place between national surveys of government agency employees by the Australian Public Service Commission, which provided a before-and-after third party assessment of the implementation. The improvement in the agencies that Styles worked with provides exceptionally strong evidence for the ability of PROSOCIAL to improve the efficacy of groups.

Styles learned about PROSOCIAL with Paul Atkins, an organizational psychologist at the Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education. Paul is a member of the PROSOCIAL Development Team who helped to design the Internet platform’s online training course. My conversation with Robert explores what he did with his high-end applications that was so successful, compared to the application that we are attempting to provide to an unlimited number of groups worldwide through the online training course.

DSW: Greetings, Robert! Welcome back to PROSOCIAL Magazine.

RS: Thank you David. It’s a great pleasure to be a part of the PROSOCIAL effort and not only be enabled to do impactful work but to learn about the evolutionary nature of human behaviour. Thanks for the opportunity to share some of what l am learning.

DSW: You and Paul are both highly trained organizational psychologists with years of practical experience working with groups. What do the two elements of PROSOCIAL, CDP and ACT, add to the toolkit of the organizational psychologist?

RS: For me the two elements of PROSOCIAL provide a coherent and accessible framework for behaviour change that impacts at multiple levels: at a personal level it helps people orient their lives around what is intrinsically important to them and deal with unhelpful habitual and reactive behaviour; at the group level it helps groups manage their priorities and committed efforts in healthy cooperative ways; and, for boards, executives and regulatory authorities it provides a framework for them to regulate and coordinate the effort of various players across a system.

As a social scientist, PROSOCIAL provides an empirically validated framework to conduct applied research. My academic interest is in how our words and speech influences what we do, both covertly and overtly. This is a study of how what we say influences what we do. Paul and I have been able to show in our research how various types of utterances regarding who we are and how we intend to act on what is important in the long run predicts wellbeing. We have found that if people are able to take perspective on what they value and discern opportunities to enact them it predicts wellbeing up to 12 months later. This is essentially psychological flexibility. Together with the design principles, PROSOCIAL provides a framework for groups, and groups of groups, to do this. Groups learn to take perspective on what is important to them in the long run and coordinate their effort to bring about those valued ends both as a process and a set of outcomes.

DSW: I really like how you put all of this. It is precisely how I think of PROSOCIAL but it is exceptionally eloquent coming from you. The starting point for a group that uses the Internet platform is a voluntary decision to take the training course, which we have made as short and engaging as we can. The starting point for your high-end application was a top-down decision to implement PROSOCIAL. This meant that you had more time to work with the employees but also that their participation was not voluntary. Please comment on the advantages and disadvantages of these two arrangements.

RS: This is an important question and goes to nub of an issue that impacts on the wellbeing of people at work. Before I speak about actual examples of introducing and embedding the principles and practices of PROSOCIAL in an organization, I would like to speak about how I approach this in principle. I believe that the value proposition of an organization is no more than the sum total of each individual’s value proposition being made available to the organization. For this to happen, individuals need to know what is intrinsically important to them and how this matters in their work. Further, the normative environment of the workplace needs to encourage rather than frustrate an individual’s capacity to express what is important to them through their work. This is a matter of engagement, alignment and ownership. Individuals at all levels of an organization need to be engaged intrinsically in the higher-order value proposition, the mission or purpose of the organization; also, what is uniquely important to them has to align with what is important to the others they are working with. They have to see themselves as an important part of the system. When this happens, people in teams own their work in a healthier and more productive way. Practically, this manifests as particularized forms of autonomy support. Team leaders support their team members and overarching authorities provide support for the groups and teams across the system. PROSOCIAL provides the framework for institutionalizing this as a way of organizing behavior. Core Design Principle #8 really captures this idea.

DSW: Indeed! CDP8 is really important. It can be initially overlooked when a group is trying to get its own affairs in order (CDP1-6), but you started out working with a multi-group organization.

RS: My approach to infusing an organization with this way of working involves taking constellations of teams that share a common purpose, including the executive, together with their teams through a series of highly interactive structured workshops and coaching sessions. Transfer-of-learned processes into the workplace is the objective. Over several years I have refined my approach and have got to the point where these sessions deal with the real work of the institution, the living responses of people in teams to the demands of daily life at work. I jump in the deep end with them and employ an action learning approach to trying new behaviors in a ‘safe-to-fail’ environment. Together we learn from their resulting successes and relapses as leaders and teams strive to implement change or preserve what is already valued and important to them. I am there as a coach working with individuals from the CEO and team leaders down to team members depending on what circumstances require. I do a lot of work with groups of team leaders whose teams share a common purpose. In these sessions we explore which PROSOCIAL principles underpin the particular phase of the program we are engaged in and debrief their experience of trying new things with their teams. We also jointly set the agenda for upcoming workshops involving all their team members.

The program phases take about 4-6 months to complete. We usually start with developing the psychological flexibility of those involved which flows into setting or clarifying the broader agenda of the organization or division. This involves scenario mapping which is a big picture perspective-taking exercise where we consider the broad trends and drivers that are shaping the behavior of the organization. From this, preferred and probable futures are rendered. This enables the divisions and teams involved to set their individual purpose and goals in concert with each other. The overarching mission is fragmented in a functional way. Each team authors and owns its purpose and clearly understands how their purpose integrates with the purpose of the other teams.

Here I have taken insights from a fellow academic, Dr Matt Doolan, a Systems Engineer from the School of Engineering at ANU. He, with folks at Cambridge University, have developed what is called Strategic Roadmapping. It is a highly structured system-wide conversation designed to facilitate technological innovation. One of their first major projects was to plan 30 years food supply for England. This involved policy makers, food growers, environmentalists, transport people to name a few. As Matt and I have been working together we have observed it is not so much the plan that matters – no one sticks to a plan for 30 years – it’s more to do with the players in the system sharing a common purpose and successfully coordinating their effort to achieve that purpose. We have talked a lot about the difference between a successful and unsuccessful roadmap implementation. It has become quite apparent that those that have not been so successful have failed at implementing one or a number of the core design principles. The important thing is the structure of the roadmapping conversation. It lends itself perfectly to the work of defining the shared purpose of constellations of groups and individuals. It foregrounds Ostrom’s insights into the need for polycentric governance, which is an aspect of PROSOCIAL that, in my observation, appears to confuse practitioners aiming to do this work.

Once the phases of developing psychological flexibility, the organizational mission and shared team purposes are completed, we then work explicitly on the design principles. Teams figure out how they are going to apportion effort between teams and within teams, make decisions, and monitor how they are tracking. All this is undertaken using action learning – a cyclical process of trying something then actively taking a step back and reflecting on what and how it is working then practicing again. PROSOCIAL provides the lens for this ongoing cycle of reflection and action.

DSW: I’m glad that we’re having this conversation, because this description of your game plan adds a lot of information about your approach. Let me play it back to you in segments, with special attention to how other PROSOCIAL groups might learn from you. First and foremost, your approach seems highly iterative. Groups don’t learn ACT and the CDPs once and return to work – they rehearse them again and again in the context of the business of the group. Is this correct?

RS: Yes, the whole process is highly interactive and iterative. Not only do individuals and groups repeatedly interact with each other in response to specific questions in the structured workshops, they also reflect together on their ongoing efforts as they try new things – this is action learning/research.

Over the years providing training and consulting into organisations I have been concerned with transfer-of-learning. Oftentimes learning opportunities for leaders and employees take place outside of the work place. We are all familiar with this. They range from formal qualifications, immersion experiences to bespoke and executive short courses. They are all valuable, particularly for the individual doing the learning. But typically, those who undertake the training struggle to have a significant or lasting impact back in the workplace. The prevailing normative environment, work climate or their boss’s attitudes frustrates their effort. I’m sure this is a familiar experience for most.

DSW: It’s also a serious problem in education, where what is taught in one course fails to transfer to other courses.

RS: Indeed! In response to the transfer-of-learning issue I have tried to embed the learning process fully in the workplace and make it part of business as usual in an unusual way, if that makes sense. And what’s more, it’s actually working. I’m observing two distinct types of behaviour change as a result of employing an action learning approach to enculturating PROSOCIAL. The first relates to changing repertoires of learned behaviours, some of which appear very old and well-rehearsed. The other is a broadening repertoire of chosen responses to prevailing situations – current and anticipated. For me, these two aspects of behaviour change further highlight why ACT and the CDPs are such a powerful complement.

I encourage those I work with to reframe the notion of failure and think in terms of handling relapse. It has been shown empirically that whole cloth transformative change typically doesn’t happen. Successful behaviour change emerges step-by-step and involves the cyclical process of preparing to try – trying something new – and handling relapse between 3-5 times before a sustained change in behaviour begins to manifest.

And right here, David, I defer to your expertise and insight as an evolutionary scientist. I understand this as a form of variation-and-selection. Am I understanding this correctly?

DSW: Absolutely! B.F. Skinner described operant conditioning as a variation-and-selection process that results in behavioral change during the lifetime of the organism, similar to genetic change over evolutionary time. He called this “Selection by Consequences” and it is a fundamental insight, even if other aspects of the Skinnerian tradition were problematic. Our colleagues such as Steve Hayes and Tony Biglan have updated the tradition from a modern evolutionary perspective.  

RS: Yes, and when individuals and groups appreciate that relapse is utterly natural they are emboldened. It becomes a question of workability rather than failure in a crushing sense. They don’t lose touch with the value they are striving for in the wake of an effort that didn’t work. They say, “Oh well, that didn’t go so well? What else can we try?” This process of reflection and action has been particularly important for the team leaders. As I mentioned, I work a lot with teams of leaders who together are a team in their own right. I facilitate group coaching sessions with them in between the workshops involving all their team members. In these sessions we engage in meta reflection and evaluation. We explore how things have been working and what next, all through the lens of the CDPs.

DSW: Your work applying PROSOCIAL to multi-group organizations is pathbreaking. Importantly, organizations that use our Internet platform can emulate what you have done by creating a PROSOCIAL group composed of representatives of other PROSOCIAL groups. Your method also enables me to make an important point about the CDPs that was stressed by Lin Ostrom. They are functional principles and each of them can be implemented in many different ways. For example, monitoring is important for all groups but how to effectively monitor can be highly contextual and group-specific. Every group must therefore tinker with its own arrangements. That appears to be baked into your high-end implementation, right?

RS: Definitely! As I mentioned in my interview with Paul, in one of the government agencies we discussed, one of Canberra’s main cultural institutions, the monitoring that the Board, CEO and Executive engaged in was entirely different to that of the various divisions of the Agency, as you can imagine. These senior leaders assumed responsibility for taking a broader perspective on the work of the institution, which had them monitoring the relationships they were required to maintain with various strata of government and civil society, including the general public, schools and universities, and the other cultural institutions that shared the responsibility for maintaining and preserving Australia’s cultural heritage. On the other hand, within the various groups of the organisation, as they had been delegated more authority to self-regulate, there was an increased appetite to experiment with different ways of preserving and cultivating civic engagement through the activities of the museum. Monitoring in this space was primarily about tracking the success of various initiatives. So yes, the CDPs are baked into the work I do within organisations, the constellation of principles are implemented in utterly unique ways depending on the function of the group and the prevailing context.

DSW: As you know, PROSOCIAL uses the Matrix as a fast form of ACT training. Do you use the Matrix or some other method? Is Strategic Roadmapping different from ACT training or a form of ACT training? Is there a source where PROSOCIAL groups and facilitators can learn more about it?

RS: Yes, I do use a form of the Matrix to develop the psychological flexibility of individuals and groups; and, this is very different from Roadmapping.

I have taken the good work of Kevin Polk, who developed the Matrix, and extended it to help individuals and groups deal more effectively with competing commitments and identify choice points where they can test their understanding of challenging situations and try new behaviors. The process I employ invites participants to explore how four behaviours are working for them: 1) how they are observing and discriminating inner experience and important aspects of presenting situations; 2) describing what they see; 3) tracking their actions in relation to what they observe and describe; and, 4) valuing as a quality intrinsic to the first three behaviours – observing, describing and tracking. I see these behaviours as fundamental to the whole process of developing psychological flexibility and prosociality.

For an individual, group or entire organisation it is important they are able to observe and discriminate what is of value and track how they are performing in relation to that value. I strive to have those I am working with foreground the value that is embodied within each individual as well as infused within the preferred and probable futures they render for themselves as part of society as a whole. I use my version of the matrix to begin developing the necessary perspective-taking skills and verbal repertoire to describe value adequately at the various levels. The extent to which they can observe and describe what is of value is a necessary prelude to them being able to enact and bring it about.  

Roadmapping exercises broadly take the community through the process of answering three questions, “Based on what we value, where are we now? Where do we want to be? How do we get there?” As I mentioned, the roadmapping process we use in our PROSOCIAL work is based on Technology Roadmapping developed by Matt Doolan with Cambridge University. You will find an example of a technology roadmap we did with the Australian rail industry here ‘On Track to 2040’. Matt and I have distilled this process into a series of key questions that are unpacked in a series of highly interactive workshops involving constellations of teams who share a common purpose. This process re-renders intractable social dilemmas and complex adaptive challenges as a set of interrelated, particularised and manageable local-level challenges. As far as I know we are the only university in the world to have integrated organizational and cultural sociology with systems engineering in this way. We are still refining this part of our work and look forward to making it available to others as we do.

DSW: PROSOCIAL emphasizes the importance of forming short-term actionable goals in addition to the more general mission and values of the group (CDP1). Short-term actionable goals can reinforce some of the CDPs, such as fair distribution of costs and benefits (CDP2, for example by assigning primary responsibility for each short-term goal to different group members), monitoring (CDP4, for example by developing clear metrics for accomplishing the goal) and so on. This is also a strong emphasis in your high-end application, right?

RS: Most definitely. In my opinion it is the ongoing process of goal setting in response to prevailing contexts that is important. Maybe we need to coin a new word here, we need to become experts at ‘reaiming’ as circumstances require. There are two contexts that need to be attended and responded too on an ongoing basis. Firstly, there is the symbolically rendered preferred and probable future; and, there is the ever changing current situation in relation to that future. ACT teaches us to hold onto these tapestries of thoughts, feelings and emotions lightly and to respond to them flexibly and in a value-directed way. The CDPs enable us to ‘reaim’ effectively as these contexts change. Simply, ACT and the CDPs provide a very practical and coherent framework for making sense of ourselves in situ and ‘reaiming’ toward what is important in the long run.

DSW: I was once criticized by a business executive for using a “Ready…Aim…Fire!” approach.  I’d like to think that I was using a reaiming approach, as you so nicely put it!  Returning to polycentric governance, how do you carve a large organization into groups? Do you rely on the existing group structure or do you have a way to reconfigure the group structure?

RS: In my work, shared purpose is the criterion that defines a group or group of groups. In some instances, the group/s already exist, in others the groups are formed to assume an emergent purpose. Without a shared purpose, any work in relation to the other CDPs remains in the abstract, which frustrates transfer-of-learning. I am not fully acquainted with the online system but I would assume that if the new PROSOCIAL group formed purely to learn and then translate the CDPs into an existing social system it may not be as effective as inviting a community of groups who already share a common, higher-order purpose into the PROSOCIAL process. Such an invitation would lead the community to author and enact responses specific to their shared purpose and employ the PROSOCIAL framework to design the things they have to do – apportion effort, make decisions, monitor performance, handle conflict, work with other groups, etc. This way PROSOCIAL is not the main game. The main game is defined by what is intrinsically important to the community and PROSOCIAL serves as the enabling process. By taking this approach I have observed the principles and practices of PROSOCIAL naturally embed themselves and become, “the way things are done around here”. Taking this forward, my next stage of interaction with the Australian Public Service may involve engagement with emergent groups that share a common, higher-order purpose. For example, the creation of prosocial groups involving external stakeholders who are not formally part of the existing system. These groups will, in effect, become polycentric higher-level groupings informing the activity of the key stakeholders within the APS.

DSW: Excellent advice. For me and most members of the PROSOCIAL Development Team, ACT and CDP have become second nature. We spontaneously view the world that way, which makes explicit instruction unnecessary. Have you observed something similar in the agencies that you worked with? In other words, can you imagine ACT and CDP becoming so much part of the culture and norms of an organization that it transmits itself?

RS: When I walk around the Agencies I have work with, the A2 size posters we prepared for the interactive workshops are stuck on the managers walls with fresh post-it notes all over them. In other instances, checklists have been turned into ready reckoners inside of the team leaders’ diaries. They refer to these reckoners during important discussions and planning sessions. I have had team leaders tell me how the principles they have learned have been absorbed into the way they think and do things. So yes, ACT and the CDPs have become part of the culture and norms of the organisation and I am observing them being further particularized and propagated in quite unique ways.

DSW: This conversion has been exceptionally useful for me and I’m sure it will be also for our readers. Given your success and that awesome comparison or before and after measure, have you been approached by other agencies or the Australian government as a whole? They’d be crazy not to see that you are in a position to improve the performance of the whole nation. There’s a heady thought for you!

RS: Yes, the innovative nature of this work is being recognized. Currently I am in discussion with several government departments and in each instance they are seeing this as a fresh approach to organizational development that not only includes the best of what they are already doing but transcends it. Also, the Australian Psychological Society has identified this work as exemplary best practice in the application organizational psychology in 2016 and again in 2018.

Your comment, “there’s a heady thought” drew an emotional response. The belief that this work could improve the performance of the whole nation is not a new one. My heartstrings are tugged each time I contemplate our future as a species and the way we are failing to look after each other and spaceship earth. The social, environmental, political and economic problems we are confronted with are seemingly intractable. We are confronted by apparently intractable dilemmas—environmental, social, economic and political. I have found that PROSOCIAL reframes these dilemmas such that those I have worked with have successfully perceive possible and necessary responses seated securely within their collective moral fiber. We are neither trapped in exorable dilemmas nor free of moral responsibility for creating and sustaining approaches that maintain our collective achievement of mutually beneficial outcomes. I believe it is our responsibility to build relationships based on trust and reciprocity, and to build these core values in and of themselves. PROSOCIAL provides us with the tools to do this. We can challenge the assumption that there is only one type of institution for dealing with the social dilemmas that confront us—those institutions in which individuals are reinforced for pursuing their own short term interests—and build communities where members learn to work together constructively with a set of governing principles (PROSOCIAL compacts) that align our personal and collective values and include sanctions for inappropriate behaviors and motivators for desired behaviors that will yield positive impact in the long-run.

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In March 2015 I went to Sierra Leone in West Africa.

 

It was my sixth visit to the country since 2010. In the earlier years I was there with an international team of colleagues and experts in our NGO “Commit and Act“ to train local social workers, counselors, teachers, nurses, religious leaders, and policemen. We were teaching a modern behavioral and transformational therapy method known as Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT) that is meant to help people relate to each other in a more supportive way. Initially we aimed for helping people in the country deal with the impact of a 10-year long civil war that occurred during the 90s.  

Even though the armed conflict eased, the violence against women and girls did not. Gender-based violence is one of the major problems in the country — it is culturally ingrained in many African nations. In Sierra Leone, women are traditionally considered men’s possessions, and they have to obey them. In certain tribes, men are still brought up with the message that they should beat their women when they love them. The rate of violence against women, and even small girls, is very high.

The recent Ebola crisis made the violence even worse. Communities were stressed in terms of health and financial resources, and that spilled over into family violence. Women reported that men were „bewitched“ since then, causing them to become more violent toward their wife and kids. 

We planned to run workshops for both genders, intended to shift their behavior. This focus on both genders was unusual. Numerous programs try to strengthen women, which is important, but we observed that this can tend to exacerbate the problem by threatening men, and leading to more anger and violence. So we decided that the most efficient way to transform the relationship between men and women would be to include and empower both genders in workshops.   

In preparation for the trip, my colleague Hannah Bockarie and I decided to focus on facilitating PROSOCIAL workshops, since they had turned out to be very efficient in shifting people´s behavior to stop the spread of the Ebola virus. We wondered if they  would also help to decrease violent behavior in families.

 

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Hannah invited 10 women and 10 men from her community, who were willing to look at their relationship in a PROSOCIAL workshop. 

 For a few of the couples, only the husband or only the wife participated. They all had experienced violence in their families,  primarily men beating their wives. It was a sensitive subject and our intention was to create a safe space, where men and women could be open about their challenges, connect with each other, and create a new way of interacting. It was not our intention to blame men for their behavior, or to convince couples to do something different. The goal of the workshop was to allow participants to become more aware of their behavior, understand better why they behave the way they do, and to see if a new behavior would lead to a more satisfying  relationship.

Our training method looks at situations that lead to certain behaviors. We look at cultural traditions, at the legacy of war, at poverty and the hopelessness that often accompanies it, at the amount of stress in daily life, and the cultural norms that prevent men from showing emotions. We also look at the practical reality that gender-based violence is rarely pursued in lawsuits, and other factors that promote violent behavior. 

This background helped us to approach the topic with some objectivity. Even if violent behavior is unacceptable for us, we can accept humans who are violent. Together we can explore if they still want to do this when they see a different pathway and get a choice. 

We asked the group to share their everyday challenges. Men talked about their incapacity to provide a living for their families, and of having no perspective for the future — even if they worked many hours a week. Some said they work so hard, 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, that they cannot express their love for their wives and children. They also felt that women and kids expected a lot, and that it was hard for them to meet these expectations. One man was troubled that his wife and kids did not obey.

 

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Women shared that it was too much to take care of their kids every day, to feed and buy them clothes, and that men did not provide enough for all that; that men also did not tell them how much money they earned, but were spending funds for drinking and having other women while the family was starving. One woman had been abandoned by her husband and was left with seven kids.

Our participants became much more open during these conversations, as they experienced appreciation and validation for sharing the challenges they faced. 

The next step was to find out about the common purpose of the group by looking at their values. Participants wanted:

  • Their kids to get an education and become better people
  • To love and care for their families
  • To get good jobs
  • To have normal lives, peace and love, good marriages, and good health
  • To be obedient
  • For many people to come to know Jesus

There were multiple barriers that were getting in the way of our participants heading towards those values. They had feelings around this that included discouragement, anger, sadness, disappointment, a sense of inferiority, frustration, and greed. 

The most common coping mechanisms for men were drinking, smoking, having other women, beating their wives, isolating themselves, abandoning home, even committing suicide.  Women reported that they were nagging, provoking and putting their husband down. They also would not open the door when men came home late at night, maybe drunk or coming from other women. 

Steps people saw they could take towards their valued life direction were to be willing to accept the difficulties as part of their life, to be polite with each other, to look for better jobs, to study hard, and to take better care of their health.

 

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Hannah asked the men to role play, demonstrating how they would normally interact with women in an angry and threatening way, and how they would do it in a friendly way. The group was energized by this role playing and had fun being open. Then the women admitted that they also had their ways to dominate their husbands — by not talking or listening to them and not empowering them. They also hid their little bit of income from them, using it for their own purposes. 

In the end, women and men agreed on the following common goals:

1. Peace and love between men and women - measured by the number of quarrels, intended to go down from the current frequency of every day, to something like once a month; measured by observations, if a woman prepares breakfast for her husband, which she does when she is satisfied; also by the social time the two spend together, and, in the end, by the number of years their marriage lasts.

2. Having equal relationships - measured by the number of decisions made together as a couple; does a husband tell his wife how much money he earns, and if they decide together how to spend it; if the woman also lets the husband know if she has her own income.  

3. Meeting as a group of women and men once a month, for at least 3 months. 

The group also looked at Design Principles  numbers 2 through 8, which should help them to keep up these good intentions. Both men and women saw that there would be a cost to establishing the new behavior — for instance, to dare to be more open, or to make tea even when they don’t want to — but they also saw the benefits. For women, of course, it was to no longer feel threatened by men´s violence, and for men it was the relief to share the burden of providing a daily living with their wife: “Two heads think better than one head.“ 

Everyone was included in the process of decision-making, and the group agreed that the new behavior would be monitored in the monthly meetings. It would be a shameful sanction if a man had to tell others that he had been violent again. In case of repetitive misbehavior the worst consequence would be exclusion from the group. Any conflicts would be brought to the group and discussed and resolved there, and the group also wanted to keep up good relationships with the church, both Christian and Muslim, with other couples, to serve as a role model and invite others to follow.

I met one of our participants and his wife a few days later. She had not been in the workshop and I asked her how it was for her, when her husband came back. She was delighted and said that he had changed his behavior. He was telling her now what he earned, and they discussed their budget together. They looked both proud and happy about this shift.

I received similar feedback a few weeks, and then one year later. Men and women stated that their relationships had improved significantly: „Our lives are no longer the same.“ 

Men share that their women are more caring and are opening up more. 

Women share that men now care for the home and women, that they show love, are open about their salaries, and deciding as a couple how to spend it. And most importantly, they are happy about having a nurturing physical relationship again, whereas before women were often refusing to have sex because they say „sex, this is my power“. 

Women reported things like, „I am married to this husband, he has never bought me anything before. Today he came and bought me this very beautiful dish, I was very much in need of it.“, „He also talked to the 14 -year old stepson, who was not respectful with me, the new mother. Now he understands that he needs to respect both his mothers. 

The same men have beaten their wives and used abusive language, when women asked for money for food for the kids, or when they delayed opening the door when their husband came home late, after spending time with another woman. 

We then returned after a year and asked participants in the meeting about the benefits of the new behaviors. They said things like: „I am relieved, that I am not the one who is always expected to bring the solution” or “I see that I made some mistakes. I wanted my wife to do all the work in the house on her own. Now we are doing it together with the kids and I like it better, it is more relaxed.”

Facilitators gave us the following summary of changes participants had reported in the monthly meetings following the PROSOCIAL training: 

  • Husband does fully support the home
  • Budgets are now discussed and agreed upon
  • There is more transparency and accountability in the homes
  • Wives now serve food for their husbands in a friendly manner, which didn’t happen before the training
  • Wives and husbands are now eating together
  • A single parent among the group has maintained peace between the children at home 
  • The temperament of the participants has been highly controlled 
  • The home is well taken care of by both husband and wife
  • Peace and love has been accepted in the homes
  • There is more patience with children and partners
  • Mutual understanding has been established in the homes

The group had moved the meetings to the mornings, in order to enable more people to participate. Food and transport compensation was provided by Commit and Act. 

Participants decided that in addition to the already agreed upon goals, they would put some of their money aside for saving. This is extraordinary in Sierra Leone. Incomes are small and any amount saved at home would soon be used for one of the emergencies that frequently come up in the extended family. While that’s the reality, it prevents building in some safety, and providing for better futures. 

The group members bought a box, a ledger and a booklet and put an executive in place. The group was able to collect some money – the equivalent of 10 USD-- to procure materials for the savings. Most people gave about 18 USD per month. The money was locked away, and only accessible when the group met, so people could not spend it even if there was an emergency. The full amount was disbursed to families at the end of the year. It allowed them to start small businesses, pay for school fees or buy a little land. So, families started to create a better economic future. Also, members agreed to pay about 0.4 USD (40 Cents) each every month as a social fund for the members in case of illness or loss.

Facilitators appreciated the positive changes, emphasized their importance, and encouraged the participants to extend these changes to their communities at large.

Sometimes it seems hard to believe, that people get so much out of a few hours’ of workshop. Hannah explains: “People in Sierra Leone are very flexible, willing, accepting. It is in them. Because they are open to have life changed. People try things and if it is working, they accept.”

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