Thursday, April 17, 2014

Highlights from Swami Chidananda’s talk: Learning from the book of life

I got an opportunity to attend a talk by Swami Chidananda, a spiritual teacher, in Mumbai on March 9, 2014. Two things took me to the talk: One, I found the title interesting – “Learning from the book of life” and two, it was organized by Krishnamurti Foundation India (KFI) of which my father has been an active member. It was nice to give him company and meet his friends from K-community.

I enjoyed the talk and this article gives a few highlights from the talk that appealed to me. This is derived from the audio recording of the talk made available to us by Fowai – Swamiji’s organization. I am thankful to Vibhaji for sending the audio CD. I have kept the wording as close to Swamiji’s talk as possible.

What is learning from the Book of life?  There was an Army General who deliberately used to come home late. When he was asked, “Why do you go home so late?” He said, “In my job, thousands if not tens of thousands are afraid of me. But at home I am afraid of my teenage son. Some of the comments he makes e.g. ‘Dad, you won’t understand this, you are out of touch with reality,’ make me miserable. I feel, may be he is right.” Like this Army General, we feel comfortable in some situations and uncomfortable in some other situations. Some places we get attached, some other places we feel “fish out of water”. What is going on? Instead of reading big books on Atma, Brahma, Heaven & Hell, concepts of liberation, bondage, 24 tatvas and 36 principles, is it possible to learn about our reactions to variety of situations directly from our life experiences?

Tragedy of bookish knowledge: Knowledge of symbols and concepts helps us in various contexts. For example, if power suddenly fails here and one of you knows very well how to handle mini circuit breakers or fuses and then you quickly go there and open and set something right. And the power comes back. Of course, many others will thank you. “Oh, how nice you are with us today, you set it right immediately,” people will say. In that context, the knowledge of electricity helped you. Similarly, knowledge of languages, etiquette helps in certain contexts.

But does knowledge help in deeper inner freedom where we suffer from a number of self-created blockages, self-created mental hang-ups? The tragedy of bookish reading is, instead of understanding what you are going through, you are trying to remember, “What did the author say about this kind of scenario?” If you read a book on anger, when you actually get angry, you don’t think of the book at all. You go about your response in a mechanical way, in a habitual way. This habit, this mechanical way is to be tackled.

Over-investment of I, me, my: Suppose I happen to be a Bengali speaking person and I say, “There are 3-4 Bengali speaking people here. Let me go and know them.” This is alright. But imagine if my mind also says, “You see, others may feel bad to hear this, but Bengali is the best language”. You ask me, “But have you studied other languages?” I say, “No. But I know my language is the best.” “My food habit is the best,….” That is called psychological domain. This is the place where “I, me, my” is over-investing in certain conclusions –positions. Can learning from the book of life help us to be free of these conditionings?

How to learn from the Book of life:  The way to be free is to look at our conclusions right when they arise, not even in a post-mortem fashion, towards the end of the day. Like a dying duck, you analyse your day before you go to sleep, “Today, during the day, what did I do? What were the highlights? How did I treat people?” Such introspection has serious limitations. Can you examine a judgmental behaviour on your part right when that behaviour is taking place? For example, some of you may be feeling bored listening to this talk. Is it possible for you to take a look at what is going on in your thought process and look at it dispassionately? On the one hand you are looking at your thought, your emotion. On the other hand, you should not be in a hurry to label it. This is a very interesting science where the book from which you are learning is your psychological process.

Precious pages of the Book of life: Negative emotions are the precious pages of the book of life. You and I learn the operation of the self much more when we are disturbed, depressed, when we envy somebody or when we are afraid.

Can I stay with fear, look at it with all alertness? If you are not alert, then you start thinking about something else, “Whom shall I call to help me? I wonder how long will the fear last?” or “This fear is stronger than last time.” etc. These are all secondary thoughts, secondary considerations. Primary consideration is, “Here is fear. What is it?” The objective is to use this tool of attention or alertness without succumbing to or getting caught in all those this-fear-is-stronger-than-before kind-of secondary engagements. Not even saying, “This is undesirable.”

To understand fear there is absolutely no need to bring the past into picture. The fear that is rising in you has everything in it like in hologram a part has everything in it. The fear of which we become intensely aware without bias, without noise of conditioned mind reveals its entire structure.

To conclude, reading the book of life is nothing different from living in self-awareness. If you become aware of what bothers you, what delights you, what is going on in your mind or if you become aware of getting inattentive then you are already reading the book of life.

Related article: Eckhart Tolle’s “Catch me if you can” experiment, Feb 2, 2014.
Photo: From the audio CD of the talk.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Responding to team member’s idea using 3 types of inquiries

Imagine you are a manager and a team member comes to you one day and says, “I have got this great idea!” There are multiple ways you may respond to this situation. You may say, “Tell me more…” and after listening to his initial blurb you may ask, “Why this approach?” or if you have a better idea, you may ask, “How about this instead?” Depending upon the context all three responses may be relevant. However, Prof. Edgar Schein shows in his new book “Humble inquiry: The gentle art of asking instead of telling” that the three inquiries, in fact, belong to three distinct categories of inquiries. Schein argues that managers today need to do a lot more of “Tell me more…” type of inquiry than “How about this instead?” type of inquiry if they want to build trusting relationships.  Before we understand why Schein says this, let’s first see what the three types of inquiries are.

Humble inquiry: What is a humble inquiry? According to Schein, a humble inquiry has 3 characteristics (1) It demonstrates genuine curiosity (2) It makes least number of assumptions about the idea and (3) it is followed by attentive listening. Apart from “Tell me more…”, other examples of a humble inquiry are: “So…” (with an expectation look), “What’s happening?”, “What’s going on?”, “What brings you here?”, “Go on…”, “Can you give me an example?” Asking the right question is not the most difficult part of humble inquiry. Attentive listening is. If you try to fake the question, it will show up when you listen. Why? Because it is not easy to keep your preconceived notions aside and listen to what the other person has to say. Let’s contrast humble inquiry with two other categories of inquiries.

Diagnostic inquiry: The second question the manager asked in the first paragraph, “Why this approach?” belongs to diagnostic inquiry. It is a type of inquiry where you steer the conversation in a specific direction by inquiring about feelings, reactions, causes, motives, next steps, previous steps etc. Through diagnostic inquiry you are influencing the mental process of the other person in an unknown way. Examples of diagnostic inquiry are: “How do you feel about that?”, “Why did you feel that way?”, “What may have caused this?”, “What have you tried so far?”, “What are you going to do next?” In this type of query, you take charge of the process but not the content.

Confrontational inquiry: The essence of confrontational inquiry is that you insert your own ideas in the question you ask. The third question in the first paragraph, “Why not this instead?” belongs to this category. Essentially the question has your agenda embedded in it – either knowingly or unknowingly. Examples of confrontational inquiries are: “Did that not make you angry?”, “Do you think customer will it like it this way?”, “Have you thought of …?”, “Were the others surprised?” In this type of query, you take charge of the process and the content. It is the hardest type of query to build trusting relationship.

Now, let’s come back to the question as to why Schein advocates humble inquiry. Well, whether you are a lead surgeon in an operation theatre or a delivery manager in a technology company or a CEO of an organization, you depend significantly on your team members (nurses, engineers, employees etc.) It is no longer sufficient to get things done by being “task oriented” – you do your job and I do mine and we will be fine. It is important to form trusting relationships to achieve results. Relationships are the key to good communication and good communication is the key to successful task accomplishment. Hence, Schein emphasizes “ask and listen” to “do and tell”.

How can we use this while responding to a team member’s idea? Let’s borrow three-hats approach analogy of David Packard. First, wear the “Humble inquiry” hat and ask clarification/example type of questions. Then wear the “Diagnostic inquiry” hat and see how he has arrived at this idea, what has he tried etc. And finally, wear the “Confrontational inquiry” hat before making the final decision.

Related articles:

A humble inquiry that led to a successful culture change initiative, April 7, 2014

Monday, April 7, 2014

A humble inquiry that led to a successful culture change initiative

Many times culture change initiatives are articulated at an abstract level. e.g. ‘We want to foster a culture of innovation’. The intent is good but the abstractions don’t help much in bringing about a change in the behaviours. In such situations, asking simple clarification questions – what Prof. Edgar Schein calls humble inquiry – can make a big difference. Here is a story Schein narrates in his new book “Humble inquiry: The gentle art of asking instead of telling”. It articulates how a humble inquiry might take the intent of culture of change forward in the right direction.

A CEO of a power company wanted Schein to help launch a culture change project. The CEO felt that the organization was stuck in an old and obsolete set of practices. He wanted Schein to diagnose the problem and propose a change roadmap. At this point, Schein didn’t know anything about the organization, CEO’s perceptions or his motivations. Hence, Schein invited him for a meeting to define problem. CEO brought COO and the VP organization development along with him.

The discussion began by the three leaders launching into a series of general statements about how the culture of the company was immovable and stuck. Both “immovable” and “stuck” are abstract terms. Hence, Schein felt it is best to clarify what they meant. So he asked for an example.

The COO narrated following story as an example. The previous day he had a staff meeting of the 15 member leadership team. There were only five members present for the meeting. However, they sat in exactly the same chair even if it meant sitting far away from each other. He concluded, “It was really crazy… you see what we are up against?” Then the COO looked at Schein for affirmation and support. Schein became curious about what happened next. He asked, “What did you do?” He said, “I didn’t do anything.”

At this point a huge light bulb went off in the heads of all the three people. All of them realized that they are the ones who were reinforcing the so called “outdated” behaviours by their own inaction. Subsequently, the four of them explored other ways in which the old patterns were getting reinforced and how they could change their own behaviour. Over the next year they were able to make most of the culture changes that they desired.

When change initiatives are being discussed, simple questions like “Can you please give an example?” that bring out before-change and after-change scenarios concretely can go a long way in adding clarity. Also reinforcing new behaviours is as important as changing behaviours, isn't it?

Related articles:

Saying, “We need a culture of innovation” is mostly correct and useless, Sept 4, 2009