Wodehouse & Facilitation

win win


I discovered and got addictively hooked to P G Wodehouse in my school days. I would spend hours on end, sitting in one corner of the house, cackling over his humor much to the consternation of my mother who would wonder if I was following in the footsteps of the family… loony in short. Justifiably so, she still has serious doubts about my sanity. However, there is, for me, nothing like PGW to raise my spirits at the end of some days, when life has dragged me inexorably through the dreary desert sands of dead habit of earning a living (sorry for the mangling Thakurda). His humor uplifts and continues to surprise despite that fact that I have read the same books many times over.

When I examine his humor I find an interesting pattern. He sets you up nicely every time and then shifts the ground under your feet to split you up completely. Look at some examples:

 “There is only one cure for gray hair. It was invented by a Frenchman. It is called the guillotine.”

“One prefers, of course, on all occasions to be stainless and above reproach, but, failing that, the next best thing is unquestionably to have got rid of the body”

“Hell, it is well known has no fury like a woman who wants her tea and can’t get it”

“He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom”

He sets your mind up to work in the direction of the staid and prosaic and then switches to complete the thought in a different , sometimes bizarre take altogether , yet weaves something invariably relatable for all of us. Of course his humor is hugely creative but the key is the way he sets it up. Take away the Set Up and the humor falls away.

Many years later, I rediscovered this principle in the context of facilitation. Good facilitation’s purpose is to create moments of sharp realization or Aha’s in a fun , enjoyable way, which you can then process further into establishing behavior of choice.

For instance, I conduct this session on Strategic Thought. I play a simple game of arm wrestling in pairs in the audience. I have invariably got exactly the same result every time I have played. The trick is the same. Give them a perception of control but load the perception even before the game starts. I do the loading through the Set up of the game where I describe the task to be done.

For instance , I start by harking back to the childhood when all of us have played the game and struggled with each other to find out who is the strongest; I use visual clues in my description, that of struggling to bring the other person’s arm down; then I goad them to win and show who is the stronger of the two; then I tell them that you have to maximize your wins i.e by forcing the other person’s hand down repeatedly till I say stop; I establish scarcity by stating that there is a limited amount of time to maximize ‘your’ wins… with this kind of set up, every time folks will battle it out with each other in a traditional arm wrestling game and force a few wins…

Then I turn it around, call one of the audience up and play with him/her; But first, I strike a quiet agreement with my partner that we will both let the arm loose and go rapidly on both sides so that we can both maximize and equal our wins. Typically our score is a multiple of the highest in the group earlier… this helps me bring out the point that the difference was in the mindset of Win-Lose which they practiced and Win-Win which my partner and I exhibited. Just the change in that thought changed the behavior and gave dramatically different results. That is strategic thought. The ability to pirouette in the mind and look at the same situation with a different and even contrary lens.

Thoughts tend to run in tracks and invariably reach their natural conclusion unless jerked out of the track on to a new one.. as a facilitator when I want to make a point in a dramatic way I can use this principle by cueing the track I want strongly to make dramatic learning happen.

And where do you do it? – in the Set Up

The Set Up is the most valuable part of facilitation. It defines the direction in which your audience’s mind is going to run. I have found it very useful to think through the Set Up in detail, define situations with great care and identify specific word clues and phrases as well as questions that I would ask.

While the activity itself lasts for only 10 minutes, I would have spent half an hour agonizing over each word and gesture in the

Set Up. To take the same example as an illustration:

Step 1: Begin from the Objective: which is to get the audience to see Strategic Thought as a Lens they can choose to wear at will.

Step 2: Define the precise Result you want at each stage: With the same Instructions they have to perform Win-Lose and then subsequently demonstrate Win-Win so that they can see that just changing the lens from Win- Lose to Win-Win changes everything.

Step 3: Detail the Cueing: Therefore the Set Up has to cue the Win –Lose Lens strongly. 3 key aspects need to be thought through:

  1. Defining the activity or task in a manner that fits both the Win –Lose Lens as well as the Win-Win Lens so that the flip of lens is credible and the message goes through.
  2. Cueing the Win-Lose Lens when setting up for them to do the activity by choosing words very carefully (‘maximize your Wins’); by using meta-verbal clues(mimic a tough arm wrestling bout when talking of it); Use personal experiential contexts to ensure the mind runs along the natural Win-Lose path (cue in the child hood remembrance of the game as a show of strength)
  3. Creating a scarcity mindset so that the mind quickly foreshortens options to habit and does not attempt to go beyond normal thinking tracks which is typically Win-Lose.

If you get the Set Up right the result follows naturally; for the audience it is magic and fun! Like it was for me


The Lens Did It

Boat 1

One evening a colleague of mine stopped me in the corridor and related an interesting incident. “I was stuck at this crossing “, he said “and there was this chappie driving a fancy car in front of me who had cut across and wedged himself in front of me. I was boiling mad. To make matters worse he slowly started rolling back towards me. I was shocked and didn’t know what to do. I tried blowing my horn at him, even yelled at him in frustration fully confident that he was going to back into my little box of a car and crush the front. It was only when I looked out of the side of my car and to my horror, realized that it was not he who was rolling backwards but my car that was rolling gently forward on an almost indiscernible downward slope. I had an epiphany. His earlier act of cutting across me had got me so mad that I had assumed that he was rolling towards me, while the truth was that it was I that was rolling towards him. I had subconsciously chosen the lens that I wanted to wear and it took a reality check to jolt me out of the lens!”. Thankfully his lens had the sense to change itself in time! Reality helped of course (apart from the fact that he had a faint suspicion that it is highly unlikely that the whole world around you could move backwards simultaneously. Perhaps, his brain told him -it is just possible that you are moving forward?)

The lens I wear is to do with my attitudes, my beliefs, the stories I tell myself from my life experiences and my judgments as was powerfully evidenced by my friend

I have, over a period of time discovered that this lens wearing is a fairly insidious business. Half the time I don’t even realize that my world view is being strongly driven by the lens that I am wearing, and the other half I don’t even know I am wearing a particular kind of lens! The power of the lens though is that it can cut both ways.

'Whoa! Half empty! Definitely half empty!'

The beauty is that the lens can take you up or take you down into the depths of despair. In fact, I had a cousin (yet another relative in my list of teachers of life’s lessons. I plead guilty to a nepotistic ascription of wisdom to my family) who had the ability to find something positive in every sling and every arrow of misfortune big or small. It was infuriating to all the rest of us. “How can he not find it upsetting? How can he pretend that the mess he is in is fine? He is not being real “All of us siblings, once removed, would constantly be at him to see the stark reality for what it is, so that he could recognize that the world is not always nice and that around every good turn there is a bad one lurking waiting for you to come around the corner, rubbing its hands in evil glee. It was all water off a duck’s back. “One day he will learn it the hard way” The man didn’t relent or change his worldview.

And the inevitable happened. He did extremely well in life and most importantly, continued to deal with life with joy and equanimity! What the rest of us realized over time was that it was we who were wearing the wrong lens. His lens was ” glass half full all the time” and ours was “glass half empty most of the time”. We therefore missed seeing the opportunity in adversity. He learnt life’s lessons well; while we missed most of the chances to learn, to reinvent ourselves, to beat the mickey out of the chappies in the ancient Fields of Punishment who dole out misfortunes in decent sized doses (Sisyphus will testify).

Nature can only present me with situations. What I can potentially make of it depends on my worldview-  my Lens. If I am miserable, in a bad place, feeling down and out – My Lens did it. If today you are happy, you have arrived and you are as close as you can be to your aspirations- Your Lens did it.


Words Matter and Tone Counts


My uncle was a well-respected Principal of a College who had some serious differences on matters of Principle with the Correspondent of the College.  As a result he had been removed from his post illegally by the afore mentioned gentleman (to use a polite term, my family had more choice names for him).  We were at lunch as a family and like good tam-brams sitting on the floor and eating our sambar, vegetable and rice while my uncle was venting like billy yo. The incident was a new piece of perfidy perpetrated by this gentleman and my uncle was holding forth on the specific and special qualities of his favorite nemesis. To some diatribe of my uncle’s against the venerable party of the other part, I unthinkingly responded “I suppose you are right”. This was my fancy way of saying I agreed with him. But I was taken aback when he in response, expostulated “you Suppose!!!, who gave you the right to suppose?”. I didn’t think that the usage of Suppose required a license from some govt. office. Needless to say, the rest of the meal I held my tongue and consciously employed it more profitably in dealing with the food.

The hurt remained with me and in fact I reflected a lot on this explosion by my uncle over the years. Went from resentment to denial to finally accepting that he was not unjustified. I had chosen to add ‘Suppose’. I had not said ‘you are right’. This was perhaps a signal of my subliminal reservation that I did not fully agree with him as I had not heard the other party.  And I realized that there was a serious lesson that I could learn from this episode. He had read condescension, though I had not meant it; but given the state of stress he was in ‘suppose’ meant grudging concession, which he was not going to brook from a whipper-snapper of a boy.

I have realized over time that the choice of words and the tone in which it is said reveals a lot about a person’s heart and mind. Watch out for the qualifiers. In several group sessions where some agreement is being sought I have often seen people open out avenues of escape by qualifying their commitment quite unthinkingly.

“I am Ok with it” is not always a particularly enthusiastic approval. Instead of assuming that we have reached agreement it may actually be a signal to probe to find what is the real reservation. And usually I find some past baggage or some misconception or a genuine apprehension that can de-rail everything. Handling the objection in an inclusive open manner will bring energy and commitment; ignoring the undertone is a recipe for disaster. Sometimes deeper enquiry may actually get people to reflect more deeply and understand concerns and worries that they have been denying even to themselves.

Another one is “it is pretty good”. Ah! There is a subliminal message here. Note it is not an unqualified approval and therefore reflects some reservations. So what is lacking my friend, against what standards? Open it up and you may have a plethora of pieces that need to be dealt with before your plan can even take birth.

Of course, while being aware of the flavor of words it is important to make enough concessions to Miss Malaprop.

Tone too is a dead give away. Take, for instance, the well known story about the word Yeah. It can be used to convey agreement, enthusiasm, simply NO, disbelief, sarcasm (try it now. It’s a fun exercise. By some strange rule the younger they are, the more dexterity they display with it. It kind of peaks in the teens). And if you prefix it with “oh” it can lead to more flavors than the varieties of Dosa.

Being sensitive to how words are used by people and the tones in which they say it, helps me connect deeply to the inner recesses of their mind. It is in those dimly lit caverns that the heart molds our thoughts. Getting people to change requires sensitivity to follow the trail set up by diction to get to the real levers of personal growth. It is no coincidence that diction means both choice of words and enunciation! Enunciation is but one step removed from tone.

Language has always seen these two, words and tone as close cousins. And the fact is that they both count and matter.

Humor without Uniform, No Peacocks please !



Gavaskar once when asked how he liked to play the dreaded West Indian pace quartet, replied “From the non-striker’s end” . And this came at the peak of his reputation as an opening batsman who had in a certain sense tamed the fiercest of pace-attacks. What a wonderful way of showing yourself as a vulnerable human being! In an endearingly funny way it connected us – the ones who can’t hold a bat to a monkey throwing nuts- to the great batsman himself.

And did it reduce his stature as one of the greatest opening bats in the world? If anything, it enhanced it. Here was a guy who conquered raw fear, extreme nervousness and performed and vanquished not only the fear but also the fear mongers. Respect elevated.

Great leaders, more often than not, seem to have a healthy degree of self-doubt and a serious sense of self-deprecating humor. I have seen this pattern in many of my meetings with CEOs and CXOs, especially the better ones.

I had the good fortune to work with a very senior person in the Pharma industry.. This gentleman was brought in to clean up, resurrect and accelerate the growth of the Indian acquisition of a foreign multi-national. His resume and track record were impeccable -Impressive was not the word, in fact impressive paled and withered at the starter’s end.

Fully expecting a reasonable amount of self-respect I found a person unassuming, very eager to learn from every person he met and dealt with. Even more impressive was the compassion and connect with which he dealt with his people even when required to take some extremely tough decisions. And typically, all his humor had one target – himself. Though this did not make him a pushover. He was assertive, competitive and fueled with ambition both for himself and the organization. His self-doubt engendered his eagerness to listen deeply and learn without if with all his experience- he knew best. His ability to laugh at himself threw open windows to a freshness and authenticity that made him extremely approachable and engaging. No signs of his general’s uniform excepting when the occasion demanded it

These traits allowed him to take the hard decisions needed to turn the company around. It also allowed him to take them in a manner that was least damaging to the organization and the individuals concerned.  A general without his uniform adapt to the new environment, could use his experience with wisdom and learn, connect and succeed.

Unfortunately, very often I see senior leaders in corporations consumed by hubris.  Once, I was in a conversation with a fairly accomplished CEO. In a very short while (roughly three blinks of my right eye, the left one is a bit laggard and therefore doesn’t count) I figured this was a conversation about me, mine and myself. For some strange reason, very difficult of course to figure out, I had visions of a peacock consumed by its own dance.. He was so good he couldn’t have enough of himself. Failing to get a word in edge-ways even twice folded, I soon settled on a beatific (or so I think!) smile on my face. Little did he know that I was admiring the peacock with its feathers unfurled. Here was I face to face with the exalted one and all I could see was peacocks. Very disrespectful of me, I am sure, but left me wondering how many of his ‘boys’ saw peacocks on a daily basis. The problem with peacocks is that after a while you only see their feet and your respect and awe begin to wilt like a diva on a hot summer afternoon.

In my interactions, I increasingly hear the word Agility as a key requirement to survive the VUCA (Volatile,Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world. Agility is deeply connected to learning and learning if I may stretch a point, in turn to self-doubt and a dash of sense of humor.

So no uniforms and certainly no peacocks, please!