Can you learn something new every year? And how do use that learning to improve yourself?
We all get into argumentative situations. Yet, these situations almost always leave us worse off than before. How can we learn to negotiate instead of creating confrontation, and end up even better off than before? That's one of the three things I learned last year.
The second insight was the understanding of the word “practice”. What's practice really about? And the third learning was ‘The 5% Breakage Principle'.
Let's get started.
When we were getting married, I got into a bit of a dispute with my to-be father in law.
A small wedding in India tends to have 250 guests.
And yes, we were getting married, but did we have to have so many guests? Did we have to have a live band? Was there any reason why we couldn't have a small get-together, instead? With every “demand”, I was getting more frustrated.
Then one day, my to be father-in-law said this to me: “This is one of the biggest events we've had in the last twenty or twenty-five years. Would you help us all have a good time and celebrate this occasion?”
I didn't realise it at the time, and he probably didn't either. Yet, it was a skillful piece of negotiation.
There I was, playing the “terrorist”, making counter-demands and in fewer than three sentences he'd gotten me over to his side. That, to me, is one of the first lessons, because the year itself involved so much negotiation. Most of the negotiations were not tilted in our favour—not at first, at least.
The first one was a fence dispute, as was the second one. In the first instance, our current fence was a good foot or more into our neighbour's plot. It was an unwinnable situation.
To get the fence along the precise boundary line, we'd also have to cut eleven full-sized trees. The second dispute, on a completely different part of our property, involved putting up a fence where there were no clear markers, which leads to my very first learning.
Learning 1: We spend too much time in confrontation instead of negotiation.
Think of any given day. Maybe we argue with our partner. Or this package that's supposed to arrive hasn't shown up. Or worse, we are at the airport, and the flight has been delayed. Our first and possibly only reaction is confrontation.
And yet with a tiny bit of negotiation, so much can be achieved. What's incredibly exciting, as well, is that you don't need much to get a person to see your point of view.
As I went through the negotiation of both the fences, I realised that the book I'd read earlier in the year was incredibly helpful. So helpful that I listened to the audio version and also did a course.
It's a book by Chris Voss, called “Never split the difference”. In that, he covers a fair bit, as you'd expect, but I couldn't remember it all. Which is why I'm hanging on to just one point, and it's called “sounds like”.
You're not being served coffee on time. The easy way is to complain, possibly rant a bit. Instead, let's use the “sounds like”. You say to the waitress, “sounds like it's been a really rough day”. What do you think she's going to do next? Yes, exactly.
You're the only one who's even considered the nightmare she's going through. She's going to tell you how rough her day has been, and then she's going to ask you about whether you're waiting on something. Of course, you are, but at that moment you magically got pushed to the front of the line.
Or take, for example, someone is upset with you.
Maybe it's a client, or perhaps it's just a discussion with your spouse. And as they tell you what's bothering them, you say, “Sounds like we didn't do what you expected. Or “sounds like keeping the glass on the sofa gets you bugged at me”. In almost every situation, you're reflecting precisely how the other person feels.
And because you're slightly vague about it, they don't feel like you're pinning them down. “Sounds like” doesn't feel like an accusation. It sure feels like you want to fix things and need to know what to do next.
The negotiations went well.
I used “sounds like” a lot, among other things. But in every formal negotiation situation, I went in prepared. It's the unexpected situations that took me by surprise. And it's been a goal to stop for a second, then pull out the “sounds like” and see where it goes.
I believe that we continue to practice confrontation almost all the time, rather than negotiation. And it's not like confrontation doesn't get results.
In some cases, it may well be the only way to go. But there's a sense of lopsidedness when the confrontation comes to the fore. My father-in-law, seeing the slight idiocy of the situation, decided to sidestep the confrontation. He didn't use “sounds like”, but he could have done just that.
If he said, “sounds like you're worried about something”, that would have possibly opened the floodgates. I was worried about how much all of it was going to cost. And he was more than prepared to foot the bill—which he did, by the way. But I didn't know that. A simple worry had turned into a needless confrontation. To defuse, it was the only way forward.
I know you've possibly got a pile of books to read. If you want to add to that pile, Chris Voss' book is an excellent piece of work. If not, just use “sounds like” and see the results change, very much in your favour. And that, that was my first learning for the year.
The second insight was the understanding of the word “practice”. When people say “practice, practice and you'll get better” what's really happening? Why do we get better when we practice? Or do we?
Learning 2: What's practice really about?
There's an age-old story about a teacher and two student violinists.
In the story, the teacher goes up to each student and speaks to them while they are playing the violin. The first student can't cope with both the conversation and the piece. The second, on the other hand, can hold his own even while speaking to the teacher.
In short, he doesn't have to think about what he's doing because it's second nature.
In all the years that I've been learning new skills, I always saw practice as something you repeated. If you did something over and over again, you'd theoretically improve. Of course, it had to be deliberate practice, because just randomly practising a skill isn't much use.
However, I never did see it as “not having to think”
Look at all the things we do every single day. We walk from one end of the room, down the stairs, never considering the feat of balance and technique. Yet, all you and I need to do is look at someone who's very young, aged or has had an unfortunate accident.
For that person, every step requires an enormous level of concentration. Fifty or a hundred steps later, they're exhausted from the sheer energy needed to do the task.
My wife, Renuka had an accident in the garden, about a decade ago
Her left pointer finger was amputated and reattached. Even so, her brain couldn't work out what to do with the finger. Even the most straightforward task of tracing her finger in the sand was incredibly tricky.
Lifting a glass while using the finger was also well out of her reach. It took a scare from the physiotherapist to get her to practice every day so that her brain would recognise and start to use that finger.
Even so, I believed that practice was repetition until I had to learn how to use my new camera
On our way back from Vietnam, I bought myself a camera. A few months later, I had a new tripod. And then yet another few weeks passed before I got myself a second lens. All of which drove me crazy.
To this day, the tripod is at least 50% mystery, and the camera was driving me up the wall. Like that student who couldn't simultaneously play and speak at the same time, I was tied up in knots every time I needed to figure out what to do with the camera. And we're not even talking about anything sophisticated because I was not so much as able to get a focused photo.
What would a sane person do?
Of course, they'd give up. But I practised. And the goal wasn't to be repetitive but to stop thinking about it. Hence I'd force myself to reach for a button, and exactly know what that button does.
I worked my way through the buttons until—yes, you guessed right—I did not have to think about it. You can give me the camera in pitch darkness, and I will take a very dark picture, but I will know what I'm doing.
That shift from practice as a chore to practice as not having to think seems to be almost pedantic. It's the same thing. Yes, theoretically it is, but mentally there is a massive chasm between the two definitions. Not having to think means that every tiny element has to become fluent bit by bit until it all flows together as a single impulse.
That was my second, slightly unexpected learning for the year.
The third was a rather old one, brought to life yet again, as I faced pothole after pothole. I think it's worth mentioning, because it's a cool concept. I call it the 5% breakage concept.
Learning 3: The 5% breakage principle.
In 2016, after a visit to India, we started eating dosas for breakfast.
A dosa, for want of a better word, is like a crêpe. It's crispy and made with fermented rice flour and dal. However, to make the dosa, you need also to get or make the batter.
And our trusty Indian grinder was trusty no more because it broke down. At first, this caused a fair bit of chaos. At three dosas a day, we'd gobbled over 3500 of them, and weren't ready for a change.
Which is why we got a second grinder
I stupidly used the older containers on the new grinder. Suffice to say, that grinder was toast in under a week. With our backs pinned to the wall, we decided to look up non-grinding options. An Internet search instantly brought up a recipe.
Which takes us to the moral of the story, doesn't it? The new type of dosa was a lot easier to put together, had more texture and ended up crispier than the original recipe. We hadn't done much at all. We'd just changed about 5% of the method, and the results were fairly dramatic.
Not all results turn out so hunky dory
As I sit in my comfort zone, eating similar meals, sitting in places that I'm happy in, there's a sense of “why fix this?” And for the most part, it's true. A lot of the little things in our lives bring us moments of joy. It's immensely nice to know the result every single time. Even so, I have to keep reminding myself to break things just a tiny bit.
Let's take a few business examples, and then some personal ones
We started our podcasts around 2014 and for at least four years kept well to the 20-minute or even the 30-minute mark. Then, at one point, we desperately needed to create a buffer. However, I was not in a position to write, record and edit more than one podcast a week.
But what if we broke the formula by just 5%? What if everything stayed the same, but the podcast was shorter—at say around 12-15 minutes? Or even 6-8 minutes? At first, it seemed like a silly thing to do. Our podcast listeners weren't going up, but neither were we seeing any big drops.
A tiny snip later and guess what?
Nothing changed in terms of podcast downloads. However, I could manage to produce two podcasts a week. Over time, clients too liked the mix. You can't always listen to a podcast at one go.
Having a shorter set of podcasts peppering the mix and it's much easier to keep up with the latest podcast. On a personal basis, changing things just a little bit allowed me to finish my watercolours, or cook a dish faster or differently.
And yes, not all results are great
But I've got to keep reminding myself to brush my teeth with my right hand every so often (yes, I'm left-handed). When I look in the mirror, it looks odd, and it feels odd. And at least for teeth cleaning it has no tangible value, but in life, I've found I see the world differently.
Usually, it's for the better.
I look at the things I'm doing every single day and ask myself. What could I break with this method? Try it. You don't have to replace what you're doing. Just break it about 5%.