Lessons Life Taught Me

Lessons Life Taught Me

(Talk delivered in the on-line meeting of Thursday Truth Seekers (TTS), on March 16, 2023)

Being invited to speak at Thursday Truth Seekers (TTS) is an honour. I have addressed the TTS sessions earlier too. I feel happy as well as humbled. Thursday Truth Seekers (TTS) has held more than 450 sessions so far, and is working for almost ten years! TTS is an excellent example of how informal groups can create and disseminate knowledge. I congratulate all members of TTS.

Dr. Anurag Mishra suggested that I should speak on ‘Lessons Life Has Taught Me.’ I immediately accepted not realizing that it was one of the most difficult subjects to talk on. There are many lessons the life has taught me.

No Full Stops to Learning in Life

I did what everybody does – I googled Life’s Lessons and I got a long list of lessons people have listed. None of them touched my heart. There was no substitute to looking within to find out the lessons.

The lesson I have learnt and still learning is about communicating and holding meaningful conversations. ‘Change Conversations to Change Relationships’. You will readily see that it is a work in progress activities. Learning in life has no full stops.

Kashmir Carpet

I once watched a video on Kashmir carpets. When they begin weaving a red dot appears here and a green or blue dot appears there. You think they are completely unrelated till the carpet is nearly ready. At that stage a clear design emerges and you can see flowers and geometric designs clearly. The blue, red and green dots make a complete design. Experiences in life appear unrelated, but when you cross mid-forties we begin seeing a certain relatedness, and life’s lessons emerge.

Managing Aggressive Communications

As a young boy, I was mesmerized by opinionated people. They advocated their point of view aggressively. They looked down upon people who held a contrary view. I mistook them for being very intelligent. Disdain for others appeared to be a hallmark of the intelligent people.

Looking back, I feel I must have copied the aggressive speakers surely though not consciously. I took it to the extremes sometimes; in arguments with teachers, I told them on two occasions that they did not know the subject, and it invited resounding slaps, but I concluded that they were resorting to violence because they had no argument.

We see such a language of disdain for others; our political leaders are speaking it every day and anchors of various channels are using it. Putting down others does not require much intelligence, contrary to my conclusion as a child, and is an extremely negative form of conversation.

I took some time to understand the difference between arrogance and aggression on one hand, and assertion on the other. Arrogance in conversations comes naturally while assertion must be learnt.

Eventually I realized that conversation was a neglected yet precious art. Yet my learning of communicating with respect was slow. In the corporate world too, there is much of the macho talk and it is often associated with a high performer. I have also heard people say that high performers are usually arrogant persons.

There were a few persons who were high performers but they argued and communicated their views differently. Their mode of communicating appealed to me. They appeared aggressive to me but I realized they were not aggressive, they were assertive.

As a manager handling industrial relations, I was often negotiating with labour unions. Provocations are not uncommon in such situations. Falling prey to provocations would not help us achieve our objective. It took me some time to realize that ‘winning’ was a wrong goal in communicating and in conversations. The real goal was influencing.

(“Not All Classrooms Have Four Walls”)

But I was clueless about how this could be achieved till I watched a facilitator in action in a workshop. She began her statements saying, ‘I heard you say’ and captured the essence of what the other person said in one or two sentences. That was followed by developing on the theme. This was an amazing discovery. The facilitator deepened the discussions, and turned ‘listening to understand’ to a higher skill level.

I also realized that there was no aggressiveness or assertiveness in the facilitator’s summing up, actually she was simply doing a recap of what she had heard. The effect on the group was surprising. The group quickly evaluated the statements and further discussion could be held without hurting or blaming anyone. Entire discussion remained very objective. Even if it derailed, the facilitator brought it back on objective track with her ‘I heard you say.’

For me there was a big lesson to learn there. I realized how aggressive and arrogant behaviour could be effectively countered, and the discussion could be brought back to objective tone. Learning ‘paraphrasing’ was a big step in my learning to communicate and hold meaningful conversations.

And I also learnt that there was a big difference between ‘evaluating’ and ‘being evaluative’, and the latter clearly had a pejorative value. I was beginning to learn how not to be judgmental.

What is the right response?

Books articulate beautifully and encapsulate what you would have learnt by trial and error and by observing good leaders at work. This also coincides with your development as an individual. As you grow you realize that influencing is the mission critical skill.

And finally, I realized that even Humble Inquiry and Non-Violent Communications techniques are not enough; there is one more step in conversations that matters most. It is asking oneself ‘What is the right response?’ And of course, responding accordingly.

(Building Bridges in Conversations)

Let me explain. A lady was explaining to a friend that she was afraid of using Apps to order groceries. He said, ‘You better learn it quickly, it will help you.’ He had missed addressing her emotion. The correct response would have been ‘I understand your fear, should I ask someone to help you so that you gain confidence soon?’

Keeping Discomfort To Ourselves At Bay And Outside Our Awareness?

I suffered a rude shock when I attended a workshop. The facilitators sat at various spots in a large room and we were asked to interact with them. They were called ‘Entities.’ One was a Sword, another was a Clay, yet another was a Gypsy.  One of the facilitators said she was ‘Clay’. My discussion with her went like this:

“Hey, what entity are you?”

“I am Clay”

I took a long time to understand. There were too many questions in my mind, how can one be a clay?

“What do you mean by ‘I am clay?””

“Why? What’s the problem?”

“I mean I can’t understand this statement of being clay. I can understand if someone says he is a Gypsy. But Clay? Clay does not have a form, it does not perform a function like a sword, it is lifeless.”

“What is missing in it?”

“There is no life in it. No vibrancy. No liveliness.”

“Why such a sharp reaction?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is it missing in your life?”

That was a shocker.  She was right! At that time of my life, I was very unhappy and frustrated. And felt as if I was held captive by circumstances. The exercise was a case of projection as I learnt later. Projection refers to unconsciously taking unwanted emotions or traits you don’t like about yourself and attributing them to someone else.

Karen Koenig who is a psychotherapist says, “Projection does what all defense mechanisms are meant to do: keep discomfort about ourselves at bay and outside our awareness”. She says the people who are most prone to projecting are those who don’t know themselves very well, even if they think they do.

This experience forced me to do self-reflection. It means “viewing yourself with detachment and curiosity, never judgment.” I realized that I was expressing myself in everything I did.

This discovery changed the way I related to people. Later I attended Vipassana meditation. Vipassana means ‘to see things as they really are.’ The effect of the ‘Projection’ exercise and Vipassana meditation was that I would ask myself if it was necessary to speak at all. And when I spoke it was with measured words. (There were occasions when I fell prey to provocations!).

My conversations and communications with people changed. Asking for facts by beginning my sentence with ‘I hear you say ….’ and responding with concern and empathy became more frequent. I often played out conversations in my mind before I spoke to people.

Empathy Entered Communications and Conversations

Parents become aware that use of authority cuts off conversations with the children. Same rule applies at work too. If you use power (which goes with authority) you will sabotage conversations.

(Empathy the most precious ingredient of conversations and communications)

Parenting changed my conversations, slowly but surely. Parenting sowed empathy in my mind, it slowly changed my language and the way I engaged with people in conversations. When you are speaking to your child you instinctively make an effort to understand him/her first before putting across your view point. That was a big change.

Because empathy entered conversations, it became a journey from masculinity to femininity. It was a welcome change as I realized in retrospect.

The factory where I worked was lost to fire. One of the workers was using a flammable material and it ignited suddenly. The fire spread everywhere and turned one section of the factory to ashes. This happened in the night shift and fortunately no life was lost. But fire caused a huge damage.

The worker was interrogated and asked to disclose how exactly the accident happened. He did not open out at all; he would not speak a word. Exasperated managers threatened to dismiss him but it had no effect on him. He just would not speak. Finally, I decided to speak to him. I had no hope that he would open out before me. I called him to my office.

He remained tongue tied. Not a single word he spoke. I then inquired about his family and where he stayed. No answer. Finally, I told him that the all employees knew that the accident happened at his hands, a big section of the factory was in ashes. If he did not speak then he will carry the guilt throughout his life, so it was good for him to speak.

At that juncture, he opened up and mentioned that his wife had suffered a stroke earlier and was not in good health. If he lost his job, he would be on street begging because her medical expenses had left nothing in savings. I assured him that he will not lose his job.

He wept and gave me full details of the accident.

What bullying could not achieve was achieved by sympathetic words. Macho talk had not worked, a softer approach worked magic. But empathetic response does not come easily to us. Not to me too. I remember Osho’s words.

Osho says, “Become more feminine, softer and more delicate. Your ego is trying to create trouble. Your ego is saying to you, “Be strong, be masculine, be this and that.” Don´t go on that male chauvinistic trip – forget about it. Relax. Whatsoever is coming naturally is beautiful. This femininity has to be absorbed. It is not weakness; it is delicateness. It is softness that you are thinking to be weakness. To use the word “weakness” is to evaluate it. Your ego is evaluating it, condemning it – that this is something wrong, you are becoming weak. Ego always thinks of softness as weakness.””

It is the femininity in us which helps us touch hearts. And that explains the tag line under my signature in all blogs and emails: ‘”What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

We began with my story of learning conversations and building relationships, and we are ending it with this insight of life being a journey from masculinity to femininity!

All photographs are copyrighted.

Vivek S Patwardhan

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”