Are they really listening and can they digest?

One day, a student came to the teacher and said in a rather accusative tone, “You have taught me a lot of theory but nothing practical.”. For people who are in the consulting field, isn’t this an oft heard response. Clients complain we are bringing them a lot of nice beautiful concepts that sound great but can we really apply them to practice. Going back to our story, very calmly the teacher replied, “I taught you a lot of things. Your capacity and capability determine what is theoretical and what is practical. For the smart, all that is theoretical is also practical. For the not-so-smart, all that is practical is also theoretical.”. Now we may not be able to give such kind of response for sure, but its a point to ponder. Are they really listening to understand and can they digest the ideas we bring to them.

Devdutt Pattanaik elaborates in “The ability to digest”, how the ancient rishis transferred knowledge thousands of years ago. Most of the outstanding texts in Vedic literature are a two person dialogue. The widely known and appreciated “Bhagwadgeeta” is a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, “Ashtavakra Gita” is a dialogue between Sage Astavakra and King Janaka, “Yoga Vasistha” is a conversation between Sage Vasistha and Rama and there are many more examples. A seeker asks questions and the sage answers. And many of these texts are abstract – open to interpretations depending on your state of mind. For some it’s totally nonsense and impractical and for others it is the highest form of knowledge and all that is there to know. Initially the seeker would have basic questions which would elicit simple responses from the sage. However as the state of the mind of the seeker changes they ask deeper questions and then the sage would give more detailed and elaborate responses.

Coming back to our corporate world and especially consulting, it isn’t very different. I work as an agile coach and talk to a lot of people. The conversations could be about introducing agile, or some very advanced concepts like continuous integration or continuous deployment (whatever !! as the readers who are non IT might say). This could be in training, group discussions, one to one counselling and so on. In my experience so far, the most successful conversations I have had are one – to – ones. By successful I mean when I have been able to get the message across. Being able to feel that the other person got the point you were making. It provides such a sense of joy and fulfillment. However it’s not just about getting a person to talk to you face to face (or over a video conference for that matter. These conversations were also successful because of another important factor. The other person wanted to listen. This could be because this person already had questions he/she was looking answers for or when I presented the problem statement, somewhere they could relate to it. There was a need that could be potentially addressed. They were very receptive. They were listening to understand. Whether they would agree or disagree and the extent of it is another story. But they were listening to understand, not to reply. There is a huge difference in both if you got it. In Kanban speak, they were pulling.

Also its important to have the discretion to not bring an idea to a person which they may not be able to digest. Its does not add any value and probably confuses them more. You cannot talk about how to set up a scrum team to someone who still does not believe that the agile manifesto makes sense. This is where I believe a one to one conversation helps, because you can really tailor the message perfectly. Even in a small group, the response and the effectiveness of the discussion is subject to the lowest common denominator in the group. The Yoga Vasistha discussion happens in a courtroom in the presence of many people, still its a discussion between Rama and Sage Vasistha. The rishi is answering Rama’s questions and doubts. tailoring his message perfectly to his seeker’s need and state of mind.

The best formula for successful coaching, so in my opinion, is a one to one conversation with a seeker who has a need that you as a consultant (with supposedly more exposure and experience) can address and they are willing to listen and give it a serious chance to digest. You are interested in sharing your knowledge, trying to help to the best of your ability.

Make sure they are really listening and bring only the message that they can digest. Everything else is noise.

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