‘There is a boy in my class Appa’, she said. The other night. After we had switched off lights and indulged in some conversation.  It was one of those moments. The mild twirl of the fan and the myriad ways it was distorting the otherwise plain ceiling was our only witness. Her words twisted me awake. I waited for more.

“You know appa, he knows everything. He knows where Alleppey is. He knows all answers to questions even before the teacher completes the questions. I don’t know how he does it Appa”.

I was more awake than awake. She was in a talkative mode. “So what kannamma? So what if he knows everything?”

I had walked away from such inane competition everytime it tried to ensnare me. There was always someone who knew more, scored more marks, drove a better car, lived in a better house and heck, had more visitors on his blog. Endless conversations with wise men and women and a perpetual pipeline of books that aided reflection got my boat moored on other shores. Not to mention the relentless presence of overachievers in every domain I decided to experiment. And I reminded myself that it was not as though I was out of it completely!

The fan’s effortless twirl brought alive memories of the meandering ways of life.

“You know Appa, I really don’t know how he knows everything. I thought Only YOU know EVERYTHING Appa”.

Ah! I thought.

I mean, if there was a conversation that I ever wanted to freeze frame, this would be it. The realisation that one young chap was already altering the notions of my prowess in her head, welcomed me to reality. “I don’t know everything Kannamma”, I told her. There are lots of things that I don’t know. Like I don’t know how Samar knows everything.”

She giggled and then broke into a laugh. The fan continued its slow swirl and that was the only sound that punctuated the night. I thought sleep has enveloped her whilst I was my awake self.

Time’s swirl staggers memory and it becomes like distant planets that need a telescope to view. It is fascinating that a quiet comment or a simple nudge can do the job of a well-made telescope. For an odd comment can propel you to reflect and help you see the universe in full, long after you have traversed the orbits of distant planets.

I wondered what races I ran in my mind? And who all I raced with? But before a thought train could take me any further, her hand tugged at mine. She hadn’t slept yet. I realised.

In a chirpy a voice that has never stopped me from bringing a spring to my step, she said, “You know Appa, Samar always says, he knows everything. You say you don’t know everything. I think you are telling the truth.” After a pause, she added, “That is good Appa”.

I am still in the race, I told myself. Even whilst wondering why is she so much in love with the truth and such stuff that the modern world has a lesser fondness for.

It was then that it hit me.  That I was racing a young chap called Samar in my mind! Against the backdrop of an even more transient trophy: my daughter’s attention. I let go of a silent laugh.

She was asleep in a bit. I woke up for a glass of water and couldn’t help switching on the night light to see her. She was fast asleep. Perhaps lulled by the peace that she had applied the balm as well. I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to know.

The moment and the night to be thankful for was enough. The fan swirled my smile forward. We slept holding each other’s hands.

Talking about conversations

This was a guest post for Sheroes and originally published here

Let’s face it. The “noise” of all the advice, thoughts, exhortations, comments and the stuff of that ilk, which comes our way in our daily life, is of a huge order. What’s worse, that scale is only going to increase in the times ahead. Technology has enabled putting our thoughts out there in the open so much easier, simpler and cheaper.

Of course, all the sharing and chatter has huge benefits. As with everything else there are downsides too. Here’s the big question that stalks us relentlessly: How do we make sense of it all? How do we sift through the mega stuff to find the most appropriate pearls and consequently apply them to our contexts?

Amongst the few lessons that I clutch on to, after working with a fantastic array of professionals and partners, the one that stands tall is this: the loudest voice or the narrative that is most often heard is not necessarily the most appropriate to me. Sometimes the most loud and most often heard, can be so far away from being ‘true’, that it can well be called ‘strange’.

Many times what we hear can well be conflicting pieces of ‘advice’. Each of which is a perspective from the person who delivers it. Each of which comes with all the experiences, backgrounds and expectations that is exclusive to the person who advises. The ability to sort the noise out and zero in on aspects that would work for each one of us, is a skill that each one of us needs to build.

It gets complicated when the inordinate emphasis on speed that the world lays out today overrides the high place that reflection and deeper understanding had in society. The ability to entertain a thought, without accepting it (or dismissing it) is critical to our modern day living. Obviously, this is often missed. ‘Who has the time’, you see!

The truth of the matter however is this: Our success depends on new ideas. Superior ideas. Pragmatic solutions. Answers to problems that stalk us on a daily basis. The power of ideas and solutions needn’t be emphasised more.

Hearing a diverse set of ideas from the right people, making sense of them all and working on a few that applies to our contexts works me.

So here is a simple formula that I put together that works for me. May you consider this for a brief bit before you dismiss or accept it! (This obviously comes from reading, speaking and talking about it aloud. I must also disclose that I read and follow the works of Harold Jarche and that has had its impact. So, if you this rings a bell, well, it is meant to)

Strong Ideas / Solutions are a product of
Interactions with a Diverse set of People X Frequency of the interactions X Depth of the interactions.

For purposes of ease: Ideas = Diversity X Frequency X Depth

Let me hasten to explain.

a) A Diversity of People: Seeking ideas and insights from a diverse set of people is important. Nationalities, gender, backgrounds, ages, professions etc. More the diversity, more the contexts that emerge. Regularly meeting people from diverse backgrounds, who have perspectives to share, features in several successful leaders’ calendar.
Of course, the online world multiplies those possibilities infinitely, for all the experts and more are already having multiple conversations on a open format. Listening to those conversations online can in itself be enriching.

My personal preference is for people who do not waft in jargon or a certain ‘prescriptive Do’s and Don’ts. I look for the open minded people, whose strength lies in their outlook of sharing their thoughts and being open to be challenged. Making it a point to talk to at least two people with different perspectives that are working on diverse projects or solving interesting problems, every week is a good start.

In addition to in person connection the digital world spawns millions of tweets, podcasts, youtube videos, blogposts etc, all awaiting a sifting through. Some ground work and searching can be enticing. From my experiencing plunging in and using these make a big difference.

b) Depth of interactions: Many times, it’s not a straight forward answer. More often, its not even an answer! Interactions often cause reflection. My answers often come from talking about what I hear, aloud. On blogs, or to other people in the context of my challenges. Deeper the conversation, going far beyond the immediate problem always leads to greater understanding of current day problems. For me, I always prefer keeping conversations open and often, aimless.

c) Frequency of interactions: How often a person is able to hear diverse points of views and has the opportunity to reflect on and talk about these to a personal learning network has brought in results of a far higher order. The regularity of conversations with a set of people helps relationships and a learning network to blossom. These conversations and interactions build a good support system over time

All three of the above, don’t provide me with perfect answers. For, the answer is something that I have to construct. Something that fits my needs.

Every interaction is at best a thread. The answers are best woven from different threads that emerge from multiple interactions. Each thread is a thought that is entertained without accepting or rejecting initially. The weaving of the threads according to my requirements of fashion and fit is for me to do. The warp and weave of every garment that we wear can make us stand out or slink into the obscurity of one more person.

To sustain this and make it part of our way of being is important. One way to do it is to weave this pattern of meeting different people and talking, into daily rhythms of life. As this talking flourishes, realization dawns that when ideas and problems are discussed, reflected on, and contextually thought of, rich solutions emerge. Even to problems that weren’t discussed.

Such is the power of conversation. Who are you talking to next? 🙂

The power in conversations

Imagine you have a four year old daughter. All sprightly, playful and extremely fun to be with. Assume that you have been away on work. Making full use of your absence and in her constant quest for exploration, she touches a hot tea pot.

The hot tea pot gets her to pull her hand back in a quick reflex action. Chances that she would go anywhere close to the tea pot reduce dramatically. Some learning has taken place there.

Meaning Making

You get home from work and ask her, ‘what did you learn today baby?’, chances of her saying ‘I learnt that the tea-pot in the corner of the kitchen is hot and can be very dangerous’ is remote. Remote is a mild word there!

In all probability, you will hear a ‘nothing’ or something or about the latest game that she picked up from her best friend or whatever. And getting on to the next game.

This scene is something that keeps repeating all over our lives. We are all learning. All the time. Or rather, continuously making meaning  of things that happen to us or around us. Constructivism holds meaning making right at the centreBut that’s as far we’ll go into that aspect.

In an organisational setup, the meaning making can take a collective hue as well. Most often, leaders abdicate a responsibility to help team members REALISE their meaning making and helping assimilate / moderate / augment the ‘learning’ that occurs all the time.

One key skill that is seeing more and more remote practice of, is the ability to hold reflective conversations with team members. In a high tech, connected world where email and the keyboard become THE interface, having good old conversations is becoming a rarer ‘event’! Yet, it is a such a vital tool in a leader’s arsenal.

If it is so vital, why isn’t it practiced as much as it should be?

For one, it is difficult. It is seemingly easy, but it is difficult. There cant be anything more easy than sitting down and having a good chat, it would seem. For one, it goes beyond ‘small talk’ and exchanging sounds about the weather or seeking basic information about each other!

A good quality conversation which can enthuse team members has a few aspects to it. It means, listening exceeds the speaking not with an intent to convince, but with a desire to bring complete ‘PRESENCE’ to the conversation. And listening happens both with the eyes and ears!

A good conversation means indulging in the lost art of curiosity and staying with asking questions to help the team member discover answers for himself or herself. It means patience. And it also means, living with the possibility that it perhaps will not head the way it was desired in the leader’s mind! Candour and sharing help establish trust from both sides and are great catalysts!

And no, a good quality conversation cannot be had over mail. Yes, ‘conversations’ sounds simple. And ‘simple’ is not always, ‘easy’! Or effective.

Some of the best leaders I have worked with have been great at conversations. Not necessarily, the funny-slap-on-your-back-laughter kind of conversations over a few drinks. But ones where they were fully present. Not for a moment looking into their mobile phones or into their watches. They listened intently, with curiosity ruling the day. And always, always, asking searching questions the answers of which I was in search of, sometimes, long after the conversation was over.

Many a time, these chats didn’t give me straight answers or ‘to-do’ lists but helped me formulate a thought and create my own ‘to-do’ list!

Even as the ultra fast world gets comfortable with clicking on the ‘like’ button, putting down a two line comment and drafting mails as a means for communication, they are just a patch on the power of a simple conversation!

It is a vital skill in a connected world to connect deeply!