My friend Vibha and I attend many conferences – both separately and together. They all have a lot in common. Speakers are typically over-informed and under-prepared; eager for recognition, unwilling to listen to others, convinced of their own importance and wisdom and possessed of a mad desire to speak. We call them POWs (Pompous Old Windbags).
POWs are often “serving” government officials or retired bureaucrats who just never got their fill of the bowing and scraping that passes for respect. POWs often begin their presentations at conferences with an attempt at humility. They say: “I’m not an expert, but . . . ” and then they go on long, long past their allotted time, proving their lack of expertise over and over again. POWs do not come to conferences to learn. They arrive moments before their own session begins and they leave the minute it is over. They believe that they are the reason the conference has been organized and that they have nothing whatever to learn from anyone else in attendance. Their egos crowd the room, elbowing out all lesser mortals. (And, sorry guys: men overwhelmingly predominate.)
So when Vibha asked me to come to Mumbai for a different sort of conference, I was intrigued. Was it possible, in conference format, to transcend the structure of stage presentations, speeches via microphones and – gulp – powerpoints? Was it possible to have a meeting of the minds, in a space where everyone was an equal and everyone had something important to share and something important to learn?
Seven years ago, Vibha’s organization (Ummeed) started a training program for Child Development Aides. Six months long, its participants were given a total immersion into the world of children: how they grow and how they think, how to recognize the signs when something isn’t going according to plan and – crucially – how to help their families do something about it.
We sent two staff for the training in 2009 and two more in 2011. All told, Ummeed trained 40 CDAs and 120 ECD (Early Childhood Development) workers. The conference was for them. Since I have never met a CDA who had any resemblance to a POW, I went with high hopes.
We sent all four of our graduates. We FLEW them to Mumbai, in fact, and put them up in a nice hotel on Marine Drive, because this was the first time they had ever been invited to a conference and we wanted them to know how important they are. Their flight was 12 hours delayed in departing Delhi, they reached their hotel at 4 AM and got about three hours sleep before arriving at the conference.
Pause for a moment to imagine a POW’s response to such a scenario. Injured dignity, perhaps. Constant repetition of the story for sure, along with references to unsympathetic airline officials, minute accounting of the amount of precious time wasted and the intense fatigue of the journey. I’m not criticizing. That would be my reaction too. Nothing new about it, nothing remarkable.
The CDAs, on the other hand, had distinctly un-POW like reactions. I learned something about life from the way they responded: “Didi, bahut maza ayee! Aur sikhne ko bahut mila.” (“Didi, it was so much fun! And we learned so much.”) Not a word about how exhausted they must have been. Not a squeak about wasted time, poor planning or incompetent airlines. Not them. They just kept finding things to praise (the beautiful clean airport, the amazing shining bathroom, the chance to eat McDonald’s food) and things to be grateful for (all of them traveling together meant they could take turns to go in twos to explore; the long delay gave them plenty of time to practice their presentation and the constant checking in on them by LRF staff made them realize how many people were supporting them on this adventure).
Their presentation at the conference was stellar, but so was everyone else’s. And that was on the top of everyone’s mind. In all my conversations with the participants, I heard this over and over: how amazing their colleagues were; how wonderful their presentations were and how much they had all learned just from being there.
Gratitude was the most frequently expressed emotion and humility was the order of the day. It was a bit uncanny how each and every presenter began with a heartfelt tribute to their teachers, their colleagues and the children and families who had taught them so much, as if their own achievements were irrelevant to the conference and their own stories were so much less interesting than everyone else’s.
Being amazed and fascinated by other people and their stories is one of the secrets of friendship and communication. It’s no wonder the CDAs are so good at what they do. Contrary to all the me-first psycho babble of our age, they consistently put themselves second; unlike the POWs who are legion, they truly believe that other people have as much if not more to say than they do. And the result was a conference whose participants actually listened to each other’s stories and learned from each other and went home richer for having come. I’m not sure if a POW would recognize the experience but I’ll bet a CDA would have more success talking with one than I would.