In AFS, we often use the term “the unfinished product” to describe participants of our programs. This reminds us that they are growing, changing and learning while they are with us. I like to think that we are all unfinished products with many areas left to grow, many ideas that we can change, and many things to still to learn. Every interaction we have adds to our knowledge and experience. What we do with our experiences determines how we will grow as individuals and shapes us through our lives.
As we start off another host year, it is a good time to reflect on what we can do to make this year into a year of positive growth. I recently had the opportunity to listen to a commencement speech given by Dean James Ryan at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Dean Ryan’s central message is that asking good questions is key on our path to success and fulfillment. "I would urge you to resist the temptation to have answers at the ready and to spend more time thinking about the right questions to ask,” he says.
Ryan says he believes there are five essential questions that we should regularly ask ourselves to be both successful and happy – of moving our the continuous development of our lives in the right direction. Although his speech was not intended for host families or AFS volunteer, I think that the information in this six-minute segment will help us all to have a successful and happy year.
“The first is a question my own kids are fond of asking, and it’s one you may have heard other teenagers pose — or maybe you still pose it yourself. “Wait…what?” is actually a very effective way of asking for clarification, which is crucial to understanding. It’s the question you should ask before drawing conclusions or before making a decision. It’s important to understand an idea before you advocate for or against it. The wait, which precedes the what, is also a good reminder that it pays to slow down to make sure you truly understand.”
As AFS participants, host families and volunteers – this first question is essential. It is very easy to jump immediately to making inference and evaluations before we clearly understand what we are seeing. It is necessary sometimes to slow down and wait: think about what is really going on and what some of the potential explanations might be before we automatically assume we have enough information to form an accurate opinion.
The second part – “What?” shows our curiosity and willingness to increase our understanding and knowledge. This is a chance for us to learn more from our participants and be able to see how actions are influenced by our cultures. This question is what the intercultural learning model called D.I.V.E. (Describe, Interpret, Verify, Evaluate) is all about. This model reminds us to keep an open mind – to wait – and to be sure we truly understand before moving on – what?
“The second question is “I wonder” which can be followed by “why” or “if.” So: I wonder why, or I wonder if. Asking “I wonder why” is the way to remain curious about the world, and asking “I wonder if” is the way to start thinking about how you might improve the world.”
As AFS participants, host families and volunteers, we will constantly be interacting with people who have different ways of thinking, acting, and communicating. In these situations, we have a tremendous opportunity to grow and increase our knowledge. Being curious and actively trying to understand someone’s underlying values is reflected in the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS model) by Milton Bennett, the founding director and CEO of the Intercultural Development Research Institute (IDRInstitute). In order to become truly culturally sensitive, we need to begin to ask I wonder if…. And I wonder why…
Couldn’t we at least…?
“The third question is: "Couldn’t we at least...?" This is the question to ask that will enable you to get unstuck, as they say. It’s what enables you to get past disagreement to some consensus, as in couldn’t we at least agree that we all care about the welfare of students, even if we disagree about strategy? It’s also a way to get started when you’re not entirely sure where you will finish, as in couldn’t we at least begin by making sure that all kids have the chance to come to school healthy and well-fed?”
AFS students, volunteers and host families will invariably encounter challenges. The best way to work through them is to find common ground. You may not always agree (with your family/friends/spouse/coworkers/etc.), but you can always work together and strengthen your bonds by remembering to find some common ground.
How can I help?
“The fourth question is: “How can I help?” … how we help matters as much as that we do help, and if you ask “how” you can help, you are asking, with humility, for direction. And you are recognizing that others are experts in their own lives and that they will likely help you as much as you help them.”
As volunteers or staff of AFS, we want to help others in their journeys to becoming more finished products. It is easy to cross the line between helping and taking over. Sometimes, in our own minds at least, it is easier (better/faster/etc.) to just take over and solve the problem. We should not forget the Experiential Learning Model that says that people grow through the challenges they face and their ability to reflect upon experiences to change behaviors and attitudes.
What truly matters?
“The fifth question is this: "What truly matters?" You can tack on “to me” as appropriate. This is the question that forces you to get to the heart of issues and to the heart of your own beliefs and convictions. Indeed, it’s a question that you might might ask yourself, at least every new year: what truly matters to me?”
As we go through our AFS year, there will be some cultural differences that are easy for us to handle. There will be others that are more difficult. These usually occur when there is a difference in an underlying value or belief. Sometimes the underlying clash of values is hard to identify and deal with. One of the benefits of being an AFSer is the opportunity to learn about your own cultural values. Take the time to learn what your “hot buttons” are and what things are really unimportant to you in the grand scheme of things. Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist, uses a Cultural Dimensions Theory as a great way to learn about some of your own underlying cultural values as well as those of others.
“So these are the five essential questions. “Wait, what” is at the root of all understanding. “I wonder” is at the heart of all curiosity. “Couldn’t we at least” is the beginning of all progress. “How can I help” is at the base of all good relationships. And “what really matters” gets you to the heart of life. If you ask these questions regularly, especially the last one, you will be in a great position to answer the bonus question, which is, at the end of the day, the most important question you’ll ever face.”
Bonus question: And did you get what you wanted out of (your AFS experience), even so? “The “even so” part of this, to me, captures perfectly the recognition of the pain and disappointment that inevitably make up a full life, but also the hope that life, even so, offers the possibility of joy and contentment. My claim is that if you regularly ask: wait, what, I wonder, couldn’t we at least, how can I help, and what really matters, when it comes time to ask yourself “And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so,” your answer will be “I did.”
Your AFS experience may have its ups and downs, but in the end, did it help you on your journey to becoming a more finished product? If you take the time to reflect on these 5 questions and put these ideas into action, then the answer will definitely be “YES!”
This post was written by Kathleen Carey , a Qualified Trainer of the AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program, and a volunteer and local support coordinator for AFS USA.
Thank you for let me re-think!!!
I read this last month and have been meaning to reach out ever since to thank you, Kathleen Carey, for a really well written, thoughtful, yet practical article. Nice job! Cheers from NYC, Melissa