conversations

Through The Looking Glass

He drove by with a wave, rolled down the window and asked,”Kavi?” In an inchoate two minutes, I was seated settled in the comfortable car with his words “I’ll get you to the airport. Nice and safe” to soothe me.

#SHRM18 had just wound down to a close and I was tearing myself away from the comfortable confines of McCormick Place in Chicago.  Salim (name changed ) was my Uber driver.

Uber drivers who indulge my need for conversations are special.  Speak to a few of them in a city, and you can map whats on the city’s mind. The chat reduces the distance and as a bonus, I get to know another human being. What is a platform transaction morphs into a human interaction. A connection established by stories and sharing.  The interaction with Salim was one such.

We chatted about the economy, immigration, life in the USA and India. And this elusive thing called ‘home’. And much else.

He told me about his home in Palestine and of his long trek to Jordan where his parents stay.  And the longer trek to the US more than two decades ago.  His voice swinging from excitement to despair with seamless ease. Like shifting lanes on an empty road.

The man had studied law in Jordan, ran a restaurant for fifteen years in the US before taking to be an Uber driver. He loved law. But couldn’t practice law in the US. To be able to do so would require his going back to law school. Which would set him back by several thousand dollars.  He had made his peace and he saw his future in driving trucks. He had applied for a license and he was due to get it shortly.

For a while, he spoke of the opportunity in truck driving. The lucrative nature of it all and the lifestyle he would be able to afford his kids. Plus the effort and investment required to get there. He sounded like a monarch who awaited coronation the next day.

After a while, in a manner of conversation, I asked him if he had heard of unmanned trucks. His face donned a dismissive hat.   As I explained to him all that I knew of the experiments with self-driving trucks, the dismissive smile morphed to have a ring of disbelief and distress.

An uncomfortable silence filled the air and as a red light stopped the car in front of us, he turned around, faced me and asked, “What will happen to all the jobs?” His hurting tone and halting words were making me guilty. I realised. Before I could say anything else, the man held the steering with one hand, looked ahead and spoke into the windscreen.

“Technology is good. But it can hurt and the people who make the technology must also be aware that it can hurt. Even as we make technology to take us forward we must build boundaries for it. We have to be aware of the not so obvious consequences also. We have to make wise choices”

“Someone must speak and think for the countless who don’t have a choice or an option. The rich and the privileged cannot be the sole inheritors of the future. Every generation must have an opportunity to compete and create a new future.”

I wished I could have recorded all that he said, even as I scribbled notes on a random piece of paper.  I wished the ride was longer as my glass window showed the busy environs of O Hare beyond it.

He parked got out of the car, opened the trunk, took the suitcases out and said, “thank you for listening”. For a brief moment, our eyes met, as I nodded and wished him well. His Uber app announced a new passenger and took with it a few things he had to say. I will never know what his closing comments were! The ‘here and now’ urgency of the platform economy will keep him going for a while, I thought, as I saw the car disappear amidst other arrivals and departures.

A while later, I sat at the boarding gate mulling over our conversation. Just that morning Sheryl Sandberg had given a tip about asking “What are you not working on”. It was a powerful idea, which leads me to think the awareness we have about what we don’t discuss enough about.

Disruption and innovation, lead only from a ‘profit’ / ‘valuation’ centric mindset are half-baked. Unless growth is inclusive all disruptions will eventually be disrupted.

As I awaited boarding, I realised, these conversations are not fool’s errands. We need to ply our minds better. Again and again. And again.

 

The lost art of fine conversations

Conversations after all the binding paste for several things. For a relationship to blossom. For a transaction to take place. History to be passed on. For societies to mature. For lessons to be learnt. Developing people and building a cultures Not to speak of building cultures in an organisation.Of course, The Cluetrain Manifesto took it to a different height altogether stating “Markets are conversations”. ( Incidentally, have you read the New Clues?)If we just hover around the topic of having good conversations, one on one, or even amongst a group of involved friends, how would it be? Think of a good chat you had with someone. Where you spoke and he or she spoke your hearts out?

Flowers

Wouldn’t it be nice? When did you last have such a conversation? How many times in the recent past have you had such involved conversations?If you have had such a conversation in the recent past and are prone to having such conversations often, then you can count yourself amongst a lucky minority in the world. For the world in itself is increasingly bereft of good conversations!It is a travesty isn’t it, when what makes societies and communities accorded lesser importance, in a world where everything is getting ‘smarter’? I have a premise : The power and the need for having deep conversations is seriously underrated.

Oftentimes we feel a vague sense of not connecting to family members, to teams we work in or organisations we converge at, there is a vague feeling of loss. A feeling that something is amiss. Not often, however, is this question pondered over : When was the last time I SPOKE to someone? I write ‘SPOKE’ in capitals, for it is not the same as having a dead ‘how is the weather’ or ‘we should strive for world peace’ conversation.

It could be five minutes or fifty minutes. Maybe five hours, where not much is spoken, and the presence speaks. What counts is how genuine is the interest shown in knowing more about the situation and the person. Its about revealing parts of oneself. Its being in the moment, with the other person.

a reciprocal dance of self-exposure through alternately questioning and telling based on curiosity and interest writes Edgar Schein in the Humble Inquiry. My post on the book is here. That is an eloquent call out for good conversations.

The trouble with an aspect like ‘conversation’ is that it appears very simple! It is indeed simple. So simple, that its importance is missed. Given the distractions that our everyday world offers and the preoccupation that several of us have with ourselves, it is not easy to have good conversations.

Yet, it is at the centre of our modern day existence! Where ‘inter-dependency’ is a necessity that doesn’t require any reinforcement. Good conversations provide us with the opportunity to move from being mechanistic to being truly alive. To deal with ‘colleagues’, ‘family’ or ‘team members’ or ‘boss’ much beyond the shallowness proffered by the literal meaning of the word. It means interacting with another live human being.

 Organisations offer multiple formal opportunities for good conversations. Yes, they carry different labels like ‘appraisals’ or ‘development’ or ‘coaching’. In essence they are conversations!I chanced upon this wonderful Harvard Business Review piece titled “Leadership is a conversation” . If you haven’t read it before, do take the time to read it. If you already have, do give it a read again. . (The same authors have another piece titled “Conversations can save companies“. The aspect making talk happen is a leadership responsibility. That stood out.). The piece by the authors is fantastic on many counts. Putting together a need for a communication model that is ‘intimate, interactive, inclusive and intentional’ is powerful. Those are in any case tenets that make a good conversation between two people. When you imagine conversation as the basic thread that makes the weave of a community, a society or an organisation, you realise that it needs to be accorded far more importance than what is accorded now.

I hope this reaches you. In case it does, we sure must talk about it!

Connecting dots

There are several riches the internet has offered me. One such is the opportunity for coffee and conversations with a multi hued spectrum of people that makes the mind soak colour from a rich palette. The limitless pleasure of conversations with a ton of interesting people is quite something. A fascinating array of stories have been exchanged.  Stories that bring alive our coruscating lives of arresting colours, often glazed over by the sad tint of the daily humdrum of existence. Needless to say, much coffee has been drunk, with this as an excuse. But that’s a story for another time.

For now, here is a story about stories.

Filter Coffee

Last week, work took me to Bangalore. Meeting Jaya (@nohrgyan on twitter) was forever on the cards and circumstances lent themselves rather well. Soon a filter kaapi flowed down the alimentary canal as the stories that we told each other filled the air and hogged her tastefully done up home. In the flicker of a few lamps with many wicks, characters, instances, incidents all seemed to flutter to come alive with a spontaneous flutter.

Her story. Her mom’s story. My story. Our dilemmas. Our hopes for the future. Our origins. Speaking of origins, I spoke, like I usually do, of Madurai. ‘Madurai’ adorned prima donna status, in the conversation for  a bit. In some time, a gentleman that Jaya and her mother knew, drifted into the chat. The man they knew was from Madurai.

This gentleman, called Krishnan, had beaten the odds before the odds got even with him. Many accounts of the awesome man he was, flowed, while I listed in awe. Like his dogged determination to learn. Of how he would assemble kids to spread the word about the environment. His doing his PhD and his quest to learn in rather trying circumstances, to put it mildly. His cycling to work and his innate grasp of what it was to learn and to be of value to any and everyone around.

One particular story of how he guided Jaya’s mom to watch birds fly in formation at 5.45 AM from a particular angle at the terrace was narrated with such energy, that what was left was hearing birds flap their wings, in the warmth of the home. He seemed to have created so much difference not only to his body of work, but to an entire community.

“And then, one fine day, he went home to Madurai, had food, watched a movie and went to bed”. In a matter of fact undertone she said, “He didnt get up the next day morning”. A gasp broke free. He was all of 35. The memorial service had people from around the world pour in their messages. Jaya said she too went to the memorial and spoke about his helping her mom to spot birds fly in a formation. As I got more and more curious about the man, she fiddled with her phone and pulled out this page. A tribute of sorts.

My heart beat faster and beads of sweat congregated from nowhere. I went still, when I read on. For the Kannan she was talking about, I knew as Ramesh. I knew him pretty well. He was in the class I used to teach more than a decade ago. Memories of him came flooding back. A tall handsome bloke, with sincerity as a middle name and a bright outlook to life and living. Twelve years ago, I taught a class of awesome students pursuing a Master of Science in NGO Management, from Madurai Kamaraj University. I went blank for a bit.

He and the conversation stayed with me long after we said our goodbyes and moved on. Many cobwebs in the mind got cleared as I had a dull dinner at the airport.  As the plane took off that night, the pilot announced a thunderstorm had hit Bangalore. He could have well spoken of what was happening within me.

The next day, Jaya called me. She said she had bumped into Ramesh’s wife and told her about me and my visit. ( She was a student in the same class as well). Apparently Ramesh’s wife had some very kind words for me and my work and went on to say Ramesh had great regard for me, citing incidents. And as Jaya narrated the incidents she had heard over the phone, I noticed them emerge from piles of other memories that were stacked on top.

As we were hanging up, Jaya said, “I wanted to tell you this, for otherwise there is no way you would have known”. I couldn’t agree more. Since that rainy evening of Bangalore, my mind constantly darts to wonder how small yet how large, how simple yet how complex, how similar yet diverse, how cruel yet joyous, our world is!

The thrill of the success that Ramesh, a small town young man, had achieved, hasn’t died down. Not in a merely materialistic way, but in a much larger wholesome way, making a difference to an entire community of people around the world. Even as it stands tall, the fragility of life makes its silent presence felt.

I will never ever forget Ramesh now. Or how we met and later took different paths, only to emerge at an intersection caused by an interaction! The tapestry of our lives is often a fast moving assortment of people and moments. Every interface is a dot that we leave somewhere. Sometimes, the dots come back to connect and spark a fire of wonder. That fire is often lit by two flint stones called ‘Stories’ and ‘Conversations’. The insanity that surrounds our routines, can nibble our souls. The wounds that are laid bare by the nibbling, are often soothed by gestures like Jaya’s and in the power of sharing and listening to each others stories.

So people, heres something you could consider doing. Sit down and talk to people. After they have shared their story, go ahead and share yours. Talk to someone. You never know which dot will connect or what it will lead you to.

PS : You may want to give this a read sometime. I wrote it in a seamless flow a while back and realised that it tethered emotions together, more than thoughts.

The Farm

This was first published in the NHRDN Journal. 2013

We meet after several years. We were in school together. We bump into each other. In some time, we are sipping coffee. Catching up on the lost years that have quietly slipped by. He tells me he is a farmer and quickly asks, “What do you do?”

I answer slowly. “Learning & development”. I pause. “A variety of programs for developing leaders, capability building, preparing the organisation for future challenges…” My voice trails.

He quips, “I live in a different world. Plants, livestock and land”

We sip our coffee. I notice, he sips it with a certain care. Savouring each sip. I speak gingerly. “I know you put it simply. There is a lot that must go into farming”.

“We begin with a piece of land”. His voice oozes confidence. “Decide what crops to grow when. Each crop has its own cycle”

Farm

I am all ears.

“I plough the field. I need to get it ready for the seeds to germinate. I can’t plant the right seed on an unprepared surface you see”.
“And then, there are choices to be made. The season. The land. The water. All will determine what I plant. I have suffered both with the wrong seed for the right land and the right seed at the wrong time, with my eye on what the merchant will give me”

The striking similarities in his work and mine perk my ear. I warm up. “That’s a big decision. But who tells a farmer what is the right thing to do for his land?” He places the coffee cup on the table, soaks in some air, and says quietly, “If the farmer doesn’t know his land and the seasons, he isn’t a true farmer.”

My mind runs back to office and to the leaders we deal with. The leaders and managers who are self aware and own their development are the ones who go a long distance.

I look at him for more. He continues.

“Mother Nature keeps it simple. But, you can’t just plant the seed and wait for Mother Nature to do the rest. You need to know when to water and how much water. Too much water can kill too! “

“So is the case with fertilizer. So is the case with pesticide. Just the right dose. At the right time. In the right sequence. And that is very different for different plants in different soil. Just because something works well with the rice crop, it doesn’t mean it will with millets. We need to find the right mix. In fact, every farmer needs to”

I smile. And say, “So, it’s a question of finding the blend? Right?”

He smiles. “Finding the right blend EVERY SINGLE TIME! A true farmer nurtures. He nurtures by walking the fields. He nurtures by talking to his crop. He nurtures by just doing the right thing and not over doing it”

“So how successful are you in growing your crops?” I ask.  He laughs. “I don’t grow the crops. The crops grow by themselves. I am just there”.
I realise “I am just there’ conceals as much as it reveals. Yet it sinks in clean. The elegance of his description makes me wonder how we miss the most obvious in the quest of the ‘New / Shiny / Fancy’!

“A good farmer is patient. To him, who sows the right seed in the right soil and does just that much to nurture and watch them grow, a good yield is a given”.

That night I stare into the skies. And his words keep coming back to my mind. “I don’t grow the crops. The crops grow by themselves. I am just there”.

I want to write that down and put it on my desk. Perhaps pass it on to our leaders and managers. Development is nature’s way of ensuring all is well. And oh yes, true development is a natural process.