Learning Mandarin is important but…

Language is no doubt a very important subset of culture and it augurs well if an expatriate learn up some basic langulearning chineseage in the foreign land to navigate around.  However, my own research data in China shows that while an expatriate leader may have a good command of Mandarin, the official language of China, he or she may still not demonstrate a good dose of Cultural Intelligence, or CQ™, as some of the local staff alluded to me. A leader from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia or Taiwan, or a “returning chinese”, sometimes termed as the “sea turtles,” may not necessarily have the ability to build trust relationships with the local staff at the workplace. What gives, then?

A lot of us who can speak Mandarin fluently tend to minimise the impact of the actual cultural distance between us and the local team. We think that because we are able to understand and communicate fluently in their language, we are “them” and we don’t have to do the extra legwork, such as finding creative ways to bridge the intellectual and emotional gaps that exist between us and “them.” We forget that our values systems may be different even though we may look similar and speak the same language. Worse, we forget that while we use the same language, the nuances of each word or sentence may come off completely differently and to the locals, what seem innocent may be perceived as extremely arrogant and dismissive. Consider this real-life example:

A mandarin-speaking expatriate leader said to his client, “This is a very simple problem.” It seems very straightforward and what he intended to convey is a sense of assurance for the client to undertake his proposed approach to solving the problem. However, the tone in which he used, unfortunately, was misconstrued by the client as condescending and over-simplying the problem. The client said that it made her feel stupid when the expatriate leader used the word, “Simple” in mandarin. So it looks like the old adage is true, especially in cross-cultural contexts: “It’s not what you say but how you say it.” 
Lest you turn away from this post thinking that I advocate throwing away the chinese dictionary and sacking your chinese teacher, I strongly believe that we need to have some language proficiency, the higher level the better, because that takes your conversations and relationships with the locals to an entirely different and deeper level, beyond the “ni hao” (hello) and “gei wo yi ge pi jiu” (give me a beer). I am able to have conversations with my clients that my American counterpart cannot hope to join in, and I am eternally grateful for my dad who forced me to learn Mandarin in school. Unfortunately, just counting on language proficiency alone to bring more business or build better teams in the local scene will not fly. There needs to be a concerted effort and internal motivation to want to gain local cultural knowledge, in addition to language proficiency, and then channel these knowledge clusters into meaningful and respectful gestures and behaviours that are congruent to the locals’ values system. So it seems that even for some of us who speaks the language fluently, there still exist a skills gap in translating all those cultural knowledge (including language)  into accurate interpretation and appropriate behavioural manifestations. Bridging that skills gap requires Cultural Intelligence.

To coach or not to coach..

Persephone-03Recently I was asked to write a bio of myself and the coaching services I offer. I had to write about my coaching style and approaches, and here I was, typing out furiously (and self-righteously) the various NLP techniques, evidence-based coaching approaches, when i suddenly remember a coaching incident I had last month with a client. I call it an “incident” because it was neither planned nor expected..by both parties.

Without going into the details of our conversation, suffice to say that it was just quite a bizarre experience, at least for me, when the conversation went into a more spiritual realm of spirits and ghosts of a dimension that I have not encountered. As the conversation hurtled along my mind’s corridor of unknown, I wasn’t sure when I should stop and asked if I should refer my client to someone else who may be more professionally trained to deal with the spiritual issues that she was facing. And then, I just decided to listen whole heartedly without placing any judgment on MYSELF and my perceived limited capabilities. I allowed her to just pour out everything she had been bottling inside, and shared my own stories when she asked. I stopped second-guessing myself as to whether I should maintain composure or not, whether my stories would help in any way, and whether this is going to even help. At the end of the day, my client walked away with a lighter heart, had the confidence that I, as her sherpa, am walking alongside her, not just as her coach but as a friend too. I did refer her to a psychologist who would have a more precise and technical repertoire of solutions to help her get through such difficult times. There is a difference between listening with the heart and holding her hand, and prescribing solutions to alleviate her pain. However, at that juncture, when she was sitting on my couch, speaking into things that I was not really able to understand because of my limited exposure on spiritual realms, I was glad I did not let my own pre-notions and self-judgment on my own limitations and cultural prejudices to be in the way of being emphatic and loving. I was grateful for the ability to stop being afraid, to step out of the textbook coaching approaches, and to just reach out like the greek Demeter reaching out her hand for her daughter, Persephone who was kidnapped by Hades into the Underworld. Demeter couldn’t understand what Persephone had experienced in the hole she was sucked into, but that did not stop Demeter from stretching out her hand to try to be the lifeline that Persephone was looking for.

Empty Oneself

Today I am borrowing a famous Zen story to illustrate this week’s food for thought – The necessity to empty oneself in order to unlearn our natural responses to a problem, and begin the healing or rejuvenation process.
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Often times we are full of ourselves; our opinion about ourselves, of others and of the world, though may not be verbalised outward, echo resoundingly in the sanctuary of our minds. Some people call this phenomenon “self-talk.” I just refer to it as a hindrance, a nuisance to learning something new about ourselves and the situation we are currently in.

When we are so fixated with how we feel and think about a certain subject, it is hardly easy to unknot our existing mindset. So go empty your cup of Self, so said the Zen master.

Easier said than done – so how do you go about emptying your cup, really? It’s not like you can see this cup and you pour its contents down the drain, is it?

Perhaps the first step is to recognise that our cup is already full. For example, if we are working towards achieving a different paradigm about forgiveness (towards a friend, your spouse, your MIL), the first thing to do is to say out loud, if that helps, that our ideas about this friend, spouse, mother-in-law, etc.., and what led to the state of unforgiveness, are percolating unhelpfullly inside our cups (translated = mind and heart).

We need to intentionally tell ourselves that we need to pour these bad thoughts out so that good thoughts can finally go in. But the only way to do this is really to say that we are WRONG…okay, maybe not that we  ARE wrong, but that we COULD BE wrong in our opinion about the said situation or person(s).

Nobody needs to hear that out loud yet, it does not need to go into public space.  BUT we need to say it out that we could be WRONG in our current assessment. We could be wrong in thinking that the friend in question was being unfair, unreasonable, unthinkable, etc… We could be wrong in feeling wronged. For those of us who have a hard time accepting that we are wrong, perhaps we could tell ourselves (for now) that there could be another extraterrestrial explanation.

It’s almost like having to mouth out loud this mantra over and over again, “we could be wrong, we could be wrong, we could be wrong,” until the truth sinks in that we could possibly be wrong in our assessment of the situation. Once that kicks in, which could vary between 20 seconds to a few years, we are ready to unlearn our current paradigm of unforgiveness. The Zen master in us (or our coach) will appear. Learning, Unlearning and Relearning can only take place when the student is ready, is it not?

“But what if I don’t want to?” you lament.

It boils down to our MOTIVATION to want to unlearn and relearn, to want to be healed and reconciled, because let’s face it, what are we without the comfort and familiarity of that speck of unforgiveness, that well-worn picture of betrayal, anger and frustration that keeps playing in our minds..

..till the next post.

What is Coaching?

There are at least a million ways of explaining what coaching is but I like this quote (most likely made by Lao Tzu, but hey, we can’t be 100% sure!) that encapsulates what coaching gives.

Catch a man a fish

Feed him for a day

Teach him how to fish

And feed him for life

Coaching frequently involves self-reinvention, as sparked by an inner change and transformation. The coaching process is driven by a sense of curiosity (or frustration) about one’s placement on earth and ask, “is there more to life than this?” or “What am I here for?”

Coaching begins with a confidential relationship between the coach and the coachee (or the Client) where the coach provides a safe environment and the necessary tools for the Client to engage in self-exploration and self-discovery. Throughout the process, the Client learns how to peel back her various layers of Self and begins to approach problem-solving more creatively in her own sphere of influence – home, workplace or community. The coach plays the role of a “Sherpa” and with her professional coaching “toolbox” that is equipped with creative tools and methodologies that help to ignite self-awakening and jumpstart the creative process.

The coach-sherpa walks alongside the coachee to conquer her own Everest and in that process, be enlightened about her own strengths and potential, and be able to tell the difference between real limitations and limiting beliefs that prevent her from living out the life that she desires.

People who engage coaches to walk alongside their life journeys are interested in learning more about who they are and who they are meant to be; how to harness their latent strengths and potential to surmount their personal fears and reservations, in order to live abundantly, beyond their current status quo.

Are you one of them?

Applying Riding Lessons to Life

horseridingI have been accompanying my child, Elizabeth to the equestrian stables for about 1.5 years but I have yet to really pluck up the courage to overcome my fears of these great beasts and decide to commit to serious riding lessons myself. I have ridden a few times to fill up the time when Elizabeth is taking her lessons but after the one time I was thrown off the school horse, I never felt motivated enough to get back to the saddle and ride. It becomes too easy to quit.

Recently, I signed Elizabeth up for a series of intensive horse clinic sessions with renowned horse trainer Catherine Birmingham. Elizabeth pleaded to her parents that riding is the only sport she loves and can be good at, and she even wants to enter competitions in the years to come when she becomes “good enough.” We obliged since we wanted her to be active in at least one sport, because we are after all Asian parents who have an insatiable need to keep up with the Jones, though it is so ridiculously expensive. Now, throughout the clinic, this is what I keep hearing, these pointers being drummed into little Elizabeth like a mantra.

  1. If you cannot control the horse to go to the direction to where you want to go or do what you want it to do, you have no hopes of entering any competition.
  2. If you don’t come to the stables as many times as you can, to just clock in as much riding times as possible, you will never learn to master riding, period.
  3. If you don’t persevere, and keep telling the horse what you want (be it with the whip, with your voice or with your body movements, heart, whatever), the horse will just continue to do whatever she wants and she will never learn that you are the master.

I love the way Ms Catherine points out the little truths so clearly and simply, though trying to adhere to each of these pointers will take time, effort, perseverance and a healthy dose of faith! I was just thinking that these pointers are also very true to how to take control of my own life. So if I translate the 3 simple pointers pertaining to Elizabeth’s riding lessons, they could be applied in my life as such:

  1. If I cannot control my personal “shit” and bring whatever that is holding me back from being the best that I can be into absolute subservient control, I have no hopes and business of competing in this dog-eat-dog world. This includes willing myself to NOT be afraid of my personal “horse.”
  2. I can never master anything if I don’t keep persevering at it and keep turning in the “volume of work” rather than be obsessed with the “quality of work.” This includes dealing with rejection of the work I am turning in and just grit my teeth and plough through it. For example, if I were an aspiring writer, then just write as much as I can, as often as I can and don’t let rejection from publishers deter me from continuing to write as much and as often as I can. I need to do justice to the “volume test,” i.e. just do the grunt work and practice, practice and practice.
  3. To keep my personal stumbling block in check and under control, I also need to know what I REALLY want out of life. Very specifically, I need to will it to being, putting what I truly desire into a sharp focus in my line of sight all the time, if I truly want to master the life issues that are plaguing me. For example, if I have always been struggling with inertia of starting and persevering in something, particularly in the face of adversity, then as part of controlling this inertia problem, I need to also keep telling myself what I really want, instead of just focusing on what I DON’T want.

Simple pointers, profound truths, challenging implementation (though not impossible). Can you see how these truths can be applied in YOUR life? What are your obstacles? What are your excuses then?


An Invitation

by Oriah
 Mountain Dreamer

It doesn’t interest me
 what you do for a living… I want to know
 what you ache for
 and if you dare to dream
 of meeting your heart’s longing…

It doesn’t interest me 
how old you are… I want to know if you will risk
 looking like a fool
 for love
 for your dream 
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me
 what planets are 
squaring your moon…
I want to know
 if you have touched 
the centre of your own sorrow
 if you have been opened
 by life’s betrayals
 or have become shrivelled and closed
 from fear of further pain.

I want to know
 if you can sit with pain
, mine or your own
, without moving to hide it
 or fade it 
or fix it.

I want to know
 if you can be with joy
, mine or your own, 
if you can dance with wildness
 and let the ecstasy fill you 
to the tips of your fingers and toes 
without cautioning us 
to be careful
 to be realistic
 to remember the limitations
 of being human.

It doesn’t interest me 
if the story you are telling me 
is true… 
I want to know if you can
 disappoint another
, to be true to yourself. 
If you can bear 
the accusation of betrayal 
and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless 
and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty 
even when it is not pretty
 every day. 
And if you can source your own life
 from its presence.

I want to know 
if you can live with failure, 
yours and mine
, and still stand at the edge of the lake
 and shout to the silver of the full moon,

It doesn’t interest me 
to know where you live 
or how much money you have… 
I want to know if you can get up 
after the night of grief and despair, 
weary and bruised to the bone 
and do what needs to be done 
to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me 
who you know
 or how you came to be here.
 I want to know if you will stand
 in the centre of the fire
 with me 
and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me 
where or what or with whom 
you have studied… 
I want to know 
what sustains you 
from the inside 
when all else falls away.

I want to know
 if you can be alone 
with yourself
 and if you truly like 
the company you keep
 in the empty moments.

How Culturally Intelligent Are You?

For those of us who have been “career expatriates” for a while, we can tell you that just because you have worked and lived in India for 6 years does not necessarily mean that you would transition easily into China, for example. In many cases, if you were like me, you would still feel like a bull in a china shop!

While most of the skills and lessons learned you garner from your previous postings are useful as reference or starting points in the initial starting line of your new posting, you find that you will have to re-learn or un-learn some things as well because the context you are dealing with is different – the people, the norms and cultural nuances in daily routines, the way negotiations are done, even how you negotiate traffic in Cairo is vastly different if you now live in Jakarta. Certainly, the art of trust-building differs from one region to the next.

How you adapt and evolve across the cultural terrains like a chameleon, is essentially dependent on how “culturally intelligent” you are, or how much CQ™ you possess. That is the “X” factor that makes or breaks your multi-cultural experience, be it at the workplace or in your daily life at your outpost.

CQ™ is multi-faceted and each facet can be developed and nurtured over time:

  • CQ Knowledge (CQ1)  – What you know about the culture
  • CQ Meta Knowledge (CQ2)  – How do you process and plan to use the information about the new culture
  • CQ Motivation (CQ3) – Why do you bother or even want to adapt in cross cultural environment
  • CQ Behaviours (CQ4) – What are the cross-cultural behaviours you exhibit to bridge cultures

Channeling your CQ is key to unlocking cross-cultural relationships and building emotional trust with locals and enhance your overall experience working and living in cross-cultural environments. Yet, you still need to make the first step of WANTING to put past your notions about that new culture and DESIRING to learn to be more culturally intelligent.

“If we are going to live with our deepest differences then we must learn about one another.”
― Deborah J. LevineMatrix Model Management System: Guide to Cross Cultural Wisdom

Stop Wondering..Start Living



“And that is just the point… how the world, moist and beautiful,

calls to each of us to make a new and serious response.

That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning.

“Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?”

–Mary Oliver


Invariably, once we (well, most of us) have sorted out our most basic physical and social needs in the Maslow’s hierarchy, we instinctively strive to answer the question, “is there more to life?”


Are you feeling fulfilled today? Are you doing what you are designed to do by your creator? Do you desire to live more purposefully each day instead of just letting life run its own course, or worse, run from you?


Most of us believe that we are created in the image of our creative Creator so it should not be too surprising to find the little Van Gogh’s and Michelangelo’s in ourselves, bursting to break free from the mundaneness of life and create.


In life coaching, we sometimes refer to “awakening your life purpose” or “designing your life” as a process of helping our clients become more conscious of their unconsciousness. That translates into inculcating new habits, positive thoughts – rebooting your thinking system, rewiring the usual way you think and feel about day to day things, seeing things differently instead of being in the same old rut day-in, day-out. Coaches help clients to uncover their masks and discover what they desire and want to bring into fruition.


Check. Are you ready to be awakened and start living?