Category Archives: Communication

Relevance of Four Noble Truths in an Age of Uncertainty and Anxiety

The first sermon Buddha delivered after enlightenment was on the Four Noble Truths which are:

  1. The truth of suffering
  2. The truth of the origin of suffering
  3. The truth of the goal
  4. The truth of the path to the goal

Quite often it is felt that Buddha was pessimistic and was against the good things in life when he uttered the first noble truth that ‘Life is Suffering’ (Dukkha). It is not so. The term suffering can be interpreted in terms of day-to-day anxieties, irritations, etc. When we are all by ourselves, the thought of something missing, that we are not our ideal self, the current problems, start troubling us. The truth is: we do not think, the thoughts happen to us by default; without our choice. These random thoughts include the pain of earning a living, keeping the near and dear ones (and also the professional colleagues) happy, job uncertainties, etc. For those going through an existential dilemma, the pain of being me, the purpose of my life, Who Am I maybe also a part of constant irritation. The constant chattering of the mind from past to future is THE first noble truth, the truth of suffering!

How do we address this perennial irritation? We feel by working hard in our existing jobs or business, we may be able to address the uncertain future. Some people feel that the latest mobile or car may make them happy. Those with an intellectual/spiritual disposition of mind may resort to reading self-help books or attend spiritual retreat/personality development programs. People work on these different options hoping to calm their chattering minds. But beyond a superficial feeling of well-being, the pain resurfaces!

Do self-help books really help? In the US alone, self-help is around a $50 Billion industry. Despite being the pioneers in self-help along with the latest objects of desire, the country has an alarming crime and divorce rate, with a pervasive feeling of loneliness. Bhutan, a country without a commercial self-help industry is considered as one of the happiest countries. Incidentally research shows that people who are dependent on self-help books invariably tend to buy another book within the next 18 months! Paradoxically it is only the (fake) Gurus who make money, leaving their subjects poor, and the latter looking out for new techniques all the time! Our constant endeavour to drive away the pain either by acquiring new objects or self-improvement techniques is the root cause of suffering; the second Noble Truth.

After running on this hedonistic/spiritual treadmill for long; somehow the mind gets exhausted. You say to yourself: enough is enough, and stop trying! You accept the way you are; you accept your chattering mind. And lo behold, magic happens! There is a gap between consecutive thoughts. Your thought process slows down. Now you start seeing gaps, the emptiness between two thoughts, and you start arriving at peace with yourself. Your mind shifts from the past/future treadmill to the present moment! This is the third noble truth, the truth of the goal.

But these gaps are intermittent, ephemeral. If you start craving for the gaps, you go back to the first noble truth. The truth of suffering!

The media has conditioned us in making us believe that multitasking is good and that one should try to compress as many activities in the shortest possible time, which can make us productive and in turn lead to happiness. Nothing can be farther from the truth than this view. While watching TV, if a commercial appears, immediately we turn to the remote. We drink coffee while watching TV, we read a newspaper while having breakfast, and we WhatsApp messages during meals. We are trying to keep our minds busy to avoid the pain of the chattering mind. Most of these activities we do are in an auto-pilot mode: fingers on the mobile, with eyes on the TV screen, while sipping tea; but with the mind chattering at the speed of light about an important client meeting!

Let us understand the fourth noble truth, the truth of the path to the goal. Imagine you are making a cup of tea. Pour the water into the kettle, feel the sensation. Watch the water boiling and feel the steam and the warmth. Pour the tea powder into the kettle, smell the aroma of tea leaves in the boiling water. Allow the tea to percolate, watch your mind while pouring the tea slowly in the cup. Sit comfortably in your chair, and start drinking it with mindfulness. Observe the sensations at your lips, the tongue, and the way it travels down your food pipe. While doing this, you are in the present moment all the time and appreciating the tea with all the five senses: the aroma, the taste,  the colour, the warmth of the cup as well as sensation while tea is going down the gullet. When you perform every action in a similar mindful way, you are disconnecting the chattering mind and that is the fourth noble truth: the truth of the path to the goal! Practise even ordinary activities with total awareness and complete attention. Let it be choiceless.

All actions are intrinsically noble: sending a mail to a client or a WhatsApp message to a friend is in no way superior to cleaning the sink or washing the clothes! You do not have to outsource the latter activities to servants thinking them (both the activity as well as the servant) to be inferior! Every activity whether small or big, if done mindfully leads to salvation! And that is the truth of the path to the goal.

When we are multitasking with a chattering mind hovering in the past or the future, we are nowhere; acting like a zombie, no different than a robot – but perennially suffering. A robot in a way is still better, at least it does not suffer!

When we are doing one task at a time with complete awareness, we are in the present moment. That is the journey from nowhere to now and here, a paradigm shift from confusion to enlightenment! Be Happy!

Inspiring Leadership

My first interaction with Deepak Parab, the CEO of Metrohm India Private Limited (a leading company in Analytical Instruments and Solutions) happened around two years ago when he called me from his Chennai HQ and said that he would like me to conduct a ‘Managerial Effectiveness’ program for his pan-India team of service managers. “Rajan, I shall ask my National Service Manager, Vinod Salunkhe to get in touch with you to discuss the further modalities.” The call hardly lasted five minutes; a client taking a quick decision in finalizing a 2-day training program was a rarity in my training career of 25 years. I could not help recollecting a MNC client who took approximately six months with more than a dozen meetings to finalize a 1-hour keynote address. (See my earlier blog titled ‘A Tale of Two Key Note Addresses’ – https://rajanparulekar.in/2018/03/29/a-tale-of-two-key-note-addresses/ )

More than the ability to take the right decisions, the leadership traits I admired in Deepak were:

  1. Focus on results: After he took over as CEO and Managing Director, Metrohm India has progressed very well under him and results have been great. They have been able to capture and maintain major market share for their products and increase the turnover and profitability multi-fold. Today, Metrohm India owns all its offices across India and these were bought in the last ten years.
  2. Retaining Talent: His core team of 30 senior managers including the COO, Branch Managers, Service Managers, Application Laboratory Manager and Product Managers are with the company for the last 20 years. The core team has remained the same for the past two decades.
  3. Creating Value through Service: Peter Drucker said that the purpose of business is to attract and retain a customer, which can be restated by the formulae below:

a. Vc > Vp where Vc is the value perceived by the customer and Vp is the value inside   your product or service. You get a customer only when the perceived value is more (short and/or long term) than what the customer pays for.

b. Vc = (Q+U+S)/P where Q is the Quality, U the Utility, S the Service and P is the price. Remember that QUS is not what the salesman claims but what the customer perceives. The four ways to increase the perceived value is either to increase the QUS or to reduce the P. Quite often desperate salespeople reduce price to create value which in turn affects profitability.

Deepak took a different approach to create value. To command a premium, he focussed on the numerator (QUS) rather than the denominator (P). Service was given prominence vis-à-vis sales. In a team of 135 executives for each sales person there are 3 service executives. Normally one service engineer is deployed for 100 instruments, with an equal share of warranty and AMC (annual maintenance contract). Today Metrohm India has 12 Offices and 12 Home Offices from where Service is provided. The home office concept for service was used to extend the reach. For example for clients in Goa, service engineers used to travel every week from Mumbai to Goa. With 250 instruments, 2 service engineers were deputed to Goa, which created value in the following ways:

  • The travel fatigue for service engineers was considerably reduced.
  • Improved work-life balance for the Service Engineers who were back to their home in the evening.
  • Cost of resident engineers was lower than with the travel and related costs.
  • Delighted Customers due to an improved response time and a lower down-time. Customer confidence in Metrohm also increased due to the now closer proximity of the Service Engineer.

Having created value for the customer in terms of QUS, Metrohm was now able to command a premium vis-à-vis the competition. There is a general tendency for companies to club sales and service to control costs, especially in the case of executives operating from home offices. However, Deepak resisted this temptation, as with dual responsibilities, executives tend to focus more on sales and ignore service. Now, dedicated service engineers in turn enhanced the perceived value!

  1. Delegation with empowerment: Ganesha Chaturthi is a major festival in Maharashtra. Deepak belongs to a small village called Hiwale in Sindhudurg District from the Konkan region. For this important festival, Deepak used to take leave for 10 days every year. However as a CEO designate, when he applied for leave now, his boss questioned the logic, considering his elevation to the new role with additional responsibilities. The major concern apart from the leave, was in Deepak being incommunicado due to poor network connectivity at his village. Deepak’s thought process was quite clear. He said, “I shall prepare my team in such a way that my help is not needed in those 10 days.” His communication to his team members went on the following lines:

– “Please take decisions. I am not going to blame you for the consequences, if found negative in posterity.”

– “Please think of the worst–case scenario. The company is not going to sink from any such decisions.”

– “All of you can learn from your mistakes and a wrong decision and its consequence can be termed as the cost of learning.”

– “If in spite of all the above, you still need my advice, please drop me a SMS. In case I go to the village market (which has a better connectivity), I shall respond.”

The discounts and pricing are controlled by the respective Managers and all are empowered to take decisions. As a normal practice at Metrohm India the senior management team does not have any extra power to give additional discounts.

5. Genuine Concern for Employees: Even though a nationwide lockdown was announced on 24 March 2020, Deepak took the call on 20th March to shut down the company’s offices across the country. Most of his team members who were at different locations then, had enough time to go back home.(Contrast this with the 4 hour time frame given by the PM which affected not only the general populace but also the millions of migrant workers!) He announced categorically that there would be no salary deduction, nor would anyone be forced to go on leave. The salary for the full month of March which normally gets paid on the last day of the month was credited on 24th

6.Creative Problem Solving: Every year the company used to invite its Pan-India sales and service team in May to the Chennai HQ for training. The month-long exercise for a team of 130 executives used to cost around ₹ 70-80 lakhs; the quarterly reviews used to be around ₹ 5-6 lakhs each. During the lockdown, the time was used for online trainings and reviews thereby saving a big cost for the organisation, while at the same time keeping the employees engaged. They also ensured that all employees are engaged and connecting with the customers, so that they feel like they are doing their routine work and no health issues crop up due to no work. In the earlier phases of lockdown, the instruments which needed attention were diagnosed remotely, thereby reducing the down time. For the Pharmaceutical industry which is a major customer (as well as the sector doing well during the pandemic), Metrohm’s service support was crucial. In a few cases, even the installation was carried out with the help of the customer along with support via a video call by the Service Engineer. Digital Platforms have been used by the organisation extensively to connect its employees and customers.

7. Effective Decision Making: Be it a minor decision of a trainer selection or major ones like shutdown or salary disbursals, an effective leader does not shy away from taking decisions.

8. Strong Ethics: Deepak shared that a strong sense of ethics and moral values are a sine qua non for effective leadership. Deepak spent his childhood in the IIT Bombay campus. His father, Raghunath Parab was a governing member of the Co-Operative Society and was entrusted the job of supervising the IIT Staff Canteen operated by the IIT Staff Co-Operative Society. As a principle, his father did not prefer his children to visit the canteen; lest it be perceived that they were availing food free. Some years down the line, when Deepak entered the canteen and when his father admonished him, he told him, “Dad, now I am working as a Technical Assistant in the Department of Chemistry and I have come here as an employee and not as your son.” Caesar’s wife must indeed be above suspicion.

Since 1982, Metrohm AG, with HQ in Switzerland is a full subsidiary of Metrohm Foundation, as the only shareholder. With neither a specific owner nor any other shareholders, part of its profits are earmarked towards charity and R&D. Being a zero-debt company, the obsessive pressure for quarterly results is absent.

rajan@paraadigm-info.com, http://www.paradigm-info.com

 

Relevance of Ambiguous Thinking in Challenging Times

In one of my webinars I posed the following questions:

To swim to and fro across the banks of a river; it takes a swimmer half an hour. What is the maximum number of rounds can he complete  in an 8 hour schedule by diving  into the same river?  Most of the participants responded with the answer as 16. Some considering the fatigue of the swimmer provided answers which ranged from 4-12. When it was pointed out that by the time the swimmer dives for the second time, a lot of water has already flown; and the river is no more the same. The swimmer can dive into the same river only once. After this explanation when the same question was asked once again, everyone responded the correct answer to be ONE.  (How obsessed we are with the correct answer!)  Then it was pointed out that it need not be one as it depends  on the frame of reference and the answers can vary from 1-16.

Welcome to the world of ambiguity which is defined as the quality of being open to more than one interpretation which is going to play an important role in the current situation.

Our education system does not encourage ambiguity and the intelligence of the students is correlated with the ability to give the right answers. This worked in a world which was relatively stable. In uncertain   times, there are no right answers but a range of operands which needs to be tried and tested. Whether the answer is right or wrong is not decided by the technique but by the result. Like in theory it is said that theory and practice are the same but in reality they are different.

The concept of Operant  Conditioning which was proposed by B.F.Skinner. When faced with a problematic situation, an organism retrieves a solution which has worked in the past. It is also called as a trial and error method.  When the problem becomes novel and complex, he tries a hierarchy of potential solutions, each becoming increasingly improbable. In the absence of complete solutions, he recombines potentially relevant operants to find a solution.

Pigeons and rats were made to acquire new behaviours by a phenomenon termed as operant conditioning. The hungry subjects were rewarded by food pellets  by pecking a disk or pressing a specific lever. By  working on a number of combinations, the subject could realize that the specific behaviour has resulted in a reward, which when repeated got reinforced and the subjects learnt a way of getting results.

In short, operant conditioning is nothing but a trial and error method where one does not have THE RIGHT ANSWER but goes on figuring out the approximately workable answer by incorporating ambiguity.

A simple exercise in developing ambiguity is to take a thought and a contrary one and ponder over the feasibility of both.

e.g. Life is not bad as you think. & Life is as bad as you think. Can you be comfortable with them both at the same time?

Which is the most fundamental of all the relationships? Is it of husband and wife? If so which is the most superficial one? Just think it over.

Multi- tasking helps improve your efficiency. Can you juxtapose this with multi- tasking may not help you do any work which needs deep thinking and focussed attention?

One needs to be comfortable with paradox of life called as the yin and the yang of Tao. Logical thinking, language are a part of life. But life is beyond them.

Ambiguous thinking is also associated with childhood upbringing. Some  parents feel that their children should not be exposed even to minor problems in life which in hindsight may prevent developing ambiguous thinking in future.

e.g. This incident happened in one of the upmarket gated communities.  It was around 8 am; father and his 10 year old son were walking towards the main gate. The father, a Vice President in a MNC was carrying his son’s school bag on his shoulder and adjusting a tie knot around his neck. Son was following his dad playing on his mobile lost in his own thoughts. As they approached the main gate, the father took out the tie and put it on his son. Both of them got into a chauffeur driven car.

There is only one thing worse than unhappy childhood and that is having a too-happy childhood – Poet Dylan Thomas

Dean Simonton ( Distinguished Professor of Psychology at University of California) in his book Origins of Genius states that children from too-happy childhood  have role models as their parents, elders and the teachers. Thus they become well adjusted to the system. They may become successful in terms of qualification, job, designation, material success etc but may not walk the road less travelled in becoming original thinkers. However children from deprived childhood have to look out much beyond the above repository. They have to figure out life on a daily basis thus increasing the number of role models which may include an adverse situation, kindness shown by a stranger, a book, or even a newspaper article. This act of figuring out in life, working by trial and error is what makes one comfortable with ambiguity which leads to creativity.

Janus is a Roman God which had two heads looking in opposite directions. Albert Rothenberg coined a term called as Janusian thinking which is similar of being comfortable with ambiguity.

Albert Einstein in one of his thought experiment said that if a man were to jump from a house rooftop and dropping an object simultaneously the object would be stationery in reference to the man but will be perceived  by an observer on ground as accelerating downwards by the gravitational pull.  Both the view points look contradictory; what matters is the point of reference.

Louis Pasteur was able to arrive at the principles of immunology in a similar manner. In one of his experiments some chicken were able to survive bacillus cholera. He injected  a new virulent culture in healthy chicken as well as the one survived. The healthy chicken died whereas the infected chicken survived. Pasteur came to the conclusion that chicken was diseased and non-diseased at the same time.

In 1801,Thomas Young demonstrated a revolutionary theory with a relatively simple experiment. Called as a double-slit experiment, he focussed a laser beam on a plate which had two parallel slits and the light passing through the slits was observed on a screen behind the plate. Alternate dark and bright bands were seen but it was also found to be observed individual particles at discrete points of the screen. Light can be both a particle as well as a wave as in quantum mechanics can be another example of ambiguous thinking.

This paradox is quite crucial in the current times. Physical  hygiene is very crucial and one should wash hands and face regularly. But can it negate the fact that number of bacteria on a square inch of human skin far outnumber the cells? Scientists have come to a conclusion that the human body is nothing but the agglomeration of billions of bacteria.

The theory of relativity, the wave-particle behaviour of light, or the immunology principle are an outcome of ambiguous thinking on the lines of swimmer jumping in the river with both answers of 1 and 16 being true at the same time.

Someone has defined a genius as the one who can hold two  contradictory thoughts in one’s mind at the same time and still be comfortable with them!

Rajan Parulekar , rajan@paradigm-info.com  98450 14098

Meta Talk: The Art of Reading Between the Lines

A couch potato father while watching TV admonished his son, “Ajay, it is high time you should start with your home-work. Watching TV will do you no good.”

S: Dad, do you mean what you say.?

F: Certainly, I say what I mean.

S: Does it mean that I see  what I eat is the same as I eat what I see?

Meta-Talk ( based on Meta-Talk : Guide to Hidden Meanings in Conversations by Gerard Nierenberg & Henry H Calero) connotes the hidden or the real meaning behind what we communicate; also called as reading between the lines. Cliché are the worn-out words or phrases which are normally used when people are either lazy or not imaginative in conveying the right meaning. Some examples of the divergence between what people say and what they mean are discussed below:

False Modesty: A friend of mine, a HR manager is a regular at the conference, training circuit. He ensures to take his pictures during the events, like being at the lectern, receiving bouquets, or in a panel discussion. The linkedin post invariably starts with the phrase: I have been humbled by receiving the certificate, bouquet, getting the best performance rating etc. The other day I saw a speaker at a raised platform, stretching his arms to the fullest, shouting at the top of his voice and saying, “I am not boasting but, in my humble opinion etc?” Rest assured these phrases indicate that they are simply bragging about themselves. That is false modesty.

Incidentally & BTW: These words are used to introduce a statement. The intent may be to convey just by chance I happen to think. They are generally used by shy people not sure of themselves. However as a cliché, both words may indicate that the speaker wants to say something very important catching the listener off-guard. E.g. Husband says, “Incidentally I have to go to Delhi for an urgent meeting.” Or a lady telling a friend, “ BTW do you know Shruti is opting for a divorce.”

Alternatively  the words can be also used to mislead the listener in believing  the message to be unimportant or of a routine nature.

Sales manager saying to his executive, “BTW Suresh, the credit for this Rs. 50L order shall be going to Ramesh as he has generated the lead.”

I’ll Do my best/I’ll Try: Patient,” Doctor, what are my chances?” Dr “ I’ll do my best.” Meaning there is no hope.

Manager: “You have reached hardly 50% of your target. I want you to meet your targets come what may.”

Executive: “ I’ll do my best.” This may  mean the executive cannot do anything better. When he says I’ll try, it indicates que sera sera. (whatever will be,will be) Both the manager and the subordinate after the meeting feel they have discharged their duties to the best of their abilities.

We and they: Generally these words look quite simple. But sometimes the meta talk may reveal the biases and prejudices we carry about a community. Sudhir Toro, a friend of mine is a liberal thinker. Once while discussing the Bangla Desi migrants issue, he put up whats app post about how Bangla Desh is performing well in terms of economic indicators like unemployment rate, GDP growth etc. Considering the data, the migrant issue might have been blown out of proportion. A group member responded ‘So why don’t you go there?’ Can you see the metatalk in the word there?

‘Why do they oppose CAA and NRC? We are vegetarians but they eat anything. They are not supposed to drink water from our wells.’ Can you see the alienation between we and they?

Using We instead of I: The General Manager tells the assistant manager during the performance appraisal, “We have decided that you do not have the desired skill set for promoting you to the next level.” By using we, the GM has achieved the following purposes.

  1. Apportion the responsibility: The GM would like to soften the blow by saying the decision was taken primarily by the MD but in consultation with the GM
  2. Increasing the distance: The distance between the appraisee and decision maker has increased thus preventing the former in reaching the latter.

Only: According to Sigmund Freud, there are several repressed thoughts and images in the subconscious mind (be it sexual or otherwise) which may try to force their way in the conscious mind. Denial of the entry is achieved by using different processes, one of them being the word only. E.g. if a person were to have a worst nightmare which he may not like to enter his conscious mind, he will say, “It was only a dream.”

A slick salesman selling a beautiful dress may  say, “ Ma’am, it costs only Rs. 2,995,  “conveying a message it is NOT EXPENSIVE.

Adrian and John  were two devout Christians who had missed observing the fast on Good Friday,  the most solemn religious fasting day for the Christians.  When asked for atonement, the pastor asked, “ Adrian, what do you like the most?” “Sharing the marital bed with my wife.” Said Adrian. “In that case, sleep in the other bedroom for the next four weeks” said the pastor. When asked a similar question, John replied, “Pastor, it is smoking my favourite cigar”, Pastor said ,” In that case refrain from  smoking cigars for the next four weeks.”

Some days later, Adrian’s wife enters his bedroom. Startled Adrian says,” Honey, it’s ONLY the third day. We have still a long way to go.” To which the wife replies, “ Adrian, I came here ONLY to tell you that John is smoking a cigar.”  You may notice the degree of denial in the above. What they said and what they meant or the intent  was different.

But: But is a conjunction used to connect two or more clauses.  However it may negate the original meaning. E.g. an executive telling his manager, ”Sorry, I could not reach the office in time, but I was stuck in traffic.” Son telling his father, “I want to go to the gym daily but it is quite far”. Or a waiter telling the customer, “Sorry for the delay in serving you, but there are too may orders.”

By using but, the apology rather than sounding authentic now looks fake and a justification. What is justified as a reason may be perceived as an excuse. One suggestion is to use and instead of but. Better still, say sorry and give no justification.

Dr Sandor Feldman in his work Mannerisms in Speech and Gestures says that people often consciously or unconsciously conceal what they genuinely want to say using Meta-Talk.

So next time whenever you are using words like only, incidentally, BTW, but, or phrases like in my humble opinion, I am not boasting etc. be careful, you are actually conveying  something different than what is being said!

As Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘ What you are shouts so loudly in my ears, I cannot hear what you say.’

Rajan Parulekar, rajan@paradigm-info.com,