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What is told and heard

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Vedas are called shruti, that which needs to be heard. It is distinguished from later literature, which is called smriti, that which is remembered. Vedas are considered pure while smriti literature, such as the dharma-shastras, are considered contextual, even contaminated by human prejudice. This nomenclature draws attention to the gap between what is told and what is actually heard. And the gap between what is told and what is heard is a function of the memory of the receiver. Our memories create the filter of prejudice that distorts all that we hear. So what we hear is often not what is said.

Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the story of the death of Drona, the teacher of the Kauravas and the Pandavas, at Kurukshetra. Drona is the second commander of the Kaurava army and a formidable opponent, as the Pandavas soon realize. How do they kill him? “Kill the elephant whose name is Ashwatthama and then tell him that Ashwatthama is dead. He will assume you are speaking about his son, who he is too attached to, and without verifying the facts will lay down his weapons,” said Krishna. And that is exactly what happens.

The elephant is killed and everyone goes about declaring that Ashwatthama is dead. Drona checks with Yudhishtira, who confirms it is true, but also adds that it could be the man or the elephant. The impact is as Krishna predicted. Drona is convinced his son is dead and loses all his will to fight. He lays down his weapons and is beheaded. A great victory for the Pandavas, all because their guru did not listen to what was actually being said.

This is a huge epidemic in the business world, where management wants to be heard but refuses to listen, where marketing wants to tell but refuses to hear. A simple exercise is to measure who speaks the most at a meeting: the boss or the subordinates. If the boss speaks for more than 50 per cent of the time, he is in a tell mode. If the boss speaks for less than 50 per cent of the time, he is in listening mode.

Things are not so simple, though. For it is possible that the boss — having undergone a behavioural science training programme — decides to speak less in meetings and let the others speak. But does that mean he actually listens? Or is he simply following a process? Not speaking when the other is speaking does not mean one is actually listening.

Many employees have figured out how bosses do not care what they have to say and how bosses prefer to give orders rather than listen to feedback. So they shut up and listen, or rather, pretend to listen, nodding their heads appropriately and taking down extensive notes that they never bother to check. For many bosses, the employee who does not interrupt their long monologues is a good, attentive employee. They do not see the submission of the defeated and the deaf.

We listen only when we care. We listen only when we believe that the other one has something of value to say. Or if we are convinced we do not know everything. Often, we do know what the other wants to say and are too impatient to keep listening and so interrupt and move to the next point. We may have heard what the other has to say, but the person who has been interrupted feels disrespected and unheard and so clams up eventually.

Some leadership coaches advise that you repeat what the other has said to give the feeling of acknowledgement and affirmation. All listening becomes easy if you genuinely believe the world has something to teach you. Many successful people in positions of power often do not believe that.

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Dr Devdutt Pattanaik is a medical doctor by education, a leadership consultant by profession and a mythologist by passion.

Devdutt Pattanaik

Dr Devdutt Pattanaik is a medical doctor by education, a leadership consultant by profession and a mythologist by passion.