Training with our Future Tax Inspectors

I was assigned the very challenging task of training our future Tax Inspectors and Tax Assistants on the communication aspects of their job. As a visiting faculty to the NACIN at Bangalore, I had a master key to some strong and brilliant minds. It was one of my first on-site training after the COVID debacle.

I arrived early morning at the Yashwantpur Railway station. I was picked up and dropped off at the campus, where the Director roundly told me off for arriving a day late to the camp. Then he realized that I was the faculty, not a trainee. That broke the ice like nothing I could have come up with!

At sharp 10 am I walked into the room full of candidates who were silently assessing me. I realized I needed some intellectual standing before they would accept me as a mentor, and so I started off my introduction by telling them about my telecommunication patent. I could feel the respect temperature go up immediately. Throughout the session, I needed to keep in mind that these were people trained to work with facts and numbers, not abstract stuff. That kept me on my toes.

Even the story I like to start off with, I related directly into practical realities of our communication. Throughout the day, whenever any of their (or mine) responses could be tied into the way any of the characters of this story reacted, I stopped the class and asked them to find the correct match. They immensely enjoyed each time they bettered their responses.

I prefer to talk rather than present. I also like to explain concepts at their basic level and then involve the class in making up their own abstract models. Sometimes I cover the concept and then get one of them to come up and deliver my slides to the rest of the class. I got them all to come up one by one and showcase their skills in communication in various ways. The truth is, every individual has unique strengths and weaknesses that the rest of the class can learn from. If we, as facilitators, are able to create a trust environment where they do not mind being redirected or re-enforced, the class takes up a momentum of its own. All of this worked well that day.

What did not go down so well ? The practical non-verbals. I realized this part needs more build-up than the timelines allowed. A candidate did try and cross a few lines, where I had to cut them down ruthlessly. After all, the complexities of respecting authority is something our future authorities should know inside out.

Some picture perfect moments ?

When they loitered after a tea break and I had to call out, that I had no preference between stopping at 5 pm, 5.30 pm or 6 pm. The speed with which they all walked back into the classroom in a single file made me laugh out loud with them.

When one of them asked a question: What is the limit to our ambitions ? The concept being covered was confidence at various levels. As a question it had immeasurable merit. As an answer, I told them to examine the Whys. While initially they had trouble relating the two, the coin dropped after some explanation. Then there were those beatific infectious smiles going all around.

One goal I set for myself that day ? I decided to sharpen my skills at paraphrasing. Every time anyone in the room made a complex statement, I would paraphrase them till they agreed that yes, I had understood them well. I believe it was a sharp upward movement for my communication skills that day.

The organic campus, the extremely gracious officers there, and these budding candidates made the training a memorable one. And the feedback collected makes me trust it was a win-win situation on both sides!

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 ??