The bowl

Ever since I can remember, the men who roamed the streets asking for alms had one thing in common. The begging bowl. Or the ‘Thiruvodu” as its called in Tamil.  Its made from a shell of a fruit. It gets painted black and its possession proves beyond doubt the status of ‘renunciation’ of the erstwhile era.

A couple of years back, while travelling the interiors of Tamil Nadu, in a small temple, there was a line up of men seated on the ancient stone floor. Sacred ash smeared all over their body, layers of beads strung around their neck, chatting around. Every one of them had the bowl in front.  As we walked by, one of them stood out. Him and his bowl, both stood out.



He smiled, wished me well and was game for conversation. The bowl was bedecked with  striking flowers, inviting an almost reverential parting of a small sum from the wallet.  More importantly, we got talking. Within a few minutes the conversation veered to his Thiruvodu or the bowl. “I am not particularly interested in how much people give, but am particularly thankful that they do give, when there is a choice otherwise”. I remember him saying, something to that effect. But this line I remember verbatim : “Whatever they give, my bowl must be worthy and ready to receive”.

That was then.

Two weeks ago, in the middle of a talent review discussion, someone in the room quipped ‘feedback must be received with a begging bowl’.  Of receiving it fully and comprehensively, sans judgement. In a jiffy the mind ran to fetch the conversation with the old man and his flower decked bowl. I wondered when last was the time I sought feedback with that attitude?

The number of people who want to ‘give’ feedback far outnumber the people who are proactive in ‘seek’ing feedback. Many want to ‘tell’ others what they think of how others are doing. Very few go out on a limb and ‘receive’ in the first place and ‘receive sans judgement’ for it to make complete sense.

In the social, connected and collaborative world we live in, feedback is ubiquitous. It keeps coming our way all the time. Every interaction is a source for feedback. My own hypotheses is this : it is dealing with this public ‘feedback’ that puts the fear into many and gets them stay away from Social tools.

Staying with real world,  here are a few aspects that the leaders who I have worked well with, do well while seeking feedback.

a. First off, they seek feedback. To commence the discussion, they ask very pointed questions. At least, that’s what they start with. Starting by directing the feedback to a defined area, on which the feedback is sought on, vastly increases the quality of the feedback received.

b. They remain very open to any and all feedback that is given. No defensive ‘but you know..’ questions. Questions, if at all, are more asked for amplification or clarification.

There is a strong difference between what they seek and what they accept and do. Listening in carefully sans judgement doesn’t mean that feedback is readily accepted in full. Its just that the processing of it takes place much later.

c. They always provide feedback on feedback. For starters, writing feedback down while it is being received, communicates a level of seriousness A business leader told me once, that writing helps him give a direction to all the energy, when all the feedback is coming his way. Simple stuff like nodding the head and staying attentive to feedback that is coming their way helps them get more!  Another business leader who I talk to more on the phone, makes it a point to paraphrase the feedback at the end of the conversation, beginning with a ‘for my own understanding..’

These to me are aspects that I have noticed in successful leaders who genuinely seek and work on feedback. To have it in one to seek, receive, process and work on the feedback sought is perhaps one of the greatest gifts that superlative leaders are endowed with. Thats something I have noticed.  I wonder what you have noticed.

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!

Questions are the answer!

There are many skills that are imbibed during formative years and years of study.  The one skill that perhaps will stand in great stead is that of asking good questions!

 For it is in the asking of questions that answers emerge.  For many years I thought of questions and questioning to be a prerogative of teachers. Which changed one day, when upon asking a few questions in a chemistry class, my teacher asked me to think up of five more questions!

 I was reminded of that incident reading  ‘Teaching Students to Ask their own Questions’ in the Harvard Education Letter.

 The process of teaching undergoes a fundamental change when students are entrusted with the idea of seeking out questions that would enable them to search for answers.  Automatically, the responsibility for ‘learning’ shifts to the ‘learner’ and away from the ‘instructor’.

 The beauty of questions is the space it creates for ‘exploration’. And exploration is a function of wonder! Developing an acumen for asking the right question, is furthering the prowess of exploration and often leading to a choice set for action.

 The link quoted above introduces you to a step by step process called, the ‘Question Formulation Technique’ or QFT.  This technique is supposed to help students learn how to produce, improve upon and strategise on how to use the questions they come up with.

 Step 1: Teachers Design a Question Focus

Step 2: Students Produce Questions

Step 3: Students Improve Their Questions

Step 4: Students Prioritize Their Questions.

Step 5: Students and Teachers Decide on Next Steps.

Step 6: Students Reflect on What They Have Learned.

To see this as an easy set of steps to pursue, will be oversimplifying the approach.  For the fundamental nature of relying on ‘questions’ requires a shift in the way a learner  approaches a subject. It requires an bigger shift in the way a teacher or a trainer would approach the student as well.

The role of the trainer / teacher, as a facilitator who holds the space for questions to flourish and discussions to take place requires a certain ‘courage’.  A willingness to hold the urge to ‘give the answer’ or to prove expertise, and engage with perpetuating a ceaseless exploration!  Yet, being very present, encouraging and participatory!  And to stimulate wonder!

Its simple ! Asking questions help children stay in control.  When they are in control, their interest grows and obviously it has a big positive impact on their learning.  Of all the facilitators and trainers who I have worked with, the ones that I have relished working with are ones that  left me with more questions than answers at the end of the program !

So is the case with my managers and business leaders.

The case for leaders being teachers was made in this post.  An essential (and much under rated) skill in the repertoire of skills, leaders that I have held in high esteem have possessed is the art of asking thought provoking questions, that enable teams to figure out answers!

More often than not, in the quest for giving the right answers we miss the point that the trick is not in the ‘right’ answers.  But rather in realising that questions elicit the answers !