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Category: empathy

6 months to… part 1 of 3

There’s an outstanding short-book that I just finished reading.

It’s called 6 Months To Live, and written by Dr. Sangeeta Raman Girdhar.

The book is only about 70-odd pages long, and can easily be finished in one sitting, and within the hour.

But the convenient length of the book not the reason everyone should read it.

What the book captures so beautifully, is a combination of 4 things:

  1. What all a loved one goes through when faced with a terminal disease
  2. What the immediate family of this person goes through
  3. What life lessons and spiritual lessons we can each take away, especially if (God-forbid) put in such circumstances
  4. How to deal with cancer, and even make micro lifestyle changes to prevent it

I’m going to share a few powerful takeaways from the book over the next couple of days, but the book has much more than just these, so do consider reading it. The author is my cousin sister, who is an amazing human being. The least I can do is feature her work on FHN! The book is available here.

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Empathasking

Recently a friend and I were exchanging interview notes. She’s got a lot of experience taking interviews, and I have very little.

Most interviews, as we all know, start with the (in)famous “So, tell me about yourself.”

This is a great question isn’t it? Because everyone likes to talk, and self-help books tell us that we must listen more. So what better way than to begin an interview by asking the candidate to talk about themselves?

Except, that an interview is not a “normal” conversation, where above self-help suggestions would apply directly.

The other person, the candidate, is obviously anxious, stressed, nervous – and what else, who knows. So this experienced friend told me that it’s a very good idea to break ice by starting to talk about myself, as the interviewer, who I am as a person, what got me here, what I love about my job, maybe a little about my family, all wrapped up in 2-3 minutes. This allows the other person to relax, and be their usual self, rather than drone on from a prepared mental note titled “about myself”.

Always good to find empathy even in the smallest of things, don’t you agree?

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Across the road

Why did the chicken cross the road? Because it wanted to get to the other side!

And why did the kitten cross the road? Because someone taped the kitty to the chicken of course!

Okay okay, my apologies, worst joke in the world. But I actually did see the video of a kitty trying to cross the road. Not because it wanted to, but because it just unknowingly scampered into the centre of a 6 lane highway.

So many vehicles, all zooming past at breakneck speed. The kitten obviously had little clue of its bearings. It was afraid, and probably did the worst thing. Instead of trying to run to either side of the road, it just lay down still.

Car after truck after bus after car is seen swerving in last ditch attempts to save the helpless creature. Some drivers expertly manoeuvre their cars to ensure they pass cleanly over the baby.

Until one fellow puts on his hazard lights, stops his car a few feet away from the kitty, steps out, picks the baby up, cuddles it in his arms, takes it with him into his car, and drives away.

Such empathy. And one lucky kitty.

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Measuring excellence

Jim Collins is an author who needs no introduction. In one of his defining studies, he has distilled down the excellence factors for any company, to 3 core elements. These are:

  1. Superior results (the company can be amazing on paper, but it needs to win in the real world)
  2. Distinctive impact (if the company disappeared, would it matter?)
  3. Lasting endurance (not just a one-hit wonder)

While these are amazing insights for companies, I also couldn’t help but realize these are amazing ideals for anyone striving for excellence to try living up to.

  1. Superior results – irrespective of the profession, can our clients feel they always get the best only with us?
  2. Distinctive impact – of course no one is indispensable and all that; but even so, if we disappeared from the earth tomorrow, how many people would miss us? Would we have left behind a legacy? Not for the money we provide others, but the compassion, listening ear, love and warmth?
  3. Lasting endurance – it’s easy to be good to people once or twice, but to do that lifelong? That would be most beneficial, not just to those being helped, but to the doer. A non-stop selfless attitude is no different from the pinnacle of spirituality.
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Creator Groomer

Most of us are working our day jobs, doing mundane stuff, often not liking it much.

And many companies too do not expect their employees to grow beyond a point either.

Seniors want to ensure their own seats are secure, and often happy slave-driving their juniors – and to make sure they do not leave the firm for whatever reason. Everyone is just thinking about themselves all the time.

But I came across a startup recently. The founder wrote an open letter, which to me was quite a lovely way to think about work.

His point, was that there are so many problems to be solved in the world. And folks working with him were encouraged to take risks, to disrupt, to be fearless, and to build and scale products with impatient optimism.

He also said, that if any of his employees would leave to found another startup, then he would go out of his way to invest in that new business.

Not just that, he would also enable the new startup to access his own set of VC/PE investors. How awesome is that?!

Not just giving jobs, but funding a potential job creator. Not just being a leader, but being a leader groomer! The magic truly happens when one thinks selflessly about others.

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What do we know?

Here are some common and seemingly innocuous questions one may be asking. All good until we think of possible but unexpected answers.

  1. On someone’s physical features. [Maybe they have thyroid / other issues and have been on medication, what do we know?]
  2. On someone’s employment status. [Maybe they have enough money saved / aren’t getting a job despite trying, what do we know?]
  3. On someone’s house and car. [Maybe they do not wish to show off / maybe they wish to show off / in any case a US$ 1 million house or car only indicate that the person had 1 million, which they don’t now; what do we know?]
  4. On someone’s kids. [Maybe the kids are autistic, maybe they have special needs, what do we know?]
  5. On someone’s social media posts. [Those posts couldn’t be further from the truth, so best to ignore, and what do we know?]
  6. On someone’s marital status. [Maybe they are unable to find the right person, or are headed for a divorce, what do we know?]
  7. On someone’s education and career choices. [Maybe they came from a poor background, needed to start earning quickly, what do we know?]
  8. On someone’s behaviour and biases. [Maybe they had a troubled upbringing, what do we know?]

Everyone is constantly fighting their own battles. Compassion and empathy rules the world – both material and spiritual.

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Empavert

The world loves extroverts. These people are chatty, gregarious, always have stories to tell, and seem to get along so easily.

Introverts on the other hand, seem to struggle to get along with most, and prefer to be curled up with a book rather than the centre of attention in a pub.

A book called Quiet by Susain Cain explores how introverts are actually very powerful, can think deeply and make massive contributions to the world in their own ways.

But maybe extroverts and introverts as defined by outward behaviour is irrelevant, even though that is what catches the eye. Dig a little deeper, and what may really matter is empathy.

One can make quick and superficial judgements about people looking at how they behave in public (intro or extro). But when someone goes the extra mile, out of the way to do something for someone else, that is the true basis for a sustainable relationship. In this respect, even an introvert could be an extrovert, by thinking about the other person selflessly.

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C for critical

Many years ago, a boss I had, got angry at me. It wasn’t just a passing one, but the type where the other person goes red in the face.

I was new to the team, yet to figure out its workings, and also tired from working literally 24×7.

But it wasn’t enough, and I was reprimanded constantly. Needless to say, I resigned from that job in about 6 months time.

Cut to today, and I don’t remember anything about why exactly I was scolded and picked on so much by that boss.

What were those 2-3 typos in the 100-deck presentation, or the slide sequence that he didn’t like, or the one tab in the excel sheet which was formatted slightly differently from the other 30? I have no recollection whatsoever.

Despite spending 6 months there (i.e. 6 months x 24 x 7), I cannot even remember what projects I worked on during that time – and there were many!

But one thing that keeps coming back? Those scenes of anger and finger-pointing. The humiliation I felt. The incompetence I felt. The inability of the other person to communicate well. It was all devastating.

The emotion remained, but the message disappeared. So is criticism really the answer? Continued tomorrow…

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Placebo

We know the placebo effect. For those who are sick, sometimes even just pills that have nothing in them seems to do the trick.

The recent vaccination drives for Covid also has led people to talk about this. “I had no side effects whatsoever. Maybe I was just given saline, who knows, haha.”

There are many other placebos in life too.

Like the presence of a mother for her baby. The baby crawls a few steps ahead, and then turns back to check if the mom is looking. And then crawls forward again. The crawling is done by the baby only, not the mommy.

Keeping the light on, for someone afraid of the dark, is a similar example. What lurks in the dark would lurk in the light too. But the light gives comfort.

On calls, sometimes we can’t hear the other side clearly. And we let them know. And the other party after 5 seconds says, “Is it better now?”, without having done a thing.

Placebos abound, and they are good. Especially from a mental health point of view. Sometimes, many times, we cannot be of any real help. But just being there, even as a statue, if someone really needs us, that passive presence can make all the difference in the world to them.

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Critiques

Author Dale Carnegie of the bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People says “Criticize in private, but praise in public.” We saw this nearly a year ago here.

It might seem like obvious advice, but do not be fooled by its simplicity. Just recently, I was part of a call, which had one senior person pulling up several others for something not done by them. The big boss of many of those being picked on was also present on the call.

To be sure, the person pointing the finger was by no means wrong – he had his facts straight – the accused had been tardy, they had not done their work well, they had not informed their superiors about gaps in the information and so on.

But did any of that matter? Not one bit. The call quickly morphed into a verbal brawl, with people supporting themselves, and proving why they were right and then heaping accusations back and forth. Could have just had some nice popcorn on the side and …

But really, it is so hard to put this advice into practise I suppose. It might seem like it takes longer to have 1-on-1 calls with five people rather than just lambaste 5 people on one call. But the negative effects of that one badly organized call can be far worse, as was the case. Preferably, never criticize at all, but if it must be done, then it can be done with empathy, in private, with examples from one’s own life as well, and also leading by example. That would be true leadership.

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Quattro-manageria

According to Harvard Business Review, there are 4 types of Managers. These are Teacher, Cheerleader, Always-on and Connector.

Without knowing anything about these except their names, I’d have thought either the cheerleader or the teacher would be the best. Why? Because the cheerleader manager probably cheers you on, encourages you and appreciates your work. Great way to be motivated and move ahead don’t you think? While the teacher manager might be there to teach you whatever you need to know, and help in your learning process.

The definition of an always-on manager is one who available at any time for questions, feedback or even to just listen. But apparently it’s the connector manager who is the best of all the four.

The connector manager helps by making the most of his/her network – whether with another team member, partner, customer, friend etc. in order to expand the spectrum of teachers you have at your disposal. This is because such a manager realizes it’s impossible for one person to know everything.

The outcome? Apparently connector managers build the strongest, most effective teams, tripling the likelihood that direct reports will be high performers and boost employee engagement by 40%. Pretty impressive!

My takeaway is to try and live the life of a connector-manager for the benefit of everyone around me – irrespective of whether I manage a team at work or not. What do you think? How will you implement this? All suggestions welcome.

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Deconstruction

We hear the labourers chattering all day. The flyover near our house. It is getting constructed. It has been like this for two years now.

The daily noise – massive thuds, drilling machines ramming deep into the earth, the sounds of cranes and bulldozers, not to mention – the bright lights and sirens that flash even at 2 am. No matter the day – whether we have an important client call, or a Sunday morning off, or wish to sneak in a meditation session – the din sometimes is unbearable, chaotic and equally unloved by one and all.

But flip this over. These are men and women on a mission. Not to just construct a bridge, but to also construct their lives. Or rather to prevent it from deconstruction. How much can these daily wagers really earn? Hardly enough to make ends meet. And they need to send money back to their families in their villages too?

While we sleep in double glassed sound-proofed air-conditioned high-rises, these folks melt in the sun, puff in the dust, and sleep huddled in reprehensible accommodations. We can only think “When will this bridge get completed, so that my travel time in my luxury car can get cut in half.” They on the other hand, may never get a chance to use this bridge, or maybe only in an overcrowded bus in the sweltering heat. Soon after they are done here, they will be transported to yet another construction site, nearby, far away, who knows. It is always one day at a time.

Why could we not have been born into their place? We very well could have. We just got really lucky. Let us begin our day with gratitude for this fact.

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Giving like this

It is one thing to talk about selflessness and empathy and caring for others etc. While it is something else altogether to put this into practice, especially with irredeemable consequences.

85 year old Narayanrao Dabhadkar was immortalized in the last week of April 2021. Having experienced complications from COVID, his family took him to a nearby hospital. As is perhaps well known, oxygen, beds, remdesevir and other important treatment necessities have been in very short supply in India.

The family of this 85-year old man somehow got an ICU bed after running from pillar to post. But while waiting there, Mr. Narayanrao saw out the window and noted a young lady and her kids wailing and begging the hospital authorities to admit her 40-year old husband who was also infected by COVID and in a very bad state. Narayanrao immediately decided to relinquish his bed, and offered it to the lady. His thought process was, “I have lived a wonderful life to 85, now let the younger ones live.” He went home, no bed, minimal treatment, and passed away a few days later.

Many times we think twice about giving up an object that belongs to us. We don’t want to part with or share our living space, money, food, vehicles, books, cutlery, time and so many other things. This man parted with his life. If there is something to learn about selflessness, compassion and empathy, this is the real-life story that teaches it to me. May he rest in peace.

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Weight and watch

Is it possible to give someone specific advice without hurting them? Here is one example of how my Guru did it.

One of the satsangis had put on a lot of weight. Obviously this wasn’t good from a health point of view. Of course one could just tell her point blank, “Hey, you are fat, and this is unhealthy, please follow a strict diet and exercise plan, or else you will land up in a hospital one day.”

Although that is the truth, it is also a very harsh way of putting it across.

My Guru instead was generally chatting with the woman, on matters not even remotely related to health or fitness. And he just added at the end, “Hey do you see that other woman over there? She was telling me that she reduced 10 kilos in the last 3 months.” The lady’s ears immediately perked up and she asked, “Oh wow, how did she do that Guruji?” To which he replied, “1 spoon less, 5 minutes early.” (which means don’t do anything drastic like a crash diet because those are unsustainable, instead eat 1 spoon less and hit the sack 5 minutes earlier progressively)

That’s it – zero hurting and zero criticism!

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Free delivery

We are all getting more and more accustomed to food delivery – either on Swiggy or Zomato or Uber Eats and other similar services. We may have even seen many delivery executives zoom past on bikes or mopeds, as they hurry to fulfil their orders on time.

Usually, deliveries are well on time. A few days ago, there was a delivery guy who was about 10 minutes late. So I called him up and checked to see what he was up to, as his geolocation marker on the app had gone stationary. He immediately picked up, and apologized, and said that he got lost a bit and was coming soon. He enquired some directions with me, and then he was on his way he said. Another 8-10 minutes went by, and I was wondering why he would take so long given where his map was showing him.

He arrived a few minutes later at top speed and screeched to a halt, all sweaty. The reason? He was on a tiny bicycle, not a flashy bike or moped. No electricity / petrol to power him up. His legs probably got tired too, with multiple cycling trips this way. But he apologized again, and handed the parcel over with a big smile. Surely this is not his passion or calling – but he is doing this job to earn some side income – likely to make ends meet. But such a person is often at the receiving end of all sorts of abuses – with hungry and angry callers lambasting him.

We can all help such people by not just being nice to them, but also tipping them. And by more than just tiny amounts. One way, is to pay forward to them any discounts we would have received. At least in India, every payment option (credit card, pay later, netbanking etc.) offers plenty of discounts, free deliveries and cashbacks. I try to transfer all such savings/discounts as a tip to the delivery person. It’s the least we can do for their efforts in such trying circumstances (lockdowns).

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How to be

The grandfather has a blood pressure problem and is trying to get it cured. But it involves staying off a number of foods, which is very hard.

The grandmother has an ownership problem – what with so many activities but getting no credit from the family members.

The father has a time problem – stuck with office work all day, and also having to take nonsense from superiors and others to make ends meet, leaving him stressed and unable to spend time with his family. Not very different from the what the grandfather did once upon a time but not that long ago.

The mother has no life of her own – what with it being entirely devoted to her family. One or more of the kids (or even her husband) is always sick or wanting something else and she ends up always sacrificing, not very different from what the grandmother did once upon a time but not that long ago.

And the kids? Well they are growing up fast. But they too struggle in school, with peer pressure, at home with habits and chores, and with themselves too – having to deal with all sorts of insecurities.

From the outside, it might seem like everyone is always overestimating their problems. It’s easy to tell the grandpa/grandma/dad/mom/kids to just take a chill pill – and that things will settle down. That these are such simple issues that can easily be resolved. But then why do these feel so familiar? Why do we all go through these phases all the time?

It is because we have insufficient control over our minds. And this is not a condescending remark – rather one we should be empathetic about. Hence one of my favourite quotes. “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Hence be kind. Always.”

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So passionate

The whole world seems to be trying to find it’s passion. Everyone going to office to work is unhappy about something or the other. “Why am I even doing this? I wish I could be passionate about my job. I wish I could find my real calling in life.”

Most of the stories of people suddenly chancing upon their ‘passion’, and then becoming overnight stars are all horsecrap. The janitor who became a singing sensation on Somebody’s Got Talent? He practised his vocal chords off to the point of tearing them for only the past 30 years – and also kept his janitor job to boot. One day, as it would seem, his passion came calling.

We’ve to be clear about what passion is, and what inspiration is or excitement is. If looking at an artist do his work, or Steve Jobs or Elon Musk do theirs makes us want where they are, then we are only wanting the end result. It is unlikely we will have the perseverance and grit to even withstand their naysayers, let alone send rockets to distant planets. Everyone’s life is hard – to varying degrees of course, but the easiest way to make it easy, is to love thy work.

Whatever the work may be, if we can do it with 100% focus on the work, this very moment, without thinking of anything else, then the kind of quality we will give to our work will be unmatched. Also, if we give this kind of quality to our work for long periods of time, the same work will automatically be seen by others to be our passion. Finally, if we can add compassion to passion, that will take it to the next level.

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Bharatha 600BC

There is an awesome board game called Bharatha 600BC, created and released by a company called GoIndia Games. It’s quite unique because such games that are made in India are rare. The map of the game itself is beautiful – featuring ancient India from – you guessed it – 600 BC!

The game makes for fun family bonding time – especially offering a clean hour or three. ‘Clean’ meaning no screen diversions (mobiles, tablets, TVs etc) – wow is that even possible these days?

The board game has plenty of paths to victory – and one can use tact, strategy, battle, speed, rationing (i.e. hoarding) of resources, using special cards – you name it.

One interesting thing that happens when we play with my mother, is that she will never battle, and she will also always ‘give up’ resources for the rest of the family to win. “Oh, how can I battle my own son!”, or “You want resources, here take mine” – much to the groans of others “come on ma, this is supposed to be a competitive game – leave your familial bonds aside!”

While there are groans during the game, one must look behind the curtain. The motherly love kicks in with feelings of compassion overruling everything else – and not just during board games but even otherwise. What if we too can apply such compassion/empathy all the time. Just like the Guru does. Wouldn’t that be the true application of everything we learn in our scriptures?

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The one formula for success – part 3

Here’s an example of how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – from a conversation between my Guru and I recently.

I had kept a vow for donating some money to Tirupati (a large and famous temple in south India) if some specific important event took place in my life. Like Guruji says, it is very important for everyone to set lofty goals, work towards them, pray for them, and if those goals are achieved, then unabashedly do something in return.

When said event did work out (miraculously!), it was time to keep up my end of the bargain. But I had a conflicting thought. Should I donate to Tirupati? Or should I donate to the cause of my Guru? So I asked my Guru. “If it’s just money, can I not give to your cause Guruji? Why Tirupati? Isn’t God and his money fungible?”

To which he had a wonderful answer, and such an answer is only possible if he put himself in my shoes. Because from his point of view, he has already realized Brahman and moksha and liberation, and to him these material differences do not matter!

But to me as one who is faaaaaaar away from such realized states, he said simply, “What if something bad happens tomorrow? Then it is possible I might connect the dots? That it is because I did not donate to Tirupati as planned but instead gave the money off to another cause, that there was a hole left to be plugged at Tirupati?” Instead my Guru told me to go and happily give to Tirupati, and then also pray to the Lord there to give me more money so that I can donate to the other causes with even more fervour. Win-win?

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The one formula for success – part 2

We saw yesterday how Dale Carnegie says there’s only one thing we need to do to be successful, whether in personal relationships or in a professional setting. And this is to put ourselves in other people’s shoes.

Sounds easy. Yes, but very hard to apply, isn’t it? What prevents us from viewing things from another’s perspective?

Adi Shankara in his commentary Vivekachoodamani, says that there is one and only one hurdle. The ego.

How to get rid of this ego? He says that there are 2 pillars to this ego.
1. Selfish desire
2. Selfish action

1 causes 2. and 2 reinforces 1. And the cycle repeats ad infinitum.

How to break out of this? By performing actions for others. Seva. Service. That’s the only way Adi Shankara says. The more we think for (not about) others and work for others, the less time we have to worry about ourselves, and the lesser the ego becomes, automatically.

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