By Kanya Likanasudh
This past spring, I led a training in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and Coaching at a prison in Chiangmai, which is in the Northern part of Thailand. Twenty-three prisoners, many with life sentences, participated for five days in April and then five more at the end of May. Reading their applications to our training, I was moved by their expression of genuine desire to help others. Their longing to have meaning in their lives despite being in prison inspired me to make this program as relevant to them as I possibly could.
During the first round of training my team of five and I focused on teaching them self connection, listening, and empathy-giving skills. The impact of these sessions was immediate. The prisoners told us the very next morning how they had used what they learned the previous day.
For instance, one of them had transformed her experience of her five-minute weekly phone call. She was on the line with her mother, who lives with a special-needs child. For the first two minutes of the call, the mother was talking with this child while on the phone with the prisoner. The prisoner was frustrated not to have her mother’s full attention during this brief time she was allowed to phone. She told us of her anger and that usually she would have yelled, “Do you want to talk with me or not?” After our day of training, however, she was able to come back to herself in that moment and realize that she was feeling hurt and wanted quality time with her mother. So, she said, “Mom, we have three more minutes and I miss you so much. I really want to talk to you.” The mother immediately paid attention to the prisoner, who got her three minutes of quality time with her mother. The prisoner also said that this interaction made her realize that many times she yelled at people and ended up not getting what she wanted.
When my team and I returned the following month, we began working on coaching skills. Many of our students have been in prison for over 15 years. They had no clue what coaching is. We decided to abandon the word “coaching” and to describe the process as “skill for asking questions to help a person connect with their own inner wisdom and find their own solutions.” This also meant we couldn’t use the words “coach” or “coachee/client,” so we replaced the word “coach” with “you” and said “friend” instead of “coachee/client.”
We had to simplify everything, and it took us about a day before the prisoners were able to ask empowering questions. We broke it down into 4 steps:
1) in written form, changing closed ended questions to open ended questions
2) asking open ended questions in groups, then in pairs (When we rang the bell to end this exercise, they were enjoying learning about the other so much that they ignored our signal and kept on practicing.)
3) in written form, converting their advice (which they so much love to give!) into empowering questions
4) asking the empowering questions in small groups and then, finally, in pairs, coming up with their own empowering questions.
Here are some examples of the progression:
Closed ended question: Do you want to eat mangoes?
Open ended question: What kind of fruit would you like to eat?
Advice: Don’t be sad, you can always find a new boyfriend.
Empowering question: When you are broken-hearted or disappointed, how do you take care of your heart?
Advice: Hey bitch, calm down. I know you are right!
Empowering question: When you are mad, what helps you to get back to calm?
Advice: You just need to have faith and trust in sacred things. The sacred things will take care of you.
Empowering question: When you don’t feel so confident about life, what helps build confidence inside you?
Empowering question: When there is turmoil in your heart, what do you think of that helps warm your heart and eases your heart?
Empowering question: When you are hopeless, what helps keep you hanging on?
Many of the prisoners have thoughts that have haunted them over many years around either the situation when they were caught or unresolved relationships with their loved ones. With their new empathy giving and coaching skills, many of them were able to support their “friends” to let go of the troubling thoughts of being betrayed by close friends or family members.
One such person is “Noi,” serving a life sentence for drug trafficking. For 16 years she was haunted by the thought that her beloved friend must have been the one who reported her to the police. She wondered, “How can a good friend tell the police about me knowing it meant I would be separated from my three year old child?” Noi explained to us that she so longed for peace that she kept telling herself to let go of this puzzling situation. She repeatedly thought she had succeeded, but each time the troubling thoughts returned.
Then, during a practice session in May, her coach listened empathically using the skills we had taught the previous month. While receiving this empathy Noi felt her heart let go. Her coach followed up with a couple of empowering questions. Noi imagined that if at some point she heard that her friend had died, then at last she would be free of those thoughts and finally find peace.
With this new self-connection, she realized she could have peace even now by letting go of this resentment. Right then and there, she experienced closure, felt at peace, and was relieved of 16 years of suffering. She came to the clarity that if she ever gets out of prison, she will look for her friend one time to ask the question directly. If she can’t find her, she would still be at peace. Her coach then asked, “What strength in you helped you let go this time?” Noi replied, “It’s what I have learned in this training–self connection and loving myself.”
One moment that will stay in my heart for a long time. One of the prisoners who is Chinese, had learned Thai in prison and now speaks it fluently, was hired to be an interpreter for a court case. With the translation fee she received, she bought sweetened tea for everyone in the training. When it was poured into a glass, there was froth on top and the tea looked like beer. Glasses lifted, the group toasted each other when someone asked a question, answered a question or for anything significant that was happening in the room. For that short time, we felt as if we were beyond the walls, like friends enjoying a glass of beer together in celebration. We were all smiling.
I wanted to acknowledge that the prisoners had given great feedback to help our team make this curriculum appropriate for their setting. I asked them to name their group so we can put it together with our team’s name whenever we teach this curriculum in other prisons. The name they came up with was “Heart Power From Behind The Wall.” They also gave themselves a nickname–“Restart.”
I am so thrilled that these prisoners can now take NVC and coaching skills deep inside the prison where usually this kind of skill is not to be found. These prisoners now get to help others, thus giving meaning and purpose to their own lives as well to others they touch.
These two trainings, fully funded by a US benefactor, formed the major portion of a pilot program. They were successful beyond my expectation. My team and I would like to go in for a third time to help the prisoners integrate these skills more fully. It would then become a solid curriculum. I also have another prison in the Eastern part of Thailand lined up and ready for us to go in when this third part of the pilot is complete.
If you would like to contribute to us sharing this kind of work in prisons around Thailand, please consider donating at: https://www.generosity.com/education-fundraising/teaching-prisoners-coaching-skills-in-thailand/x/1437145
About the Author:
Kanya Likanasudh, MDiv. is a pioneer in bringing Compassionate Communication to Thailand. Kanya offers programs in communication, coaching and conflict facilitation across sectors. She challenges people with differing viewpoints to understand each other deeply which helps them discover creative solutions. Kanya’s joy in life is to create heart-connecting dialogue about power, privilege and rank.
This story is one of the many inspiring stories of coaching in action from the second edition of Coaching for Transformation: Pathways to Ignite Personal and Social Change. Get inspired and learn new coaching techniques from around the world when you purchase your copy today on Amazon.