Mali Trip Report – May 7-19, 2000

By Jeff Goebel


This trip report focuses on the primary purpose of my involvement, which is to provide conflict resolution skills to Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resources Management – West Africa (SANREM-WA) participants in order to facilitate the objectives of SANREM-WA.  The report is written in the context of what I did, why I did what I did, and what I observed as a result.  These are the objectives for this trip.

Objectives for SANREM-WA Training and Community-Based Research Mission (3-18 May 2000)

  1. Natural Resource Management Advisory Committee (NRMAC) members trained in Holistic Management (HM) addressing:
    1. the incentives for converging individual interests/practices with holistic goals within the context of the four eco-system functions;
    2. how management tools affect the condition of the grazing and soil resources;
    3. techniques for testing decisions concerning management tools; and
    4. techniques for monitoring the progression of resources overtime.
  2. The HM training should lead to the establishment of two collaboratively identified research activities:
    1. collaborators should include villagers, NRMAC members, and US and Malian researchers
    2. one integrated activity should target improved pasture management;
    3. the other should target improved soil fertility on croplands.
  3. Each research activity should:
    1. have the commitment of villagers to conduct routine monitoring based on their defined interest in the intervention;
    2. furnish empirically verifiable observations for scientific analysis in order to determine how to replicate successes or mitigate failures.
  4. NRMAC members trained in conflict resolution

Setting the Stage

We arrived in Madiama at 9:00 am on Friday.  I spent the weekend preparing for my workshop.  We were able to make workshop arrangements with the village leaders prior to the weekend.

In this report, the key activities and questions are written in capitalized, bold print.  There are two modules, or units of training, presented in this workshop.  These two modules are 1) the Introduction to Conflict Resolution and 2) the Managing Scarcity Conflicts.  I teach ten conflict resolution modules I utilize to help people successfully confront and resolve conflicts of various kinds and settings.

Prior to making this trip, based on what I learned during my earlier trip in November about SANREM-WA and the Madiama Commune, I decided either to teach the Managing Change module or the Managing Scarcity module.  Since this project is introducing the concepts of change, I saw a valuable opportunity for the Managing Change module.

However, given the real and perceived poverty of West Africa and the Madiama Commune and the fact the region is at a time of scarcity in May due to the end of the dry season, I decided the Managing Scarcity module was most appropriate for this trip.

I also decided to review the work from last November since it had been seven months and I would probably have some new participants.  I chose to make this review of even greater value by confronting the real conflict facing the committee of integrating what the members are learning through the SANREM-WA education program into the commune.

Every action I take in a workshop is done with purpose.  I begin my workshops with getting personal clarity as to the desired outcomes of the work I am involved with.  An important purpose of my work is to effectively transfer conflict resolution skills to the participants.

One of the actions I use to do this is to select a facilitator from the group to co-facilitate with me.  This action demonstrates that they can do this work, and through my coaching, actually do a very high quality performance as a facilitator.  During this workshop, I changed facilitators each morning.  I usually choose participants who seem to demonstrate a lower stature within the community.

May 15: review of Conflict resolution process

There was a very positive reception to my presence in the commune.  We met in a courtyard of an empty home, under the shade of a great tree.  The temperatures got up to 115 degrees Fahrenheit.  We arrived about 9:00 am.  I have learned to be very adaptable in my work, and this is no exception.  There were few chairs set up and participants slowly arrived, with some new faces.

I was pleased to see the new CARE-Mali representative and the Madiama Mali Volunteer, who spoke English fairly well and could translate my English to Bambara and French.  The additional interpreter was good.  I wanted Sam to be a participant through this workshop.  Diversity adds richness to this work and Sam’s perspective within the small group activities will help break paradigms that have created the conditions existing in the Madiama commune.  Also, the interpreter actually teaches what I teach so this further transfers the knowledge to the commune.

Module 1 – Introduction to Conflict Resolution  (See Mali Report – Purposeful Learning)

Step 1: the grounding

We began the day as always, with a grounding.    These were the four questions I asked:

“introduce yourself and your relationship to SANREM?”

“How have you used what you experienced in the november workshop?”

“What are your expectations of this Workshop?”

“Tell us how you feel about being here”

I was pleased to learn that the committee saw evidence in the commune of the benefits of the November workshop.  They gave several examples of evidence of how this knowledge has been incorporated.  As one member said, they have learned to get along as a group of villages.  They also said they were hungry for more learning of what I had to offer.

step 2: the greeting circle

I often use the greeting circle to foster a sense of equity among participants and to make “peace” for many participants.  Most groups and individuals have numerous unresolved conflicts that are confronted during the greeting circle.  This often leads to discomfort among participants and usually a relief to have greeted everyone personally.  The dynamics of the workshop become more closely knit following the greeting circle.  The purpose of the following Adaptive Learning Process is to surface the feelings of discomfort and to turn the experience into an opportunity to learn how to effectively resolve the situation we are confronting.

step 3: an adaptive learning process

how do you feel about The greeting circle?

what did you learn from it that will make you successful?

This group really seems to enjoy the greeting circle.  I learned an interesting twist on explaining the purpose of the greeting circle from this group during my November 1999 training.  They said the greeting circle builds friendships before confronting conflicts.  As friends, the conflict can be placed in the middle and objectively look at how to resolve the issue.

An interesting conflict arose from the greeting circle on day two, late in the day with the new people who were attending the second day of training.  The villagers spoke only in Bambara and instructed the interpreters not to let Sam and I know what they were discussing.  They wanted to resolve the issue by consensus on their own.  They decided to break for prayer and lunch.  The atmosphere was very strangely quiet toward Sam and I.

As we finished lunch, I asked if the group wanted to get started again or to quit the workshop.  I was aware by their behavior that something from my training had disturbed them.  They discussed the question of continuing or quitting and decided to continue.  We were then told that the greeting circle with men and women was uncomfortable for them.

I apologized, not meaning to be disrespectful of their culture.  I again reinforced that I would do some things different for them to get different results.  However, they would need to decide what to incorporate into their culture and what to not incorporate.

A village leader spoke up after I apologized and said I had no reason to apologize.  They said they wanted me to give them everything I had to offer them.  They would decide what to use and not use.  I felt a great level of respect and desire to learn what I had to offer.

I usually began each morning with a greeting circle.  On the morning of day three, given the challenge I just mentioned and a short time frame, I decided to skip the greeting circle and move right into the day’s activities.  A village leader stopped me and asked if I would do the greeting circle.  I said if they wanted to, I would.  I asked him to lead the greeting circle, which he gladly did and they greeted each other as we had done each time I have worked with them.  I was impressed!

step 4: worst/best/possibility

what are the worst possible outcomes of the workshop?

what are the best possible outcomes of the workshop?

These activities allow the group to learn about worst / best outcomes as a natural human process and also gets the group focused on creating a successful workshop.  I demonstrate an acceptance of their worst possible outcomes, acknowledge that these worst possible outcomes are possibilitities and not fact, then get them to focus on fostering their best possible outcomes.

STEP 5: a process for coping with conflict

I chose the conflict of integrating the SANREM education program into the commune, beyond the committee members, because of the concerns I learned of during the grounding.  This seemed to be a good choice as the committee members seemed to discover new ways to confront the issues they are facing with expanding the understanding of the education program into the commune.  These questions are how I modified the basic conflict resolution process to confront the situation of integrating the SANREM education program into the commune.

what is the situation to integrate the sanrem education throughout the villages?  how do you feel about it?

what are my worst outcomes of confronting/not confronting the issues associated with integrating the sanrem education throughout the villages?

what are my best outcomes of confronting and successfully resolving the issues associated with integrating the sanrem education throughout the villages?

what beliefs/ behaviors/ strategies/ actions will foster the best outcomes?

The participants brought out a lot of good information about this situation and discovered new ways to integrate the information into their communities.


I end each day of my workshops with Adaptive Learning.  This is a powerful time to reinforce the learning from the day, to express the general hopes and concerns of participants, and gives me insights into what I need to do during the coming workshop days.  This is a powerful exercise.  I also use this process in most meetings I participate in as it brings a powerful close to a meeting, thus reinforcing the purpose and value of the meeting.

May 16 & 17: Managing scarcity conflicts

I focused the learning for the next two days on Managing Scarcity Conflicts.  As a result of the work from the previous day, the group size doubled.  I was impressed with the selection of the additional participants, selecting individuals who would further the efforts of bringing this education into the Madiama Commune.

There were only enough “extra” funds to pay per diem to the additional participants for day two.  I made an offer for the additional people to return for day three, however, there wouldn’t be funds to cover their per diem.  Surprisingly, a number of people returned for the final day, without being paid.  They were desiring the learning.

module 2 – managing scarcity conflicts

This module introduces the participant to the skills, attitudes and understanding needed to manage behaviors and conflicts that result from moving from an environment of plenty to one of scarcity.

The participant will learn to:  help others to recognize and acknowledge the behaviors that result from scarcity; develop the ability to identify and ask the right question; and make decisions that create a richness in the environment, that allows others to move from their worst fears to identifying and affirming the outcomes they want.

The participant will learn the power that survival, or lower needs, have over consensus seeking and develop the ability to move people to the higher level needs.

Step 1: The Situation – A panel

A panel of six people presented their view of the economic situation confronting the Madiama Commune and their environment.  This could be external and/or internal to the Commune.

What is the economic situation you are, or have, confronted in the madiama commune?  (wHAT IS THE EVIDENCE OF SCARCITY?)

How do you feel about it?

Step 2: The situation – group:

This task makes each member responsible for listening to the panel and learning.  Reflecting on what was learned, first, always honors the panel.  Then each person provides his or her view of the situation.  Writing down the evidence makes the members responsible to create a common knowledge base.  It introduces silence, balancing each person’s internal energy.

They are introduced to the scarcity concept by identifying the scarce resources in their environment.  This brings their thinking and feeling into the arena of “scarcity”.  During this task, a chair was removed from each group so that a person had no chair. This brought scarcity into the task.

What did you hear or learn from the panel?  (external or internal)

What is your view of the financial situation?

How do you feel about it?

Step 3: The evidence there is plenty

While there is ample evidence of scarcity in the participants’ environment, there are also behaviors that indicate people believe there is still plenty.  This is important information, and an important incongruence to acknowledge.

People in the community feel betrayed if they are asked to respond to scarcity, yet they see community leaders with plenty.  At the same time, the community leaders see evidence that the community can provide more support.  The behaviors of plenty result from a continuing denial of scarcity, a belief that we will be “rescued” by someone else.

While the groups worked on this task a second chair was removed from the group, increasing scarcity.

What is the evidence the community members still think there is plenty?  (aCTING AS IF THERE IS PLENTY?)

Step 4: The Worst Possible Outcomes:

The small groups explored the worst possible outcomes of not addressing, confronting or adapting to the issues of scarcity.

The worst outcomes affect the beliefs, strategies and behaviors of the group.  They affect relationships so that information exchange is severely hindered.  This actually may foster the worst outcomes of an issue.

These worst outcomes are possible.  They are probably present, at some level, in the environment.  They create the reactive force that develops the actions, strategies and behaviors of the participants.  They often describe the existing situation from the party’s viewpoints.

While the group was given this task, two more chairs were removed, increasing the scarcity of seating.

What are the worst possible outcomes of CONFRONTING / not confronting, or adapting to the issue of scarcity?

Step 5: A Scarcity Experience

The participants observed, and experienced the behaviors that are created by moving from plenty to scarcity.  This is done in two steps.

The first step occurred as the participants worked through the tasks on the evidence of scarcity, the evidence of plenty, and the worst possible outcomes of scarcity.  Before each of these tasks the groups were advised the one or two chairs would be removed from each group.  These are used for another activity.  The groups were then given the tasks to answer and record.

The reaction of the groups to this differed.

*           In some groups, the people who lost their chair stood, or sat on the floor.

*           Other groups put their chairs together, and shared them so all could sit.  This brought them closer together.

*           Others tried to get a chair from another group, or went to find an extra chair, increasing their resources.

The interesting behaviors to observe are:

*           Since they had a task to do, they all went on with the task and completed it.

*           Doing the task kept them focused on it and not on the scarcity.

*           All groups adapted to the scarcity.

There is a lesson in this.  If all groups lose the same amount of resources, they will not compete with each other.  If all groups have the scarcity decision made for them, and they accept it, they can focus on their task.  If they focus on the task and not on the scarcity, the task is completed while they adapt to the scarcity.

If the resources had been taken from one group only, they would have complained and tried to take a chair from the other group.  This would have resulted in defensive and protective behaviors in all the groups.  This would have disrupted the focus on the task for all the groups.

If the groups were asked to decide which persons’ chair should be removed, then a struggle for survival would have ensued within the group.  People would feel threatened, in conflict, protective and greedy.  This would have prevented the group from focusing on the task.


The second scarcity experience uses the chairs removed from the group.  A variation of musical chairs is enacted.  The experience begins with the chairs (supply) outnumbering the people (demand).  Before the task is complete the chairs (supply) are outnumbered by the people (demand).

There are different behaviors in times of plenty and in times of scarcity.  The experience allows the observers to see those different behaviors in transition.

STEP 1.         The chairs removed from the groups are arranged in a circle in the middle of the room, with the seats pointed inward.

STEP 2.         A representative is selected from some of the groups.  The number of representatives selected is less than the number of chairs. (I.E. 4 chairs, 2 representatives.)

STEP 3.         The representatives are instructed that they need one chair to provide adequate resources for their group.  They must be seated in the chair to own the resource.  Any part of their body touching another chair gives them access to that as a resource.  This is known as “bringing home the bacon.”

The representatives are to walk around the outside of the circle of chairs while music is played or sung.  When the music stops, then they must obtain their resources.

STEP 4.         Sam had arranged for a drummer to set the rhythm and the women clapped and sang to create a chorus for our exercise.  They choose the songs, and sing them until I signal them to stop.

The representatives dance around the circle of chairs until the music stops, and then rapidly, with little decorum, grab a chair, and as much of an extra chair as they can.  Their group applauds.  This is the first allocation of plenty.

STEP 5.         Because they are so effective, the representatives are rewarded with another chair (increased resources).  Step 4 is repeated.  Again, the representatives, with much energy, grab all they can get.  Laughter and applause acknowledge their aggressiveness.  The representatives are asked to talk about how they feel about this situation of plenty.  (5 chairs, 3 representatives)

STEP 6.         Another chair is added to the group.  The Government has decided to reward the Commune for the job they are doing, and is asking them to do more.  A person is selected from another group to represent the “disenfranchised… the old, the poor, the handicapped.”  This person sits in one of the chairs and does not have to do the dance.  He is being treated “magnanimously” in this environment of plenty.  (6 chairs, 4 representatives)

STEP 7.         Step 4 is repeated, and the representatives now fight to get more than two chairs.  Occasionally a member will lose out and not get a chair.  Or, a member will not like the “greediness” and will refuse to grab as the others do.  This member is sent back to his group for instructions.  We wait until he returns.

STEP 8.         Another person is selected from a group.  No chairs are added.  There is a need for more people, but there are no more resources.  Still, the resources outnumber the demand.  Step 4 is repeated.  An increase in energy and apprehension is observed for the first time.  If a person does not get a chair, they are sent back to their group for instructions.  (6 chairs, 5 representatives)

STEP 9.         Another person is added, and 2 chairs removed.  More people are needed to do the job, but the resources are lessened because of scarcity in the economic environment.  (4 chairs, 6 representatives)

Step 4 is repeated.  The people are now fighting for the chairs.  Some end up sitting on each other’s laps.  Some share chairs.  Some are left standing.  These return to their group for more instructions on how to “bring home the bacon.”

Normally, at this point, the representatives complain about the person who is disenfranchised not having to dance to the tune.  They feel this is unfair.  They may even try to wrench the chair away from him.

STEP 10.          The disenfranchised is told to stand as the rest of the representatives.  His chair is removed.  There are no longer funds for these special programs for the needy.  He must dance with his eyes closed since he is handicapped.  The group in Madiama decided to blindfold the disenfranchised person so he wouldn’t cheat.    Another chair is removed because of scarcity.  (3 chairs, 7 participants)

Step 4 is repeated.  The dance is done slowly, each person holding onto a chair as they go by, trying to pick up chairs, or jumping into the circle before the music stops.  The struggle for the chairs is intense.

Only three or four representatives are seated.  The others are angry.  The handicapped person is lost.  They feel left out, embarrassed in front of their group.

STEP 11.       Step 10 is repeated to give those standing a chance to redeem themselves.

STEP 12.       The representatives are asked to express how they feel about each other, how they feel about scarcity.  Some members of their groups join in.

I ask the group: “Who is calling the tune?”  It takes a few moments of silence before someone points to me.  I ask them why they dance to my tune, why they give me this power?

STEP 13.          The representatives are asked to solve the scarcity so that all share the resources.  Normally, and almost immediately, they put the chairs together to create a platform so that all can be seated.

STEP 14.          The representatives are asked to solve the resource problem without the chairs.  They need to share the resources.  They normally form a tight circle, standing or sitting.

STEP 15.       The representative and the singers and drummer are honored by the group for playing this important learning role for the entire group.

STEP 16.       After a break, the groups are then reformed and given the learning task.  They are asked to describe and record the beliefs and behaviors they observed in times of plenty, and then in times of scarcity.

Step 6: Learning from the Experience:

This is the learning task.  After observing the members in the scarcity experience, they become aware of the beliefs and behaviors that are associated with plenty and those that result from moving to scarcity.

Because scarcity is a new situation, there is denial and disbelief.  There has always been plenty in the past.  We validate that by giving examples of how the leaders or others, are still behaving as if there is plenty.

These beliefs that there is still plenty based on others’ behaviors makes us feel taken advantage of.  We use this to justify the selfish and disrespectful actions we take in the scarce environment.  We are just trying to get our share.  If they are selfish and greedy, then we can be too!

Once people are convinced there is a true scarcity, that it impacts them all, they can take decisive action that is respectful and focused.  They will adapt.  This task is intended to convince them.

What are the behaviors that you observe in times of plenty?

What are the behaviors you observe in times of scarcity?


Allocation decisions are different when there is perceived surplus.  When supply exceeds demand, the POLITICS OF DISTRIBUTION focuses on the distribution of that surplus.  If there are eight pieces of pie and six people want to distribute to, the allocation of surplus pieces is done with compromise as the accepted process.  If we do lose some of the surplus, it’s not really that important except as a matter of pride.  It’s a fun, competitive game.  Sometimes we even magnanimously share a portion of the surplus with those who have done without.

With scarcity, it’s different.  If there are eight pieces of pie and ten people to distribute to, we are now talking about not only allocating the original surplus, but also a portion of my piece.  In the POLITICS OF REDISTRIBUTION, compromise is viewed as a losing proposition for everyone.  This sets up conditions that make the others the enemy, with the creation of appropriate stereotypes and the hardening of positions.  Now, our intelligence is used to defend our position, and affirm the negative qualities of the enemy.  We are at war and it’s no longer a fun game.

Compromise will not work in this situation, because the result is either win/lose or lose/lose.  In this situation, consensus provides an opportunity to solve it by creating new contexts.



We typically think in “Either/Or” terms.  We can choose either this or that.  Each choice is mutually exclusive.  In times of abundance, this works well; choices are easy.  You can always come back and get some of “that” later.

If scarcity is perceived, however, either/or choices mean something is lost — it might be an opportunity, a good, or a service.  The perception is that it is lost forever.  (Even though I may not want it right now, if I feel it will not be available in the future, I still feel the loss in the present.)  So…either growth or quality of life…becomes a difficult choice and represents a potential loss to either side.  (The same would be true of…either farmers or herders…either rice or bourgou.)  Polarization commonly results as each side attempts to save as much as it can of what it wants.  In these situations, third party compromise commonly is the solution.  At best, this results in win/lose, and at worst, in lose/lose.

Either/or logic tends to separate, or polarize people.  It is a distribution concept that assumes exclusive and singular shares of something.  It encourages conflict and narrow-minded thinking.


In times of scarcity, “and” logic can be more appropriate.  “How can we have growth and quality of life, farmers and herders, rice and bourgou” recognizes that everyone has a need, a desire that must be met in the solution.  It sets up the possibility that all needs can be met, and focuses on those solutions that do so.

Our mind, our beings, are wonderfully creative, and we seek to survive, to cope, to adapt.  Using “AND” logic allows us to tap this wellspring of creative potential that is in every issue.  It turns every problem into potential, into learning, into growth.  It seeks to bring people together on common goals that meet everyone’s needs.

“And” logic brings people together in seeking solutions that are potentially win/win.  It assumes that in the “seeking” there is the possibility of a solution.  “And logic” seeks, creates consensus.

Step 7: The Best Possible Outcomes:

The groups explored the best outcomes of confronting and adapting to scarcity.  This allows the participants to express their intended outcomes.  It establishes what they want; a vision that will create new beliefs, behaviors, strategies, and actions that will foster the desired outcome.  These changes affect relationships so that information exchange is facilitated, and this may foster the best outcomes of an issue.

These best possible outcomes are developed for a short term (2-4 years) and long-term time frame.  These best outcomes are possible.  They have probably been experienced at some level in the past with all participants.  They are probably present, at some level, in the environment.  They create the proactive force that develops the actions, strategies and behaviors of the participants.

What are the best possible outcomes in the short-term (1-3 years) of tapping our richness in confronting and adapting to the scarcity?

What are the best possible outcomes in the Long-term (10-50 years) of tapping our richness in confronting and adapting to the scarcity?

We attempted to finish day two with the Best Possible Outcomes.  The list was more “how-tos” instead of “purpose”.  After the opening of grounding and the group initiated greeting circle on day three, I had them revisit the Best Possible Outcomes.  After reflecting through the night, the Best Possible Outcomes the participants developed was powerful.  They created a wonderful vision of the future for themselves.


Managing scarcity requires asking people to do the impossible, that which they say they cannot do.  Remember, just because I say I can’t do it, doesn’t make that a fact.  My statement expresses a possibility, one based on the worst possible outcomes.

To do the impossible, a person must stretch their “bubble of beliefs and knowledge.”  They must first be allowed to explore their worst possible outcomes of doing something they say they can’t do.  Once this is acknowledged, they can explore and express their best possible outcomes.  This forms the basis for creating strategies that focus efforts towards the best outcomes.

In the following tasks the groups explored a number of different approaches:

*           Creating a paradigm of “richness.”

*           Exploring how to tap the richness of others, of the situation.

*           Changing the situation from one of “cost” to one of investment, and exploring the conditions for making the investment.

*           Creating income from the situation.

*           Creating a surplus through investment decisions.

Each of these strategies may not, in themselves, solve the problem of scarcity.  They will stretch the imagination and beliefs of the parties so they can consider new and creative approaches to resolving their scarcity situation.

In this task the groups explored the concept of richness by describing the evidence it exists in their home life.  This task was also done for the Madiama Commune.

This task brings the word, and the concept of richness, or abundance, into the consciousness of each person.  It is the balance for the concept of scarcity.  In preparing this list, it is noted that few of the descriptions have to do with money.  They are in relationships, in attitudes, in an environment.

What is the richness in your home?

What is the richness of the madiama community?

The group created a large list of the richness that is evident in their environment.  The mood was very upbeat.

Step 9: DOING THE Impossible – Taking control of our own destiny:


Once people have developed a “best possible outcome,” they normally respond in disbelief.  “It’s impossible!” they say, either verbally, or through their behaviors.  This is especially true of people who fear worst possible outcomes, and are successful in making them happen.

This is a normal response.  It can occur in the form of laughter as the outcomes are read; or in snide remarks about “motherhood statements;” or in questions that express doubt about the wisdom of the mission.  These are all worst possible outcomes statements and behaviors.  They express the fear that the best possible outcome is not possible, this is a “pipe-dream.”

This occurs anytime people’s “bubbles of belief” are stretched.  I visualize people’s belief system as being in a large bubble, held in by an invisible membrane, a surface tension created to hold the beliefs inside.  Anything that attempts to stretch the bubble, to cause it to expand, will be resisted for fear that the bubble will burst, the contents released, and the person will disappear.

If the mission is outside their normal beliefs or experience, how can it be possible?  The participants, in their small groups are assigned what would be considered to be an “impossible task:”

In order to do these tasks, we need to allow the individuals to express their disbelief, their worst possible outcome.  It allows them to bring these fears to the surface, to expose them, to release the tension and the disbelief.  Note that each of the reasons the tasks are impossible is a belief statement.

Once this is done, then the person will be willing to explore the possibility of making it happen.  This allows them to explore another possibility, to expend their “bubble of belief.”




(Note that all of these statements express the belief systems, the limitations of the “bubble of beliefs” that will get in the way of fostering the desired outcomes.)

*           Because we believe so.  Because we don’t think we can.  The age-old dysfunction wouldn’t allow this to happen.  There will be sabotage.

*           Personal fears.  People are afraid of change.  We’re doing all we can now, with the money that we have.  There is not enough community support.

*           Stereotypes.  People’s negative attitudes and expectations. I don’t see a reason why it’s not possible, except math.

*           Less money must mean we have to do less.  Less money means no materials to implement tools, such as well developments, road development, and farm tools.

*           Employees will have more assignments.  There will be more unhappy workers.

*           We can’t generate more revenue.  We need some budget left for materials and expenditures, and projects for the people you are keeping around to work on.  The budget for projects is overspent already.

*           Our current organizational structure won’t allow it.  There is a lack of teamwork, and we don’t act like we can.

*           There are no defined time lines.


Once we have acknowledged the disbelief, all the reasons the best possible outcomes are impossible, then we can explore the opposite point of view.  This provides for the stretching of the “bubble of belief” that the participants have.  If it is truly impossible, then how can we overcome this?

To ask the question is a paradox.  If it is truly impossible, then how can this question be asked?  The answer is; because we are human beings.  We are designed to do the impossible.  Asking the question creates that unfinished space that the mind must close somehow.  It is creative tension that must be released, can only be released by finding an answer.

If the answer is “I don’t know!” then I will ask….. “If you did know, what is the answer?”  This recreates the unfinished space, the need for closure.  Ultimately, the group will come up with answers.

The participants are first asked to respond to the question without recording.  It is normal for the groups to forget to speak in turn.  When a person speaks, they will disagree, or raise impossible questions.  Or, they want to brainstorm.  This actually slows down the process.  It focuses on one or two people, allowing others the opportunity to avoid the pain of thinking deeply, creatively, a somewhat frustrating and painful process.  I will normally stop the groups, and remind them to take turns, to listen with respect, to suspend judgment.

This allows for the needed intense and deliberative discussion.  They then record their answers.




I asked the group to respond to three “impossible tasks”, selected to expand their beliefs about what IS possible for them to achieve if they stop limiting their beliefs and associated behaviors.  I selected these three tasks based on actions the commune members could take which would significantly improved their quality of life.  Sam Bingham recorded the answers for me, which are included below.

This activity was greatly anticipated by several committee members.  They were very curious as to how to do the impossible and what “magic” I would do to enable them to do impossible tasks in their environment.

How can the madiama communE farmers increase productivity by 50% without chemical fertilizers?

Give all the reasons it’s impossible to increase productivity by 50% without chemical fertilizers?

1) We don’t like to work hard

2) The soil is too poor

3) The average farmer has no other ideas besides chemical fertilizer that could increase production that radically.  If there is such a thing, we don’t know about it

4) Can’t be done without chemical fertilizer because there isn’t enough rain, and the soil is too poor

Given that it’s impossible, if it were possible, what would you do to increase productivity by 50% without chemical fertilizers?

1) Zai

2) Rotation

3) Leguminous trees (Acacia albida)

4) Living hedges

5) Contour barriers (lines of stones along the contours)

6) Fallow

7) Intercropping grain and leguminous plants OR mixing small patches of different crops

8) Parking animals on the land to accumulate manure

9) Compost

10) Organize work better

11) Have training on different techniques, like the above

I interrupted the reporting out of these ideas immediately after the first solution had been proposed.  I told the group that the fact one person could identify one solution; the task was no longer impossible.  When I said this, big smiles appeared on the participants face as they realized the importance of what I was doing.  I had just given them “permission” to break out of the paradigms that limit the farmers from producing more, without chemical fertilizers.  The same response happened for each of the following tasks as they realized the multiple solutions available to achieve the various “impossible” tasks.

How can the madiama commune extend the lush growing season of the SUBIRRIGATED PASTURES throughout the dry season?

Give all the reasons it’s impossible to extend the lush growing season of the SUBIRRIGATED PASTURES throughout the dry season

1) Plowing right up to the water’s edge

2) Trees destroyed

3) Acts of God (drought, flood, etc.)

4) Inability to protect access

5) Water table going down generally

6) Siltation

7) Difficult to get seed or bourgou plants to set out

8) Planting trees never works because they are cut or eaten

given that it’s impossible, if it were possible, what would you do to extend the lush growing season of the SUBIRRIGATED PASTURES throughout the dry season?

1) Educate, with the consensus process, the people in the commune, those around it and those who pass through

2) Work out a “holistic management plan”

3) Plant seeds or set out bourgou right now because it will soon rain.  Find a way to protect it and give it a rest period Have meetings to communicate an understanding that these will be protected places, not forever, but in the interest of higher production

4) Limit access to certain corridors

how can the madiama commune increase women’s trade by 25%?

give all the reasons it’s impossible to increase women’s trade by 25%

1) Women are too tired from hauling water and wood, grinding, etc.

2) Men are spending money allocated for crafts

There is no credit

Products deteriorate before they are sold

Illiteracy and poor education so traders never get a profit

Women are a getting pregnant all the time

There really aren’t enough things to trade

Given that it’s impossible, if it were possible, what would you do to increase women’s trade by 25%?

1) Start a small credit/savings program

2) Research the market and make things that people will buy

3) Have fewer children

4) Organize so that products, such as melons get to market quicker and in better condition

5) Learn to dry products such as mangos, tomatoes, gumbo (okra), and melons

6) Reduce the household workload on women (wood, water, and grinding)

After doing this exercise, one of the village women thanked me for confronting the issue of women’s trade.  I suspect participants following the workshop will try many of the above solutions.  As they find successful results, they will continue to do more.  The “impossible” questions focus on the following three areas of limiting beliefs.  These questions can be used to confront and effectively resolve issues associated with limitations of scarcity in these areas.

Developing self-sufficiency

increasing resources

fostering investments


A silent greeting circle is one done without words.  This creates balance at the end of a workshop by closing in silence.  The silent greeting circle is more powerful in making connections as words have a tendency to mask a deeper level of connection.


The look in the participant’s faces was moving.  They showed a new resolve to the issues they face in their environment.  I left pleased with the impacts, excited about the possibilities, and curious to learn what will change in their lives as a result of the SANREM Education program.


Each day we honored people who helped make the workshop successful.  We honored the participants who helped facilitate or led various activities throughout the workshop.  We honored the new people who joined us on day two.  We honored the young man who made desert tea for us loyally each day.  The participants asked Sam and I to come to the center of the circle.  They honored us.  This was a very moving moment.

next steps: continuing education

I suggest the next follow-up workshop is focused on managing conflicts associated with change, which will reinforce the learning they have had in the previous two workshops.  I am very impressed with how they are adapting to this process.  They are becoming very comfortable with the process.  I notice the ease at which they are using the process.  I am very satisfied.  Three other workshop opportunities in the future are 1) Managing Power Conflicts, Managing Diversity Conflicts, and Managing One-on-One Conflicts.

I assigned a homework practicum to the participants to do in the next three months.  This practicum is an opportunity for the participants to team up and confront and successfully resolve any conflict they feel able to work with.

Finally, after the workshop, we stopped at IER in Mopti.  I saw several of the IER participants from last November.  They said they did not know of the conflict resolution workshop and had wanted to attend when they learned that it was taking place.  We need to find a way to keep people engaged in this process.  The repetition of this process is a key to adopting new beliefs and behaviors.  I suggest we look for any opportunity to expand the participation of the training.