By Dr. R. Balasubramaniam
Leadership is a process of listening, interpreting what we listen to, and then intervening with the appropriate action. Most people equate intervention and action as the expression of leadership without recognising that socially productive leadership action can be optimal only when they are based on deep listening that goes beyond its traditional appreciation. Listening, both as an art and science, is now well-researched and studied and India’s scriptural wisdom is replete with examples of how to listen optimally.
As a young physician several decades ago, I was sitting along with a medical student from the USA examining patients in our rural-tribal hospital. He found it strange that I seemed to have a prescriptive tendency in my interactions with the patients and had a ‘solution framework’ for all those whom I examined and treated. He felt that I was telling patients ‘what to do’ rather than involving them in the decision-making process and arriving at ‘what needed to be done’ as part of their treatment. It was evident that I, as the doctor seemed to know all about how to treat the disease and was operating out of my acquired competence.
My interaction was more of a monologue driven by my operating from the space of ‘knowing’ what the solution to the problem was. I felt that I was trained for exactly this kind of work and believed that I was doing my best for the patients after listening to their history. The paradox for this intern was that patients expected me to be the ‘know all’ and wanted me to be prescriptive. My engaging them in deciding the course of treatment in the cultural context that I operated in, would have seemed like a half-baked doctor not knowing how to do his job. I was operating here from the space of information and knowledge ‘downloaded’ to me through years of study and training.
This kind of listening is considered as the ‘I in I’ where I operate from my ego and tell the other what he needs to do. It operates from a space where one is thinking and interpreting from one’s own preformed patterns and is constantly reconfirming what one already knows. The distinction between me and the other is clear and well-differentiated. In the leadership context, it is like a well-trained expert whose competence is accepted and instructions complied with, by people who are the ‘followers’ and who have placed their trust and faith in the leader’s expertise.
Consider another situation at an International conference, where I saw and heard two professors argue about the leadership model that each one practiced. The discussion seemed to be polite but the disagreement genuine. Each one trying to convince the other that his views driven by his expertise was valid. Both heard the other, had his own arguments that differed from the other, but decided to be cordial about the entire disagreement. Each one’s thinking was driven by their own training and experience and both sounded very convincing with their points of view.
This kind of situations are where we can say that the ‘I’ and the ‘other’ are separate and are listening from a ‘data driven’ perspective. Either party needs to be convinced of the arguments of the other or they need to agree to disagree and leave it at that. Whatever action that emerges will be driven by the soundness of the argument of one along with the need to reconcile, in the other. It is in this mode of listening can debates and dialogues happen and one is constantly exposed to new data beyond what one already knows and it demands that both the parties have an open mind.
Compare this with another situation that I had experienced a few years ago. Watching one of our doctors perform in our rural hospital was a real lesson in empathic listening. She genuinely felt for the woman that she was examining and resonated with the problem of this patient. The doctor’s heart went out for the patient and it seemed as though the doctor herself felt the pain and discomfort of the patient. This kind of listening is where the separateness of the ‘listener’ (the ‘I’) and the ‘listened to’ (the other) continues to exist but the ‘I’ becomes the ‘other’ during the process of listening and understands with empathy what the other is trying to say. This is the space where an emotional connection is created and one learns to put oneself in the other’s shoes and is driven by an open heart.
Real deep listening driven by the Advaitic thinking is a space where there is no speaker or a listener, where one is the speaker, the listener and the message that is spoken. In this space of absolute oneness is the highest expression of listening and communication. It is in this space of intense self-awareness where the Self dissolves into the other, can a co-generated solution to any issue arise. It is in operating in this space does the expression of leadership operate with the intensity that can hope to solve the world’s problems. While the urgency and immediacy of action in today’s complex and dynamic world makes it difficult to appreciate and practice this kind of co-generative listening, one can train oneself to be mindful and learn to operate from a space of true openness. This not only transcends the stages of debate and dialogue, but opens up the possibility of a co-creating a future that is acceptable to all involved. This is exactly what the world lacks today and much of the world’s problems could be solved if many of our leaders had the ability and the intent to practice this level of listening.
Realistically speaking, leadership is about understanding the context in which one is operating and asking oneself what kind of listening would lead to the best possible action outcomes. One may have to learn to rapidly move from one stage of listening to the other and learn to act based on the context and the urgency of the situation. And only when one is mindful of oneself, the other with whom the ‘self’ is constantly interacting, and the context in which this ‘self’ is operating can one truly hope to exercise the leadership that the world desperately needs.
[Dr. R. Balasubramaniam, the founder of Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement & GRAAM, teaches leadership at Cornell University and IIT-Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected]]