Unveiling the intent

I have been attending a theatre workshop for the last few week(end)s now. Of the many interesting lessons I have learned, the one that has made the most impact on me is – ‘unveil the intent’. Let me explain…

“You have been a bad boy!” This very simple line can be said in many different ways. It can be a reprimand, it can also be a tease, or any of the many other possibilities on the continuum of emotions. How we read the line will depend largely on what the intent of the person saying it is. As an actor therefore, it is important to unveil the intent of the writer, so we are able to say the line right.

We were taught that to unveil the intent, we need to comprehend the context – who is saying this line to whom, when and most importantly why.

I believe this is a simple, yet powerful lesson…for not just actors, but all of us.

In any interaction, identifying the intent behind what the other person is saying is a challenge because we are using our lens to ascertain it. We end up reacting to a situation based on the behaviour we see, and not the intent (Stephen Covey wrote about this in his book ‘The speed of trust’ – “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviour!”)

A colleague’s disagreement to our point may be construed as a personal attack, where the intent may just be to share a point of view or work towards the greater good of the project/team/organisation.

If we could only take a moment to think through and unveil the intent, we will be able to respond in a more appropriate way.

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If only there were no ‘if onlys’

About a month ago I met with an accident. A biker bumped into my car and fell down. Fortunately he wasn’t hurt; though I can’t say the same for my car. The bumper got displaced and the fog-light hung out precariously, a couple of wires saving it from falling off.

As I drove back home, many thoughts ran through my mind, all of them starting with “If only…”; “If only the biker had been careful”, “if only I had noticed the biker getting close to the car”, “if only I had taken care of the errand at a different time of the day”, and so on…

I reached home feeling sad, none of the ‘if only’ statements lifting my mood.

Incidentally, later that day I read an article that a colleague had shared – 5 ways of sabotaging yourself. I say incidentally because the first point the author talked about in the article was ‘Give up dwelling on “If only”’.

We are all too often caught up in a time warp, where we wish we could go back in time and change things. “These thoughts can follow us around for decades, and the problem with them is that they don’t lead to action,” the author says.

Similar thoughts are echoed in Dr. Spencer Johnson’s classic ‘Who moved my cheese’, where the characters Hem and Haw keep fretting about what couldn’t have been helped – the cheese running out.

The one thing I now consciously do that keeps me from falling into the trap, which is in line with what Andrea Bonior recommends in her article as well, is – whenever I catch myself saying ‘if only…’, I remind myself to ‘Not focus on what is done, but on what I can do now’.

I had a chance to apply it yesterday morning when I was participating in a 10k run. Around the 6k mark, huffing and puffing, I began to think ‘if only I had prepared better over the last couple of weeks’. Even before the thought was complete, I reminded myself to ‘focus on the present’, and what I can do now to complete the run. I decided to slow my pace, but keep running. This helped me catch my breath, increase my pace in the next round, and complete the run in a not-so-bad 73 minutes.

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Blow your own trumpet…for others!

As I walked out of the movie hall after watching ‘M.S Dhoni: The untold story’, the one thing that stayed with me was the role that Dhoni’s friends and acquaintances played in shaping his career. Blowing his trumpet with sponsors and selectors (albeit at the local level), they were instrumental in letting people know what Dhoni was capable of. Of course Dhoni had the talent and worked hard to build his skill, but there is no discounting the role that the others played.

However, not all of us are as lucky!

Many moonlights ago, during my summer internship, I was working closely with the head of HR of an organization on a project. During one of my meetings with her, I updated her on the tasks I had completed, but skipped some information that I thought may be considered as boasting (like how the leads responded to the presentation I had made the week before the meeting).

When she directly questioned me about how the presentation went, I responded modestly. It was then that I got my first lesson in blowing your own trumpet.  “Every once in a while it’s okay to boast about yourself,” she said. “You will feel good, and others will know what you have accomplished.”

While not so much then, over the years I have come to agree with what she had advised. I have come to believe that blowing your own trumpet is important for three reasons:

So they know: It is imperative to let others (read key stakeholders) know about your achievements. Your success in the team/organization depends on it. If you don’t care enough to share, there is a good chance nobody else will.

So they see value: A key difference is how you choose to say it; what you are focusing on. I sometimes catch myself talking about the tasks, where I should be communicating the value and the (business) impact.

So they can too: Imagine if Thomas Edison had not told others that he can invented the electric bulb, or worse still shared that he did it, but not how. Some of what you share could be best practices others can replicate, to solve the problems that they are facing.

The one thing that we should always be conscious of is that the sound of our trumpet is not for us! Pause a moment, feel good about ‘the sound’, even celebrate it, but anything more and you are treading on the slippery slopes of vanity.

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The Power of Influence

Hyderabad received torrential rains last week. For a couple of hours on a couple of days, the roads were flooded, traffic was jammed and a lot of people spent a lot of time getting to wherever they were going. I was stuck in one such traffic jam one morning on a narrow water-clogged road. There was a line of cars ahead me, and a long one behind. We were all waiting patiently in our lane.

And then something happened!

A car that was in line behind me got out of the lane, got onto the wrong side of the road and started speeding down. As it overtook a number of cars, a few abuses were hurled at the driver by those doing the right thing (waiting in the lane).

And then something else happened!

The car in front of me, whose driver had very animatedly shouted at the speeding driver a moment ago, now got out of the lane as well and sped down. Interestingly, in the next minute I saw 3 more cars follow suit.

This wasn’t the first time I had seen something like this happen. Few other common occurrences where others influence our behaviour*…negatively:

  • Late night at a traffic signal,  people who have stopped because the light is red, decide to break the law because a car or two drove by
  • Students who cheat in the exam because other students are cheating
  • Professionals who choose to use a ‘shortcut’ to get the job done, because “everyone does it!”

We all play both roles – the ‘influencer’ and the ‘influenced’. As influencers, I strongly believe in what Buddha advised, “Whatever words (and actions) we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.” 

In our role as the influenced, building on above quote, it is important for us to be able to distinguish between ‘being influenced for good or ill’, so we are able to choose wisely. Just because someone else does it, doesn’t make it right! Interestingly, at times, even when everyone else does it, it doesn’t make it right!!

*Robert Cialdini in his 1984 book ‘Influence: The psychology of persuasion’, talks about various factors (principles) that influence decisions. The one in play here is ‘Social proof’, where we (may) end up doing things that we see others do.


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Against all odds

“Citius, Altius, Fortius”, in other words “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. The ongoing Olympic games in Rio, like its predecessors, has seen many records created (& broken) and many heroes made. It’s no secret that the players competing in the Olympic games prepare for years and years for this event, and yet there are only a few winners.

I recently heard about one such winner from many years ago, whose tale is awe inspiring.

Karoly Takacs, at age 27, was a world class shooter, when he lost his right hand (his shooting hand) after a defective grenade exploded in his hand. Not giving up, he began to secretly train himself to shoot with his left hand & surprised everyone a year later by winning a national shooting championship.

All set to participate in the Olympic games in 1940 in Tokyo, he had to wait till 1948 to represent Hungary in the rapid-fire pistol event, since the games in 1940 and 1944 were cancelled because of the Second World War.

At the age of 38, in the 1948 Olympic Games, he not only won the Gold medal in the rapid-fire pistol event, but also set a new world record. He won a Gold medal in the next Olympic Games (1952) as well.

While he was neither the first physically disabled athlete to compete in the Olympic Games, nor the only one to have won multiple Gold medals, I found his story inspiring for three reasons:

  1. He did not give up shooting after losing his right hand
  2. He remained focus on his goal of becoming a world champion in spite of the delays
  3. And third is an incident I read about on the Olympic Games site…

Before the competition, the favourite, world champion and world record holder, Carlos Enrique Díaz Saenz Valiente, asked Takacs why he was in London. The Hungarian replied, “I’m here to learn.” Takacs won the gold medal and beat the world record by ten points.

Source: Olympics.org


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The adamant snail

Early this morning I went for a jog. While I was running I saw a snail on the jogging track, one of the many crawling around the apartment complex. Since the morning walkers would be out soon I decided to get the snail off the track, because its chances of survival were inversely proportional to the number of foot falls.

As I tried to lift it up, it held its ground firmly and just wouldn’t budge. I didn’t try too hard, afraid that I might pull its shell off, making it more vulnerable. So I decided to let it be, offering a silent prayer, hoping that it would live a long life.

As I started running again, I thought about what had just happened. I was trying to help the snail, but it still refused to cooperate. In the snail’s favour it had no idea about my intentions, and so did what it thought was right. Experience or instinct, the snail decided to stand its ground (literally).

This incident reminded me of times when I had behaved like that snail. Unaware of the other person’s intentions, or worse still ignoring it, I ended up doing more harm to myself than good. As a parent today, I am able to get a different perspective to what my parents used to advise me when I was younger. Just like that snail, I disregarded the help I was getting in the form of advice.

Even as grown-ups, we often don’t listen / take help from others, saying “How can I trust that person? I hardly know him/her!” While there is nothing like the luxury of knowing the person well enough to know if they can be trusted (or not), sometimes it’s those random people who can make the biggest impact in our lives…if we let them. At such times I wish I could move away from my philosophy on trust, which is “You need to earn my trust!” to what one of my friend’s philosophy is – “Trust until given a reason not to.”

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Civil War vs. Avengers: How do you view conflict?

I recently watched the movie ‘Captain America: Civil War’. The plot of the movie, as the name suggests, is a full-blown ‘civil war’ caused by a conflict between two key characters of the Avengers team – Captain America / Steve Rogers (played by Chris Evans) and Iron Man / Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.). The source of the conflict is a difference of opinion about the government’s involvement / interference in the way the team operates.

For most viewers it was obvious that both Captain America and Iron Man are right in their stand (they both have strong and right reasons). There is really no right or wrong way; it is just a matter of perspective. They try to resolve the conflict amiably, but that does not work as both characters choose to stand their ground (Thank God for that, else we wouldn’t have a movie to watch!).

The situation is quite like the classic conflict scenarios we face at work. Members of a team need to make a decision and because ‘people are different’ and therefore think differently, the result may be a conflict. And when there is conflict, one of two things happen – We either treat both sides as equal and right, or we treat ourselves as right and the others as wrong.

Let’s go back to Hollywood for a moment. In their first outing (read movie) as Avengers, the superheroes are up against Loki, a demi-god and super-villain, who has his own agenda. Unlike in ‘Civil War’, in ‘Avengers’ we are very clear about which side to root for, because the other side has evil intentions (the end of the human race). The conflict is between ‘Right & Wrong’ (Avengers) and not ‘Right & Right’ (Civil War).

How do you view conflict?

In one of my earlier posts – Who or What, I talked about how our judgement is often biased by who is saying the point, rather than the point itself. Similarly, sometimes in a conflict our judgement is clouded is by who we are up against rather than the topic itself. If it’s Iron Man, fine let’s work things out cordially, but if the other person is perceived as Loki, the situation escalates to a different level.

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI®) does a brilliant job explaining the different conflict handling styles and which to use when, and I am not going to get into that here. What I want to emphasize on is –

Agree to disagree: It’s perfectly natural to have conflicts in a team. Acknowledging this helps remove the awkwardness and confrontation like feeling from the situation. Each member should feel comfortable and be encouraged to share an opinion that may be different from the others.

Focus on the topic: Separate the deed from the doer as you work towards resolving the conflict.

Treat the other person as a sensible and logical individual: While exceptions to this point exist, this is an important ‘assumption’ to make. This ensures that you give due credit to the point of view being shared, however absurd it seems, as you believe the person who is suggesting it must have his/her reasons for saying so.

And most of all – listen and be open to the fact that the other person may just be right in this case.

Conflicts at work may not result in as much of a catastrophe as seen in the superhero movies we talked about, but the damage can be just as bad for the team’s camaraderie and culture. It’s all about how we view conflict.

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