People in conversation

Q+A: Belle Abaya

Essential Partners

Earlier this year, Philippines-based conflict resolution organization, The Conflict Resolution Group Foundation (CoRe) started a campaign entitled Transformative Cells (T-Cells), aimed at building face-to-face communication skills among young people. This spring, T-Cells trained 135 guidance counselors from colleges and universities in Metro Manila. The guidance counselors then trained 50 student facilitators in each of their 135 schools. Each student facilitator will invite six students to take part in a T-Cell—a small group that will come together for a facilitated conversation about an agreed upon topic.

Using this model, T-Cells has trained a total of 1,790 student facilitators and at the end of September, 7,247 students from different universities and colleges across Metro Manila and nearby provinces had participated in various T-Parties (events that hold multiple T-Cell dialogues simultaneously in one venue).

Multiple schools in Manila have adopted T-Cells as part of their curriculum, the T-Cells Web site provides students with information and learning resources, and a T-Cellebrity Program allows students to vote via social media on T-Cells “ambassadors.” As these students reach out to students in other areas of the country—and the world—founder Belle Abaya expects T-Cells to multiply on a grand scale. Belle started T-Cells after retiring from her position as the Presidential Advisor on the Peace Process in the Philippines.

In this piece from our Fall 2011 Newsletter, EP talks with her about what sparked the need for T-Cells and how it works.

Do you have a memory of something specific that sparked your personal initial interest in conflict resolution?

Last year, I was on vacation with two young women. Beforehand, I wondered what kind of conversation the three of us might have. But during our first dinner together, I noticed both of them actively texting. Then their cell phones buzzed. Suddenly I realized there were three simultaneous conversations happening at the time—and I was not in two of them. Back in the room, when I tried asking a question, no one responded. When I looked over, both women were wearing earphones plugged into their laptops, oblivious of my presence.

At this moment, I realized technologies that were invented to increase connectivity are the same technologies that are eroding face-to-face communication skills. With young people inheriting an increasingly complicated world, I became worried about the impact of technologies that make it easy to “un-friend,” to bully, and to isolate oneself. I wanted to bring dialogue skills to our young people.

CoRe says its purpose is to celebrate human diversity. For you, how is this connected to conflict resolution work?
People are increasingly intolerant of differences. They spend an enormous amount of energy trying to persuade one another to take their side or point of view. They render a dialogue unsuccessful when they can’t get other people to agree with them. In conversations with others, they put more effort into demolishing the other’s argument, instead of understanding why people think differently. This kind of attitude is very dangerous and damaging and is the root of many conflicts. We at the CoRe Group believe that we will live in a much better world if people learn to appreciate why others think from particular perspectives, value the others’ voices, and empathize with others’ experiences, without necessarily agreeing.

What was the impetus for Transformative Cells (T-Cells)? What are your hopes for the project?

The impetus for T-Cells is the desire to equip our young people with the all-important communication skills they need to cope productively and constructively with their future. We hope to offer young people a model for a new way of speaking and relating to one another, as well as to other young people in the Philippines and around the world. We believe that when people change the way they speak it can lead to greater openness and creativity around addressing challenges.

Why is it called T-Cells?

The T stands for “transformative” because we hope that an authentic approach to communication will shift speaking and listening and create more effective conversations. We use the word “cell” because conversations happen in small groups, typically four to eight people. Also, in biology, T-cells multiply to overpower damaging cells. These are the very things we are trying to do—heal our eroding communication skills and multiply the mechanism in order to change the course of ineffective communication.

What are the key concepts that guide T-Cells’ work?

Our key concepts are speaking respectfully, listening for understanding, and generously multiplying advocates and users of the T-Cells. “Speaking respectfully” means giving space to others to speak from their own perspective without interruption or condemnation. “Listening for understanding” means listening with a genuine desire to explore the others’ perspectives. Authentic conversations will lead people to reflect on their own thinking and transform their perspectives to include that of others. We want T-Cells to widen participants’ viewpoints and for the T-Cells practice to spread to as many people as possible.

Tell us about your connection with Essential Partners.

The dialogue skills that the T-Cell espouses are founded on the principles crafted and promoted by Essential Partners. This is why we invited EP to help us train the first 60 guidance counselors in the T-Cell program. Together, we married our ideas to create a dialogue model that took into consideration our young people’s particular needs, and our culture. What is special about the EP approach is that it promotes authenticity, reduces defensiveness, increases curiosity and genuine interest, and boosts connectedness.

Based on what you’ve done so far, what have you seen that gives you hope that dialogue will be widely embraced by Filipinos?

The Philippines has a population of 92 million and 85 million active SIM cards. With 2 million text messages sent daily, we are the text-messaging capital of the world. We also have the highest level of internet usage.

While we recognize the ways in which we are connected by technology, we also comprehend how seriously disconnected we are in terms of effective human conversations and face-to-face communications. Thus, the promise of what T-Cells can bring is exciting, and feedback is strong. I have yet to see someone who joined T-Cells who did not appreciate what he/she learned and gained from his/ her experience.