The Why and How of “Aha! Moments”

By Aseel Zahran, Outreach Officer at Generations For Peace

It was not as if the concept was new to me. It’s probably not new to you either.

We have all heard stories of an epiphany or an eye-opening realisation that had a significant impact on someone’s perspective or their approach to how they do things. In my line of work with peace-building practitioners and researchers, I have both experienced this myself and witnessed it in others time and time again. But as I listened to our organisation’s volunteers talk about their work in the field during the Generations For Peace’s (GFP) Advanced Training 2017, I realised that this seemingly simple idea of “Aha! Moments” carries a distinctive value for a group of grassroots peace builders trying to bring change and nurture resilience in highly dynamic contexts.

One of the highlights of the training, which is an annual event at GFP, was when a volunteer from the Republic of Macedonia told a story from her work in Tetovo. She described an “Aha! Moment” for her team while implementing Sport For Peace activities with Macedonian and Albanian children who, while studying in the same school, are taught in different languages, are subject to different curricula, and are never given the opportunity to interact. She shared how her team at first thought translation would be crucial to the success of the programme. However, they gradually started noticing that the children were spontaneously experimenting with different forms of nonverbal communication. Language, to their surprise, was not necessarily a barrier – instead, it was an invitation for students to explore more creative forms of expression.

So, What is an “Aha! Moment”?

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A GFP Volunteer discusses experiences with other volunteers from around the world – an Aha! Moment in the making!

An “Aha! Moment” is a critical moment when an idea or a connection that was not obvious before suddenly becomes crystal clear, changing your understanding of something or introducing a solution to a problem that you had not considered previously. It inspires you to shift your attitude towards an issue you are facing or change your approach. An Aha! Moment is often transformative – it is a thought you cannot ignore, but rather feel compelled to act on. Like a light bulb popping up above your head!

In our volunteer’s example above, the light bulb was the simple realisation that language differences are an opportunity rather than a hindering barrier! This urged the volunteers to incorporate more creative activities that allow children to use their body language and expressive forms of interacting and collaborating, beyond the limitations of language.

“Aha! Moments” as Reflective Practice

Why are “Aha! Moments” so important to peace building? With tight project timelines and often limited funding, peace-building practitioners often find little time to reflect on their work. This is an issue that GFP volunteers grapple with constantly. Not only are they deeply involved in programme design and implementation, they also lead their own participatory monitoring and evaluation processes to assess their programmes. With such a high volume of work in complicated, dynamic contexts, these volunteers benefit from constant reflection at every stage of the programme. Therefore, the creation of simple yet intentional ways to make sure learning and reflection is continually happening is crucial. This approach is known as Reflective Practice.

Reflective practice is the process of exploring our actions and thinking patterns, reflecting on the reasons behind our actions, and making changes when necessary. In peace building, reflective practice means that we are constantly testing our theories of change, and making sure that our designs, our implementation plans, and our actions in the field are grounded in the needs, limitations, and complexities of the contexts we are working in.

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GFP staff and volunteers from around the globe listen, observe, and reflect on all that is being shared by and around them.

The process of reflective practice is relevant and so important to the emergence of “Aha! Moments” because even though your most brilliant insights may come to you suddenly and without effort, a good “Aha! Moment” is often the result of deep listening, careful observation, and constant reflection. This is exactly what happened for our volunteer in the Republic of Macedonia – through her careful observation and reflection, the idea that language is not a barrier became so clear to her that she could not miss it.

The challenge of reflective practice is applying a measurable action to an abstract concept. The good news is there are plenty of things you can do to help train your “reflective muscle” – even as you go about your busy daily life. Here are some of the lessons that we at GFP have learned and how to apply them:

  1. Create a culture of reflection and sharing within your team:

“Aha! Moments” that can really make a change are often the result of creative spaces of collaboration and exchange. It is important that you capture your “Aha! Moments” by creating the right conditions for sharing reflections and new innovative ideas with other team members. Pro-tip: keep a journal!

  1. Remember! Peace-building work is relational:

A lot of GFP volunteers tell us that they learn most about how the programme is doing from group discussions and coffee break conversations. Dedicate time to talk to people in the field, outside of  scheduled programme sessions and meetings, learn about what they struggle with, and what kind of change they envision for their community. Remember GFP volunteer core peace-building skills: practice active listening, and remember that listening is also about paying attention to what people do, not just what they say. Ask good questions: this is not just for you to arrive at “Aha! Moments,” but also for you to help your team become more reflective. Asking deep, thoughtful questions is an art in and of itself.

  1. Un-focus:

Reflective practice requires attention and intentionality, but you also need to let your mind wander. Outside of your busy schedule, set time aside to do something creative that is not related to your work, but that could inspire you. Write, draw, or even go out for a walk. Get out of your comfort zone and explore your creative self!

  1. Learn from your failures:

“Aha! Moments” are not necessarily positive stories of change and do not have to always reflect times when things have worked well. In fact, failure is often a much more valuable opportunity to pause, reflect on your work, and understand why things might not be working.

  1. Share your wisdom:
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A GFP Volunteer shares her moments, experiences, and wisdom with other volunteers seated around her.

Don’t keep your “Aha! Moments” to yourself! Use them when you are telling stories, when you are talking to people from the field, or when you are mentoring others. Also, seek opportunities where you get to share your “Aha! Moments” with large audiences. You never know who might be inspired by your sharing your experiences, and failures.

GFP’s Advanced Training created a safe space for our volunteers to share Aha! Moments, reflect on their work, voice their challenges, and brainstorm effective solutions. The story from the Republic of Macedonia was not shared in vain – instead it urged everyone listening to be pay more attention to small yet critical subtleties evolving during a programme or an activity.

It also helped GFP staff – including me! – by reminding us of the complexities of everyday peace-building efforts across the different geographies that GFP works with.

For an organisation working so closely with local communities, in an unchartered yet constantly changing field, we cannot but open our eyes and ears to the canvas of compelling narratives told by individuals at the heart of what we do. This is why creating small chunks of time for reflective practice is so crucial: it is the only way of making sure that our work is responsive and rooted in the experiences and wisdom of the individuals and communities who deeply understand the realties on the ground.

This is my Aha! Moment. What’s yours?


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www.generationsforpeace.org

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