Archive for March, 2009


The Action of Listening

The next time you have a conversation at work, consider what not to do:

1.  Don’t think about what you are going to say while the other person is talking.  Really listen to what they are saying.  Don’t assume that you know.  If you don’t listen accurately, you could give the wrong response.

2.  Don’t interrupt while the person is still talking.  People interrupt when they assume they know what the person is going to say.  First of all, it is rude.  It shows that you consider what you say more important than what the other person is saying.  It shows a lack of self-control.  Managers are always looking for employees that are mature and can control their impulses.  Wait until there is silence and the person has taken more than one breath.  It also shows that you have been listening and consider what they have said worth listening to.  It shows that you are allowing what they have said to change what you were going to say.  That means whatever you say now, they will put more value on it and listen to you with more intensity.

3.  Don’t work on your computer or check your cell phone while the other person is talking.  It shows that you are bored and are not considering what they are saying as important.

4.  Don’t stare at your shoes when listening.  Have regular eye contact with your speaker.  It shows that you are interested and involved.  It does not show disrespect when you have regular eye contact as it might have been when you were a pupil in school.  Show that you are confident.

5.  Hearing is not listening.  Simply because your ears are in range of the speaker’s mouth doesn’t meant you are listening.  Listening means that you are available for the speaker to change your mind about a certain issue.  You are giving him or her the opportunity to present evidence about an issue that deserves your attention.

If you value someone, the one of the greatest ways to show this is to actively listen to them when they talk to you.  Even if you are tired or busy, be polite and considerate.  It is what separates the employees from the professionals.


Gossip: Unauthorized Communication

I’ve talked about how trust is a vital component in communication.  You can have all the right ideas, right words, the perfect solution to your listener’s problems, but if he is not listening, it doesn’t matter.  People will stop listening and taking part in your conversation  when they don’t trust you anymore.  The relationship is broken and no current of communication buzzes back and forth. Sometimes it wasn’t your fault.  Sometimes it was.

Gossip is a great way to rust the bridge of trust in a business relationship.  So why do we do it?  It’s our own little soap opera in the office or in the company that takes us away from our mundane or embarrassing problems.  It’s a distraction from the job that we can no longer make interesting.  It supplies information to solve mysteries in other people’s lives.  Gossip can become addicting, and the addict is compelled to go to the supplier for more.

classic-soapBut what is gossip really?  Now with Oprah, reality shows, and social networks,  the definition of privacy has changed.  How do you know if you are gossiping?  Think of the following question before you open your mouth,  send your email or text.   Before you listen or read to unauthorized data about a colleague, consider this question.  Would I be a part of this communication  if the person was standing right next to me?  If not, then it is unauthorized.  Guess what?  It doesn’t matter if it is true.  That’s not the point, is it?

Here’s another test:  substitute the victim’s name for your own name.  Think about if these same things were said about you.  Would you be comfortable about such communication going around the office about your personal life that you haven’t initiated?

We deceive ourselves in thinking that the listener keeps the secret things we say in confidence, forgetting that they will have that same urge to spit out that juicy bit of unauthorized information.   The victim finds out that we were the ones who spread unauthorized information.  Then we are surprised when our business communication with this person suffers.  Gossip is basically a commication virus that no software can erradicate.  It’s up to our choice to do and say the right thing.


Teaching means learning to give

While trying to learn Tamil, our professor, Dr. Dhasarathan, taught us a combination verb: sollikodu.  For those of you who may not speak Tamil, “solli” means to say, and “kodu” means to give.   So in essence, good Tamil teachers give to their students by their words.   The teacher must choose the words carefully in order for the student to grasp the lesson and be able to own it.  The teacher is like a tall palm tree who bends down low to reach the level of his recipient.  That takes humility on the teacher’s part.  He has to remember what it was like tYOUNG BLUE TITSo be a student and not know these things.  He must sit where the student sits before he can teach, impart, make a difference.  As in any communication, trust has to be established between the two parties in order that knowledge is exchanged effectively.  If the teacher can identify with the student’s ignorance and not wince at it, then he has the ability to reach the student and guide him to a new place.

A lecturer does not necessarily teach.  A lecturer gives data.  A teacher imparts knowledge that the student can possess and use in the future long after the lesson is over.  A lecturer may be an expert in his field, but a skilled teacher knows how to break down the data in digestible bits in order that the student does not choke.  The gifted instructor will take time to arrange the data in a sequence which encourages growth and a deeper understanding for the student.  A teacher will reflect and evaluate the progress of the student.  A lecturer will keep on talking, perhaps not considering his audience’s capacity.  A good teacher will anticipate the new terms and vocabulary that the student doesn’t know yet.  A lecturer may be talking to an unseen audience of his peers whom he is trying to impress with over-blown vocabulary,  pontificating on points not clearly defined so the audience feels lost or intimidated.  A successful teacher knows how to make the student feel at ease and create an atmosphere for learning–for the teacher as well as the student.  These principles can be used by anyone who instructs students of any age.  After ten years of fruitless endeavours, the only reason I finally learned some Tamil was due to the fact that Dr Dhasarathan knew how to really teach and give–sollikodu.  Nandri.


Twitter is blind, deaf, and could be dumb

charles-dickens2The latest meme passing through the internet has to do with a young graduate calling herself Ciscofatty was unhappy about getting a job with Cisco.  It has been documented in this blog.  What the commenters couldn’t understand was why someone known who was qualified to be hired by Cisco would be silly enough to twitter her anxieties about the job.  The commenters did not take into account human nautre.

  • People have a compulsion to unburden themselves in communication.
  • They get into the habit of using a one mode of communication and forget to compartmentalize.
  • Many people don’t have strong real-life social groups.
  • Even if they do, what friend is available to listen to you all day long?

FUSION: The internet has brought a fusion between what we say and what we write.  Never before has there been so much semi-permanent documentation for millions of conversations.  Your friend could keep a file of all your chats.  Emails were the first of this fusion.  Now using email seems as bothersome as writing a letter with a quill pen.

COLD FUSION: The telephone was one of the first electronic devices that let us talk without seeing each other.  But at least we could hear our friend’s tone of voice, notice the pauses and the ahhh’s and ummm’s.  But with this fusion commication, we are using informal conversational language but without seeing our friend.  When we used to write formally, we reflected on the choice of our words.  We knew we would not be present to defend or define what we wrote.  We don’t have time to reflect and consider in this fusion of writing words that were only spoken before.

WATCHING: When we talk face to face, half of what we are communicating is coming from our face.  Almost the rest of what we communicate comes from our body language or the umm’s and ahhh’s.  Only 7% of what we communicate comes from our words.

LISTENING: In a face to face conversation, we get feedback immediately.  If we have been misunderstood, then we can repair the situation before our friend holds that misunderstanding too long.  We can adjust what we were going to say when we hear their voice.

When we twitter, chat, use sms, or use email for a conversation, we are blind.  We cannot see our friend as we give our words.  We can’t hear their voice.  What we say could be inappropriate and we wouldn’t have a clue.



rice-truckYou can speak English like a native, and maybe you are.  You can write it with no grammatical or spelling errors.  You may even be what I call bi-dilalectical: meaning that you can speak both American English and Indian English.  You may be a SME: subject matter expert in your field.  But you may still find yourself failing in communication with one particular person called Joseph.

No matter what you say to Joseph,  it seems that he always misunderstands what you you were saying, what you wanted him to do.  You don’t seem to have any common ground on which you can both agree and work from there.   He seems to forget certain things that you have said, but on the other hand, he swears that you have said things that you never remember saying and have no record of communicating.

It wasn’t always like this.  There was a time when you had a short-hand with Joseph.  He knew what you meant before you finished your sentences.  He would go the extra mile and give you things that you hadn’t asked for but needed.  You could joke and tease each other with a friendly banter that only comes with time and trust.

Trust.  Turst is not a tangible item that shows up in one of the fields in the database.  It can’t be added up and calculated for the bottom line.  It can’t be manufactured or measured.  But if you have it, the elements of communication can be faulty but it will still be successful.  How?  Ask anyone who is married for a time.

At some point, Joseph was offended.  The bridge of trust that you both had built through the months and years couldn’t take the strain and broke.  No matter the quality of words and modes of communication you use, they will not reach their destination: Joseph.  They are stuck on your side of the bridge.

What can you do?  Stop.  Don’t try to send any more messages.  Don’t try to walk the bridge or you may fall.  Now, reflect.  Think.  Deconstruct past conversations by phone, sms, email, or twitter.  Put yourself in Joseph’s shoes.  Think about any life changes he’s had lately.  Analyze if something you said was too sarcastic.  Or did you lie and he caught you?

It doesn’t matter if you were in the right or in the wrong:  the bridge of trust is broken and you need to repair it.  Certainly you can apologise.  But Joseph may have let his feeling of being offended turn into bitterness and he may not be open to you.  Consider his culture.  Sometimes you can be colleagues with someone for a long time and still not be able to determine their cultural values.  An arbitrator might be hable to help you in the reparation.

If you are able to re-establish communication with Joseph again, know that you cannot have the same banter as before.  It will take time for that trust to grow and build up again.


I am sorry; please forgive me. I was wrong.

submissive-tigerThese nine words don’t seem to be too common in colloquial Indian English especially in the workplace.  When preparing  material for an International Business English seminar,  complicated grammatical points and new vocabulary are not the main points.  These nine words will be challenging enough.  Yes, all the participants know what the words mean.  they know how to pronounce them. Then why do participants find it so difficult to say these words?

If I want to have fun, and I always want to have fun,  as the facilitator, I have the participants pair up for role play.  They must act out a scenario where one person has made a mistake and must admit it to the other.  Otherwise articulate managers will suddenly stutter and go silent when they need to say these words.   Some are able to articulate the words, it will be a little above a whisper and lost in the drone of the AC motor.  Others will say the words clearly but add many caveats on how it wasn’t really their fault and the cause of the mix-up was really the other partner’s mistake.

At times, I feel like I am doing speech therapy, helping the participants form the words, coaxing them to articulate.  For Indians, they will suddenly look as pale as an Englishman in November.  They will either freeze or one part of their body will start to jump–a whole leg will start to twitch, fingers drum on the table, and the eyes blink rapidly or stop all together to present the glazed gaze.  Suddenly a pen will taste very good.  One may suddenly need to go to use the facilities.

If I really want to challenge the participants, I will pair up a man with a woman, or a subordinate with an upper manager, or a Tamil with a North Indian.  There will be appropriate scenarios where the manager made the mistake and has to apologize.

We also do virtual team meetings reenactments with Western counterparts.  Participants learn that in business cultures where direct speech is common, they must outwardly admit when they have made a mistake. How much money can be saved when team members learn to say and use these nine words?  How many projects will escape long-term delays?  How many relationships can be repaired?  How much trust could be established?

So why aren’t these nine words heard more often?  Because the root meaning of these words have a different meaning in Indian English.   It’s a different value system.  Words have meaning in that particular cultural value system.  To some Indians, to admit that he was wrong is a sign of weakness, defeat, and vulnerability.   It would be taking on the submissive role of exposing his throat as when two tigers fight.  He feels as though he will lose credibility among his peers and with his boss.  He fears that if he takes the blame for that one instance, he might be the scapegoat for any problems related to it.  To admit that one is wrong, one can lose his status.

When American businessmen read this they could easily think that this cultural attitude is due to pride.  It is not as easy as that.  It is simply not part of the mentality, meaning that it is not a conscious decision.  Deep cultural characteristics are in the subconscious.  The participants are not aware that they are trying to pass the buck.  They are using normal negotiation tactics in their culture.

In most Western cultures, the person who needs to apologize will do so because he has faith that when he does, he will be repairing the relationship and perhaps making it stronger.  The Indian doesn’t necessarily have that assurance.  He may feel that it is safer for him to lie or cover the truth in order to keep the relationship.

This little blog cannot do justice to this subject.  I write it only as a talking point for others to add their wisdom and experience.  And if I have written something in error, then I’m sorry; please forgive me.  I was wrong.

(To learn how to write an apology email, see this sample:


English is the Enemy

ducksForeign companies have established offices in India and have profited from the local technical talent.  However as good the technical talent has been, there has always been challenges with communication.  One of the main components of this challenge has been the fallacy that everyone speaks English so everyone speaks the same language.  People did not have their guard up linguistically speaking.  If you were going to a country where no one spoke English, you’d be prepared for a different mentality.  You may use a translator to get precise definition.

But in India, the foreigner is fooled and lulled into the misconception that the words he is using is understood by his Indian counterpart.  After all, they have been talking about American baseball, MacDonald’s, Bill Gates, and Iphones.  The foreigner will no longer keep alert to cultural differences, the same words that will hold different meanings, and more importantly words that are never said but implied.

Indians have their own dialects of English, just the way Australians and Americans do.  They do not speak English incorrectly; English has rooted in India and blossomed into its own indigenous variety.  Here are some characteristics of Indian English.

Each region of India has its own variety of Indian English.   In cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Chennai, people speak a Dravidian language at home.  These languages are related to one another but closer to Japanese than they are to English or Hindi.  So their grammar in English will be affected.  Their pronunciation can seem staccato: without stressing syllables in words that make them intelligible in other English dialects.   In Bombay and Calcutta, people speak Hindi or languages that have the same basic structure as Hindi.  Hindi’s structure is closer to English.  So the English dialects in these regions may not be so challenging.

Briefly, Indians, especially from the South, tend to use indirect speech:  they don’t tell you things outright.  You might say “they beat around the bush.”  For instance, if someone can’t come to a meeting on Monday, they will say, “I am very busy on Monday, but I will try.”  Be alerted when they say, “I will try.”  They feel that they have warned you that they have other plans and you should not be surpised when they do not come.  As with a lot of Asians, Indians don’t say no easily.  Again, they use the indirect speech.  If you are waiting to hear no, you may be waiting a long time.

In Indian English, the future tense is not what it is in Western English.  “I will come and visit you in Los Angeles in July” may mean “I would really like to go to Los Angeles, and I would really like to fly to the moon some day.”  The person telling you this may know that he has to go to a wedding in July and there is no possible way you will see him in Los Angeles.  But he wants to keep that moment of bonding with you however short it is, however unreal it is.

I once had lunch with  Mrs Kachru when she spoke at Georgetown Univeristy in Washington, D.C.   Mrs Kachru and her husband are the world experts on Indian English.  When I told her about going around the mulberry bush, she did one better.  She said that Indians make the point in a spiral.  They touch the point and go around as in a merry-go-round, spinning until they come back to the point and go around again, but a little higher up.  Westerners have the Aristotelian direct speech and have all their points like ducks in a row.  But they may be like the sitting duck, having all their evidence exposed too quickly.

As George Bernard Shaw said that England and America are divided by a common language, how much more India.  If you see this challenge as an adventure on uncharted territory and keep your wits about you, English will not be your enemy.  Instead, you can enjoy another way of thinking and another way of using English.