Yes And

Are you tired of stagnant conversations that lack momentum, trust and impact ? Look no further than the power of “Yes” and “And.”

An improvisation technique taught in most drama classes, these two words need to be built into our conversations. Official, as well as personal.

What are the negative impacts of words like “No” “However” and “But”?

They shift the conversation away from the other person’s perspective. Break their thought threads. Create agitation and defensiveness in their mindset.

By using “Yes” and agreeing to the parts you can, you allow for a more open conversation.

By using “And,” you build upon others’ ideas, show support and create a sense of teamwork.

By asking questions where you cannot agree, you understand the other person’s perspective, trust is built, and results are reached. You also build agility and fluidity into your own thought models.

Use “Yes, And”. Watch your conversations create measurable impact.

At What Level do You Think ?

One night, my little girl comes to my room, long after I had put her to bed. She says, Mom, I cannot stop my thoughts. They are over-running me.

There is a technique in training, the ELI5, “explain it to me like I‘m 5 years old”. The premise is, to master a concept or to understand an idea completely, try and explain it to a little child. Here was my chance to practice this.

So I start off asking her what is she thinking about. She relates to me an entire episode of Archies that she had watched earlier. And says I just cannot stop my mind…it is replaying everything.

I talk to her of horses and trainers. Of how each horse is trained with love and patience. Then relate our thoughts to horses, and our mind to the trainer. Our thoughts are not our mind. Our thoughts are not us. Our thoughts could become our best friends or wild strangers. It all depended upon how we train them. What they are not, is us.

The trainer in my girl got a measure of control over her wild horses that night. With some more hugs and songs and questions and answers… she went back to sleep.

If only it were so easy to re-assure us adults.

Let us talk a bit about our thoughts. How they over-run us without our awareness. Let us build a path to self-awareness. Let us name all our thoughts, but choose and empower only those that work for us.

Naming our Thoughts

What do we do when we are driving and the traffic light turns yellow ? We slow down and apply the brakes. That is the very first technique that we use on our thoughts. When we see them cascading… especially an anger, fear, disgust, or a nasty surprise… we slow down and apply the brakes.

How ? By naming our emotions to ourselves.

If I say to myself, Bindu, you are angry and your angry reactions so far have led to bad outcomes, I will have a far more considered response. As compared to when I am angry and I let my angry horses have their wild run.

As a people, we are not very emotionally literate. We do not have the right words for so many of our emotions. Are we experiencing a Rage, an Anger or a mere Annoyance ? Do we know the exact opposite of Amazement ?

We would not do well in framing equations like Love = Joy + Trust. What emotions does Joy begin and end with ? Where does Fear come from and where does it lead to ? We have been taught many things, but not these basics of emotional literacy.

To us it is a new journey… that can teach us on how to apply the brakes. The right words are powerful enough to stop any emotional avalanche and guide us to respond rationally.

Choosing the Right Thoughts

Our memory is built on association. Associations are based on our perceptions. Perceptions, unlike facts, are based on our understanding and our attitude. Where does all this leads to ? Our ability to re-build our positive self at any point of our life. Shall we learn the steps of this dance ?

Who is the person that we end up talking the most to ? Our own self. What do we tell ourselves about ourselves ? Are we as protective of our own self as we are of our loved ones ?

Choose the positive thoughts. Weed out the ones that we have named and framed negative. If you catch someone repeatedly harassing your best friend, or your family, with variations of “you are not good enough”…. will you stand by and watch ? Or challenge them ?

Then why allow your own thoughts to do it to you ?

Let us start the change…from the “No I am not good enough” to the “Not Yet but I’m learning” to the “Yes, today I can”.

Giving of Ourselves

The difference between who we are today and our most confident and powerful self is the right frame of mind.

Consciously, let us shift our focus away from anxiety and towards excitement. From ourselves to the situation we are in. Towards the people that we are part of.

Once we are confident enough in ourselves, we start the next leg of the journey – to be empathic to others.

A Question

Do you value the questions in your life ? Or do you focus on answers alone ? Are all questions created equal ? Today let us explore our questioning skills, and build ourselves an arsenal of intelligent questions.

There is one particular formula in Physics that I learnt in school. I can explain this one formula to you in great detail at any time of the day….even in the middle of the night if you wake me up and ask. At this point, you would ask…so what makes this formula so special ?

The Why ?

In that particular class, our Teacher, Mr. Narendran, restricted himself to asking Questions. Our class reached the answer all by ourselves. It would have taken Sir five minutes to Explain and Illustrate the formula for Momentum. In that case, my brain would have retained it till the examination. He chose to give us 45 minutes to lead us there. After two and a half decades, I can still recount in detail that particular class and all its lessons.

We look around and see that the answer-ers are the more favored. In the rush of meeting a deadline or finishing a chapter, the brownie points are saved for the conformers, not the disrupt-ors. But then these are rather low hanging fruits.

Let us look at a much loftier example. Someone did ask why the apple fell downward. Active questioning is undeniably powerful.

The right questions can answer for the difference between delivering a wrong project on-time, on-budget and losing the client, or going back to the table with newly learnt facts and earning the client’s long term respect and confidence.

We always circle back to Socrates when we talk about Questions. Let us go back further today.

I looked up the etymology of the word “Prashna”. To those of us, coming from the various Indian Backgrounds, it means Question. It is, however, the stand-in word for “a lesson” , too, in the ancient texts. Sanskrit throws us a googly here…using the same word for a question, a task and a lesson.

At some level, my Physics Teacher knew all this.

So why do we not ask questions anymore ? Many reasons. Let me highlight the most common one.

The pedestal we set our Authority figure on. A parent, a teacher, a lead… they are expected to know everything. We are not used to the Uncertainty of a “let me find out and get back to you on this” or an “intelligent question…can we find the answer together ?”.

One of the first things we learn in our schools is not to put our teachers in a tight spot.

The What-Ifs

Don’t you think we need this change ? To bring in a questioning culture ? To bring the lessons of “Life Long Learning” to our everyday, and extend that courtesy to both sides of every valid question.

Let us look at a few applications

I re-learnt the power of this tool in training practice a few days ago. I used a few slides with a single question on each. After 20-30 seconds of nerve-wracking silence on both sides, my trainees started un-muting themselves and answering. They did me proud. They insisted on debating amongst themselves before I opened up any of my answer slides. When they found out that they had achieved options and answers more suited to their work all by themselves, the energy level in the room went high. I was thanked, for leading them on to find their own answers.

Take a corporate situation like a feedback meeting. Let us make it a negative feedback, the more difficult one. How about asking the why behind any behavior or situation rather than judging a person or a personality ? Takes the weight off both the giver and the receiver. No demoralizing, no de-motivation, no finger-pointing and no toxic grudges.

Let us say we are pitching for a training session. Again, asking the right questions to measure the expected outcomes of the training is the first step. In most cases, I could feel the HR or the L&D really getting on board with their skin in the game.

The How

All of this brings us to the quality of the Questions we ask. Sometimes we ask questions to start off an argument. Because I am in the process of having a very bad day and why should you go free ?

Sometimes the questions are carefully sculpted to bring out and showcase our rather sharp intelligence. Not to take the discussion further.

How do we avoid these traps ? Where are the intelligent questions lurking ?

To start with, there are the 3 questions.

The Why. The background, the supporting facts. The reason why things are the way they are.

The Why behind the Why ? Unless we understand the validity and value of any current situation, we cannot truly better it. The Whys form the Root.

Then come the What-Ifs. What are the changes, the innovations, or the disruptions that come to mind? What would you do differently than yesterday ? What would you do differently from the next person ? Where is your personal touch ?

Why the What-ifs ? To add more value. To leave your mark. To bring in a so-far unconsidered angle. The What-ifs are your big blue Sky.

Then comes the How, the last of the three. How does it translate into your everyday ? How will you deal with the constraints, the risks ? The Hows will decide which of your What-ifs is achievable. The How is the Ground on which you walk.

Approaching any working system with a framework of three questions is a practice that will start you off towards a great adventure with truly great questions.

Dig deep with your questions…they open up your own mind and the world around you.

The simple, Yes/No questions are more suited to open or end a conversation. The true explorations come with the what/when/why/how/where/who. These are the questions that lean-in on our brain, and say “You Sleepy-head, You Cognitive Miser, I’m taking you out for a run today. Go, get your shoes on.”

Sometimes, we do not ask because we do not know how to. We were trying to be helpful, but we have been told our questions were rude. That may be to do with the language. In many languages, the different words for “You” convey the level of respect that we aim for.

While translating to the single “You” in English, we overlook this loss. Adding a Please might suffice… but at some tables the Please is just the price of admission. There are many techniques on dealing with this one. The use of modals (Could you please), the use of past tense (I was wondering if..), the use of vague words (Is it quite alright if..?) and in the more formal and complex situations, the use of may, might or even negatives are the a few.

Dear Reader, having journeyed with you so far in the Question-Land, I leave you now. Right in front of three brightly painted red doors. They open to the Whys, What-Ifs and Hows of your life. Open them to step into an exciting beyond.

And do let me know of any questions that come up… we can learn together.

Listening – The Essential Skill

The building block of all soft skills ? Listening. Shall we find out how much of listeners we are? Note, I didn’t venture anywhere near to “good listeners.” Just listeners, to start with.

We will start with a what, a why and then move onto a how.

The What:

When I began training, I got a lot of feedback. The positive ones being, good flow, good connect. The negative ones ? that I go content heavy. Took me a while to get that I cannot use the same methods of training for one, two, three or four hours. The same methods do not work for differing levels of trainee experience. The methods again waver and vary when the trainees are accompanied by their work supervisors or their learning and development leads.

The levels of depth that I can wade in and convince my trainees to test the waters with me are different each time. Their expectations are different. Their check-in mindsets are different.

Their levels of listening are different.

When I write, I still have the luxury to set my outliers and build the topic with aplomb. Here I can chase a thought like a child with a net shadowing a butterfly.

I just need to make sure to take you along on this stealth journey.

Coming back to listening. Its origin is Germanic, meaning to pay attention. Attention, the currency…the medium, the measure, the store, and the standard flag bearer for empathy. The highest form of human connect.

So, from the building block to the highest form. The steps from listening to empathy. The ladder that is called soft skills.

When, in your life, did you listen best ? What are the levels of listening you currently employ ? When did and why the difference creep in ?

The Why :

As a child, you and I were eager and full of curiosities. We had not formed an opinion of ourselves that we needed to conform to at all costs. We were willing, in other words, to listen.

We were chock full of questions and ready for answers. Now the situation is, we are full of set answers that we are ready to fit into any questions.

Who stopped our questioning ? We saw the parents, the teachers, all our authority figures…they rewarded the answer-ers. Not the questioners. And we, fast learners that we are, shifted our modes.

Only the most stubborn remained questioners. And they questioned even when an apple fell downwards, not flew up. You see, the questioners too have their rewards. Just not immediate ones.

And so we re-learn, at a certain age, that questioning has its place. And once again, we start to listen to the answers.

And the How :

Sometimes, it is a sharply focused listening. Like my daughter does. Her teacher could be talking in the virtual classroom for many minutes and she would be wandering around the house, even the garden… but the moment the teacher utters “Mitra, can you answer?” she flies back to her chair and switches on her video with a smile, “Yes, Ma’am”. And she has the right answer. I was exasperated at her walking around during the classes (I usually am at both my children) ( You will hear of them now and again…they train me as much as I train them). I wondered if she gained anything out of the whole thing ? Then one late night as I was walking around the block, her teacher calls me and asks can I please give the phone to Mitra ? An irate parent has called the teacher and wants to know why she hasn’t taught the last part of a topic. She believes she has but she has lost the recording of that class. And she knows exactly which student would know to what extent she has covered the topic and who could be trusted to give her straightforward answers. Mitra and she have a lengthy chat and bid each other a happy good night. That incident, my dear reader, is what opened my eyes to the level of listening my five year old practices.

Listening deep is one thing. Dead air over the line when you listen deep is something that rattles the other person. So here come some skills to your rescue : verbal nods. Your “ah!” “okkk” “understand…” and the ” and then ?s ” And then you ask questions to clarify anything. Without Assuming. (Our assuming habits ask for a whole new post by themselves.) Go ahead and ask all those questions. The ones you have gathered in your mind while listening, not while multi-tasking or while preparing the correct response right after listening to the other person’s first sentence. Then paraphrase. Repeat to them what you understand, to the level of their satisfaction. This will make your memory stronger. This will clear any small misunderstandings before they go, dress up and come back as big issues. This will build you a huge rapport as a good listener. This will allow you to prioritize and mull over the multiple things the caller…your customer, your client, your lead, your direct report, your colleague….your spouse, your friend, your child, your parent….wants from you as a result of the call.

Then move on to your critical thinking and the active dominant continuations expected out of you.

Unless of course, you wish to climb the ultimate step of the listening ladder. Taking the perspective of the other person. The “I see you” “I hear you” “I feel you” s. Now this is dangerous zone. You take the risk of internalizing a new point of view and changing yourself. Of breaking your wall of limitations that you have built around you over the years.

But then dear Reader, where is growth without change ?? And what is life if not growth ??