Personal: Reflections of Lessons Learned from Liz Liew

A year ago, if you had asked me what I thought of hosting a workshop completely online, I’d have said, “Nope, not interested. Can’t see it happening. I am set on f2f. Come on, COVID isn’t going to be here forever. Get real!”

Not only was I wrong about COVID (like, TOTALLY OFF BASE!!) but I’ve also learned so much since we decided to turn it into a 100% online conference. Of all the lessons I learned, the ones below are the biggest ones worth mentioning: 

Humans love human-centric content
I’ve learned how important it is to create human-centric content – dry topics like corruption can be spiced and laced with case studies, to make it more relatable. People want to learn and take home different things : some want frameworks, others want to be able to understand basic principles, and some want to hear how they can apply these techniques in their activism or engagement strategies. But ultimately we love the same things – to be able to relate to people.

Make it relatable
The issue of resonance also emerged : within the region, despite the countries facing similar problems, I needed to make content relatable across the board. We were a region, but were the pressing issues similar, or similar enough to make it a common denominator? Also, could the different countries relate to one another? Could Laos relate to Thailand, and would Myanmar be able to take democratic reform ideas from Indonesia, to implement them in Yangon, over time?  

Support emotional and mental resilience
I’ve learned that mental and emotional resilience is often taken for granted : our participants in Myanmar were a beacon of inspiration throughout the workshop. They inspired us with their ability to stay tuned in, remain as focused as possible, and participate in the sessions as much as they could. Despite their extremely difficult circumstances, they had one of the highest graduation rates from the workshop.

Do your best
I’ve also learned that in life, we can only do our best, and very often, this means some people won’t be happy. Indeed, when designing the agenda, I am sure I unintentionally upset a few people. Of all the tasks I have undertaken in my career, designing the YSEALI Good Governance Workshop agenda alone was one of the most challenging and complicated tasks I have taken on. I was juggling time zones, speakers’ changing availability, and their personal situations (some of it unforeseen such as deaths in family and contracting COVID); emerging socio -economic issues, and of course, the socio-political climate of Malaysia.

The fragility of the political landscape of Malaysia and ASEAN, especially with recent events, meant that we had to carefully navigate the situation, selecting topics and speakers who could support us in balancing the fine line of speaking up for justice and promoting freedom of expression, while maintaining neutrality in all forms. 

Uphold your moral fortitude

The end goal for me as an individual, and as an organiser, was to uphold integrity and honesty, stay true to my own moral compass, while keeping everyone’s best interests in mind.

At the end of the day, I did not want to create a packed schedule, filling up useless topics, seeking unrelated speakers, just for the sake of checking things off, just for the sake of hosting a workshop.

Through this process, I was reminded to be guided by my own moral compass. 

Versatility is the engine of success
I’ve learned that versatility is one of the key cornerstones of success : being flexible and open to alternatives, in a project like this, is a MUST. 

As organisers, we needed to be mindful of the endless possibilities (beyond tech hiccups), and be able to react calmly, think out of the box, and also be willing (and courageous) to maneuver unfamiliar terrains. 

Exercising compassion
With all the changes and unforeseen circumstances, I learned how crucial it is to be compassionate. A longtime fan of the Dalai Lama and Patanjali’s Sutras, I am grateful for being able to practise Yoga off the mat.

Sutra 1.3 is a clear example of integrating compassion into our daily lives. Whether it was the way I responded to a speaker’s no-shows; or saying ‘no’ in a kind yet firm way because if I relented, it would have caused unnecessary inconveniences for the team and I; or event drawing boundaries for myself to ensure I looked after my own well-being, practising compassion towards others and myself made a world of difference. 

The Art of Communicating Empathy
Perhaps the biggest personal growths in designing and co-running this workshop was learning the art (and the importance) of communicating empathy (online) to both a small, and large group – when participants express their thoughts, share their work, or open up a part of their lives to the audience – snippets of acknowledgement and validation, be it a like, a ‘reaction’, or a response, regardless how small, matter. 

It matters because it is their only connection to you, with you.

It matters because we realised that for many of these young leaders attending our conference, that the bi-weekly sessions became a short staple of their month of March : the connections, laughs, jokes and pokes they shared, were something special, and something they really looked forward to, given the lockdown restrictions in most parts of the region. 

Maybe one day, when travel restrictions are lifted, when physical distancing isn’t the norm, when we have all been vaccinated (against all strains), and can all meet in person again, the little reactions on Zoom will be history in the life of online workshop facilitation.

Written by Liz Liew, Program Development and Strategic Partnerships of TechSoup Asia-Pacific.