Sunday, January 31, 2010

Crazy Counseling Seminar

Corporate training seminars have become a big item around the world, but no place seems more keen on group training than companies and schools in Malaysia. Our Student Affairs Department (Hal Ehwal Pelajar or HEP), in particular, is good at finding things to keep us lecturers busy on the weekends, since we have to teach everyday Monday-Friday. That they can laze about during the teaching week, while we oversee the students they are to care for, does not seem to register with them. So it was, another weekend was nearly wasted.

I say, nearly, because HEP had scheduled the lecturers to attend a Counseling Seminar for both Saturday and Sunday, 8:30am to 5pm. At the last minute the Seminar was changed to Saturday only, 8:30am to 6:30pm. Changed for technical reasons, said they. Changed to avoid a riot, say I.

Anyway, wanting to be a good fellow colleague, I went with an open mind. The Vice President for Academics opened the seminar stating that it was to equip us to be better counselors, and thus assist in lowering the failure rate, which to my opinion is quite normal. Our marketing department has done a good job in recruiting more students, but that usually means lower standards for entering students, and the first semester tends to weed out those that should not have enrolled anyway.

The Counseling Seminar was run by one man, assisted by a small group of men, all wearing the obligatory matching jackets, and the leader began with a 3-hour, non-stop jokefest covering the topics of (mostly) his family, his upbringing, and his current job. He was funny at times, especially when I did my utmost to concentrate on his rapid-fire Malay. But his style of delivery was grating after a while. Funny faces can be funny....for 15 minutes. For 3 hours....???? Also, many of the stories seemed to go nowhere, meaning they had no obvious link to the topic of counseling. Short videos were shown, including one of a monkey sticking its thumb up its rear end, smelling the digit, and then passing out. Relationship to counseling?? I didn't get it.

Running until 1:30pm, the leader eventually noticed people looking...well, hungry. So we broke for lunch. Back at 2:30pm, he went another hour with his rapid-fire jokes and humorous stories, with an occasional attempt to become serious. Something like this: "I took our cat to the vet, and he charged me RM70.....RM70 to fix it so it won't have kittens. When I got home, the children said, 'Dad, how is it you spent RM70 on the cat, when you only spent RM30 on taking Mom to the doctor?'" (This is true; vets cost more here than doctor visits.) Laughter. Then he would tell how one of his children died at an early age. Hang-dog looks; people fidget nervously. And then, seven definitions of counseling from Western textbooks. Connections??

At 3:30pm, we were asked to break into small groups of around 10 people. The small groups were then instructed to practice one-on-one counseling. One person was to ask insightful questions, and then practice those words that we use to encourage open sharing, like: Uh huh....yeah...I understand....please tell me more. The guys in my group decided at this time that the leader had basically exhausted his material, and was killing time. This practice counseling went on for 30 minutes, and then we were instructed to give affirmation massages, while telling the others in the group nice things about whom we were massaging.

Another hour was killed by forming a large circle, and then going around the room and giving individual hugs. Men were only to hug men, and curtsy to the women, while the women only hugged women. Interspersed in these sessions were inspirational songs, hand-clapping, and an occasional appeal to our emotions. Remember, one of his children passed away.

The final two hours were the worst. Again in the large circle, we were all instructed to close our eyes and hold out a pen. Then, with Mark Knopfler's "Sultans of Swing" playing loudly, we were to pretend that we were directing an orchestra. One of his jacketed staff went around and videotaped everyone, following which we were shown the video. It was funny to see how some really got into the direction, while some just swayed to the music. We were instructed to do it again, this time to a Malay dangdut song. Afterwards, he went around asked people the % effort that they gave each time. Most estimated that they gave a greater effort the second time than the first. And then he unloaded.

Shutting down all of the lights he went into screech mode, lambasting people for giving less effort the first time, but more the second time once they knew that they were being watched. Immediately, they began a song about a mother lamenting her deceased child. Another song followed with a video showing the Islamic burial ritual. A couple of dead (and decayed) bodies were included in the video. What is he trying to do, thought I? In fact, his counseling session seemed to have devolved into something more akin to a Hellfire-and-Brimstone sermon delivered by an oldtime pentacostal preacher. Didn't this guy know that there IS a big difference between swinging a pen in time to Mark Knopfler and teaching in front of a group of students?? Such a pathetic appeal to our emotions it was.

I didn't dally at the end. I lit out of that place at the 6:30pm ending along with everyone else. Thirty minutes of content stretched out to nine hours makes for a bad-tasting seminar. Most seminars here are run by locals who copy (plagiarise) material from western sources. But, they do not understand the material so they simply throw up the overheads and read through them. But to justify their fees, they feel like the participants need to experience some emotional change, thus the group activities, also copied from the West, but also misunderstood. Normally, my Malay colleagues are congenial participants since being together is one of the values highly prized. But it was clear from side comments and glances that this seminar went too far and too long.

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