We need to talk

Ambika Shaligram
Saturday, 13 October 2018

Conversations — so important in today’s times, yet so few and far between. Ambika Shaligram talks to people to find out how to start a conversation and ensure that we listen ‘well’

Have you recently attended a family gathering where everyone seemed to be oh-so-busy checking mails and WhatsApp messages and updating their status on various social media accounts? 

When someone you know has gone through a harrowing period, or has been bereaved and grieving, how do you reach out to them? What words will sum up your empathy?

Why are we finding it difficult to converse with people? Why can’t we listen to them speak, and later if it really merits, add a line or two of our own? 

Here we chat with a few people to find out how to break the ice and start a conversation, and how to ensure that it doesn’t become stilted. 

Where strangers meet... 
Neha and Vishal Pipraiya were backpacking abroad when they met. In the towns that they visited, they found these small cafes which were cosy and intimate and got people talking. When they returned to Pune, they thought of having that cafe set up where there are no overt or covert boundary lines.

“When we started Pagdandi — Books, Chai Cafe, five years ago, we had this idea that patrons can connect over books, share a table etc. We didn’t want a traditional cafe, where people would be positioned in their own corner, in their own world. We also wanted a homey look so we laid out chataais (mats) on the floor. In the first two years, people coming in were a little clueless. One person said, ‘Yeh to apne ghar ka drawing room lagta hai.’ Another comment was, ‘Is this an NGO type place?’,” explains Neha.

Unlike other cafes which might have a dress code, Pagdandi wants its patrons to leave their footwear outside. “See, there are small things which people might not have noticed. We didn’t want any class discrimination coming in the way of two persons meeting and talking, so we thought that footwear should be removed outside. Also, we wanted the communities to be responsible for the space and engage with each other. So we started having community events like story-telling, music jams, book reading etc. We had ragpickers coming and addressing people about their work. If people want their privacy at Pagdandi, we leave them alone. But we want people to come together and talk,” she adds. 

All this led to blossoming of informal groups, people becoming each other’s support systems. “We stock many newspapers at Pagdandi, which is why senior citizens come over to read them. They interact with people of their age group and also the younger ones who are brimming with ideas. They feed off each other. There is one group which is actively involved in environment and conservation issues. My husband was a part of a techies support group. Since we are in Baner area, many IT professionals have been coming over to Pagdandi. We have many discussions over start-ups, politics and so on. Our only injunction is that the discussions should be healthy,” says Neha. 

Conversations happen differently now...
Anita Iyer, founder-managing trustee-chief volunteer of Ekansh Trust, has an interesting take on the subject. She says that nothing can portray the fading away of the art of conversation better than Hindi film lyrics.

“Earlier we had Abhi na jaao chhod kar. In the recent past we have songs like Chalti hai kya nau se baara and Hukka bar. From poetry that flowed in meter and rhyme, when we could tell poetry from prose, to now…where angst is conveyed through spoken word. The BeeGees sang It’s only words, and words are all I have to take your heart away,” says Iyer. 

She quite rightly says that conversations which are guarded can’t be real ones. 

Is it correct to put the blame on the way we talk on digital and social media? Is this a systemic or endemic change? Iyer answers, “The change is both systemic and endemic. In my life, we went from no phone to telephones to huge cellphones with huger bills to small sleek handsets. We set reminders for birthdays, anniversaries and send predictable messages.”

Earlier, you would look forward to sharing your outing, dinner or talking about a movie with friends and relatives. Now that scenario has changed. “Not too long ago, if we’d discovered a new shop or restaurant, we’d wait to tell our friends. But now, we’ve not only ‘checked in and recommended’ but also posted pictures of the food we ordered. So really, what is left to say? Also work happens over the phone.

Companies work in different time zones, so there is never any switching off from work. Those occasional conversations on the beachside and across candlelit tables are a struggle if the phone isn’t switched off,” she makes a pertinent point.

That brings us to official communication. Iyer gets emails and text messages reading — ‘Hey…I want job PFA CV FYI’. She says, “I get emails with such messages and respond only because mine is an NGO and we are here to help. I have to resist the temptation to ask why I must make any effort when the candidate hasn’t.”

Yet she persists, because communication is key. “When I represent my NGO, the conversations revolve around disabilities. I believe these conversations must happen. At one of our events, we had two persons on wheelchairs having a conversation with each other about their disabilities. At our first conference, a hearing impaired person asked another person who couldn’t see and hear, how he managed to communicate. Conversations haven’t stopped, they simply happen differently,” says Iyer on a concluding note. 

Listen, don’t judge 
To become an inclusive society, we need to talk and empathise. Expressing empathy for those suffering should be encouraged, especially, if they are being treated for depression or mental illness. Says Anna Chandy, chairperson of the Board of Trustees, The Live Love Laugh Foundation, “When a person is sharing their narrative, it is most important to listen to them and allow and encourage them to share. The listener needs to remember not to judge the person or ask too many questions that make them uncomfortable.”

“One of the biggest mistakes that can be made is advising a person suffering from depression is using our own personal experience of dealing with sadness. Depression is not just passing sadness. They will not be helped by a motivational talk or a few positive words. If a person has symptoms of depression, then professional help is required,” adds the transactional analyst and therapist. 

When asked how important is it for people to find their outlet, Chandy replies, “It is absolutely important that a person suffering shares their narrative and feelings with a professional, because the professional will know how to facilitate and support them. The mental health professional may urge them to write and keep a mood journal. This is for them to be able to evaluate the condition, understand triggers that cause distress etc.”

Our interactions with people who are suffering from mental illness might be limited. Or perhaps we draw our impressions based on stereotypes. One such impression is that people who are depressed don’t like to be around others, they want to be in their shell. 

“Let’s not stereotype that people, who are suffering, want to be left alone. They want to be left alone, and also sometimes want to be around others. When you are with them, it’s important to listen and not judge. Family and loved ones may require to be part of the treatment process to understand it and also be part of the support system,” says Chandy.

Blend in
Sulbha Nipanikar Jadhav, who works with an NGO called Living Farms that works for Khond tribals of Odisha, says that communication has to be on an equal level. “The people you are working for have to feel that you are a part of their society. Blend in, is what we tell our young recruits. When I am interacting with the beneficiaries, I make it a point to keep away the gadgets like laptops or mobile phones. Also, don’t preen like a city bred person. Your attire can create a distance,” she says.

Jadhav, who heads the communication and documentation team, has to collate data and information. Over the years she has learnt that if you ask formal questions, you will get formal answers, answers that might mislead you. “I don’t rush into conversation or intimidate the tribals. I work on winning their trust. I sit with them in their house, in a circle, sometimes not talking for 15-20 minutes. The conversation begins usually around the objects I see in their house — an art work, a toy etc. Slowly, the atmosphere is built for them to share what’s bothering them,” she adds. 

Jadhav, who also volunteers with a group that works on rescuing child beggars, says, “You can’t begin your conversation with these kids telling them, ‘This is wrong’. They won’t listen. They will pay attention only if you empathise and tell them ‘We know you didn’t have a choice...it must be so difficult for you’ etc. It’s imperative to win their confidence, make them trust you, before you dissuade them from begging.”

Work on your self-worth
We have often been in situations where we feel that we are not being understood. That the person we are interacting with doesn’t get us. Are we the problem? Or is he the problem? The answer is neither. 

Bhavana Nissima, Neuro-Linguistic Programme (NLP) trainer, says, “Research in communication as well as models developed in the field clearly show that each one of us is shaped in unique ways. We process information differently. Therefore meanings we make of our world are ours alone. And yet we assume that others will respond to us similarly. That is where rigidity sets in.”

What is the way around it? She explains, “In NLP, we study other people’s model of the world, how to decode it quickly and then learn the art of presenting it in their terms. We also ensure we respect other models of the world.”

Nissima says that she has noticed that a lot of shaming happens about how a person from a certain community/class speaks. “Shaming has never helped anyone change their presentation or thought patterns. If we paused and instead deeply respected everyone’s model of the world, we would easily understand why people do what they do. For those of us who would like to be empathetic to others, we should provide space for others to communicate, more effectively. I suggest instead of feeling guilty, we should work on our sense of self. As our self-worth improves, the need to dominate a conversation, or assume others will understand the way we do, will naturally end. A blooming flower has no need to advertise nor does a sparrow,” she shares. 

Some tips to improve communication in groups: 
a.     Know everyone approaches and processes information differently. Prepare yourself to listen differently.
b.     Listen for metaphors, cultural symbols, incidents used when others communicate. Make an effort to understand how they are constructing meaning.
c.     Use the same metaphors/symbols/words to present your view.
d.     If you are feeling angry/sad/uncomfortable, ask yourself what has been triggered in you and therefore what do you need to work on. Work on yourself.
e.     Check your physiology — posture, voice, feelings in your body. Improve it so you can sit with others confidently and non-defensively.
f.     If you do not succeed in communicating well in a group conversation, take it as a feedback. Learn from it and improve the way you speak the next time.
g.     Take a moment to recall to memory what you did well in that conversation and appreciate that.

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