Oct 14, 2004

On communication

Businessworld has an excerpt from Arun Maira's new book Remaking India. Here is an interesting paragraph from it on communication:

Good communication perhaps requires more listening than speaking. Talking more
loudly will not break through the barriers in communication between people. TV
shows like Cross Fire in the USA, and The Big Fight in India in which the
participants yell and interrupt each other, are entertaining for their viewers.
However, I am sure they do not help the participants understand each other
better. The meeting of minds, and change of minds can happen when people really
listen to those who have opinions different from their own. When they listen to
the others' reasons - why they have their beliefs; and even more, to their
emotions - their hopes and fears and when others feel they are being heard, they
may be more willing to hear us.

We have to find better ways of communicating that enable deeper listening, and thereby improve communion amongst people. Such ways are available. Their heritage is in the art of dialogue and traditions of group meetings such as the Quakers', rather than in advertising and mass communications whose concepts and techniques increasingly drive the design of communications in media and conventions. Good facilitators enable people to listen to their own unarticulated beliefs and aspirations, and to each other.

One problem with these alternative approaches is that they require much more time than people feel they can spare from their busy, chattering lives. They generally seem to require people to shut off their daily routines and meet 'off-site' for days. Another limitation is that only a few people at a time can participate in the meetings. However, the gains can be enormous.

These approaches are evolving in response to the need within society for more effective communication. The Aspen Institute in the USA uses such approaches. The Society of Organisational Learning with headquarters in MIT in the USA has grown into an international network that is researching better methods. The International Futures Forum based in St Andrews, Scotland, is another incubator. And there are
others in many parts of the world.

My hope is that India will be at the centre of this evolution. India is its best laboratory and has the greatest need for it. No other country in the world has the diversity within it as is present in India. Eighteen distinct languages with myriad dialects, all the major religions in the world and wide disparities in incomes. This diversity of people has chosen to work together democratically, which implies listening to the needs and wants of all. The people have an enormous task to accomplish together in order to change and improve their country, to make it fully developed, which is an expression of their vision for the country. What the people want, and what they believe in, needs to be understood amongst them. And what they do, has to be aligned towards their shared vision to accelerate sustainable change.

India needs simple techniques for communication amongst diverse people to facilitate the collaboration in townships and in villages to make the new India come about. Such techniques may do for India what TQM techniques did for Japan. A principal contribution to Japan's success were the seven tools of quality control developed by Dr Ishikawa and others. These were widely disseminated by JUSE (the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers) through public radio, books, pamphlets, seminars, and schools. These tools provided a simple and
powerful language for workmen on shop floors, offices, construction sites, and elsewhere to work together to improve quality. The beauty of these tools was that they enabled everyone to take responsibility for quality by applying them to the work that they performed every day
. Perhaps some simple techniques for effective listening and communication should be developed in India soon, so that it can become the way in which Indians everywhere improve the manner in which they work and create together. These techniques, founded on the same principles that enable great communication to take place in the intense off-sites that I referred to earlier, will make these principles practically applicable in daily life, just as the seven tools of quality took quality from the experts' labs to factories and offices in Japan.

Experience suggests that such techniques, founded on good principles of communication, if diligently practised, could work wonders in India.