Over the last year and half, I have come to realise that a partnership, such as CASO, is a bit like a marriage.

Both begin with a proposal. There is an engagement period, an exchange of promises and intentions, a commitment, and finally everything is made official with a contract.

Then, there is the honeymoon phase. Everything is new and exciting and it feels as if there is nothing but possibility ahead of you….but eventually someone lets you down, there are misunderstandings, expectations don’t match reality and the rose-tinted glasses finally come off.

This is the point in the relationship commonly referred to as ‘make or break’. For me, the Cape Town CASO staff week was ‘make or break’.

And that is when the real work of a partnership begins.

Leading up to the staff week I was apprehensive. I know from experience that the staff weeks are important moments of productivity for the work packages; valuable spaces for regrouping, reassessing and refocussing our collective efforts, but they are also intense and exhausting.

I have previously written about the enormous value and potential that lies within our diverse grouping, and, as the great Maya Angelou said,

“We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.”

Unfortunately, the more diverse we are, the further the distance we have to travel to meet each other in the middle, and so our greatest strength is also our greatest challenge.

Over the last few months, the members of the Patient Partner project have been struggling to communicate effectively. Ironic perhaps, given that one of our goals is to produce a communication curriculum. But, then again, even therapists’ marriages can end in divorce.

Lesson number one; being an expert doesn’t mean you’re immune to failure. We are all biased and short-sighted in our own ways, we all make mistakes and fall short of our goals. Recognising and acknowledging this is a significant moment in any relationship.

Lesson number two; be humble enough to accept help. So, we did what you do when things start to go wrong. We enrolled in some CASO therapy with John Dierx, one of the staff members who is an excellent and experienced facilitator. John guided our team through a constructive process of focussing on the gains and successes we have had; a respectful but honest airing of our grievances, and finally, refocussed us on the moments of joy and growth we have experienced.

Lesson number three; be prepared to put in the effort. I won’t pretend that this was an easy process. In truth it was difficult and painful, but a necessary first step on the road to better things. Over the course of the week voices were raised, and tears were shed as we waded through our past and renegotiated our future. We expressed anger and joy, frustration and pride, confusion and ambition, resentment and gratitude, disappointment and hope.

My father says that that people in a relationship are like stones, tumbling against each other. Over time, the sharp edges are worn away until you are left with smooth, polished pebbles, comfortably resting against each other. I like this metaphor, because it emphasises the importance of ongoing contact over time. You have to keep tumbling.

For international partnerships, one of the logistical realities is the limited time that we are physically able to spend together. A reality which, as we have discovered, can easily translate into a real challenge for collaboration. It is a common perception that a significant predictor of success in working partnerships is financial viability. Big international partnership + big international funding = big international success. But I see now that in truth, funding simply enables the possibility of a partnership. The true secret to a successful partnership lies in a team of people that have found a way, learned a way, or made a way to achieve great communication. This is the true foundation of a good marriage and a good partnership.

And so, with our commitment to each other freshly renewed we go forth, actively seeking new, better and creative ways to communicate effectively with one another. In short, we will keep tumbling until we are polished and smooth.

(Lesson number four; South Africans use humour to make reality easier to digest)

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