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Learning the Art of Conversation – Part 1

This is the first of a two-part series. Read the second part here. Complete memoirs from the Teach For India Fellowship here.

My two years as a teacher at a municipal school taught me that leadership is based on two simple rules. One, as Teach For India puts it, “Be the producer of your own experiences, not a consumer of experiences others create for you.” The other, as I put it, “When unable to get over a challenge, find ways, not excuses.”

The first statement puts the onus of driving your personal growth on yourself. The reason for your failures, incompetence or unpreparedness is you – nobody else. Unless you have the initiative to lead yourself and your own life, it’s tough to do justice to bigger challenges that need your leadership.

The second statement tells you that if it weren’t challenging, you’d not be needed. Complaining about external factors is a failure of your participation in trying to solve the issue. Of course there’s a way out, that’s why you’re trying. The solution starts with you, whatever it takes. The challenge of leadership includes the challenge of being alone, the challenge of having no one to turn to, and the challenge of failing and waiting.


The most defining period of my Fellowship came just into the third month of my teaching. The government school teacher whose class I worked with as a Teach For India Fellow turned hostile against me one day. Possible reasons, as I gathered later, were, I was not right-wing enough to teach impressionable kids, had a self-righteous approach to new unheard-of methods of teaching, and got more attention from the children and parents. Also, a sense of insecurity and distrust towards non-profits coming into education.

(By the way, one of the indicators of not being right-wing enough was that I was not married yet at 22. Hindus who marry early get enough time to produce more kids to beat the population race against Muslims, so I was told.)

In his hour of fury one October morning, I was shouted at in front of my students, my whiteboard and teaching aids were uninstalled, and I was asked to stay away from the classroom. The school principal seemed puzzled and helpless; the children and parents were scandalized.

Negotiations between Teach For India and the school helped me find a two-hour slot to teach every day. The hostile teacher set the terms: he would stay on in the classroom while I taught, but I could not stay on while he taught – he claimed children got “attracted” towards me.

After I spent six depressing weeks teaching amid extremely negative vibes, the education department of the local municipal body that runs the school (and had an MoU with Teach For India) called a meeting. It was decided that the problem man be replaced with another, and I could continue teaching the class in peace.

The day was one of relief for me and my students, but the six weeks of emotional chaos prior to that had been a time for reflection, and have shaped some of my most important learnings and experiences. I learned the art of building relationships through sustained long-term empathetic conversations. I learned this through reflection in retrospect, after facing failure.


What I had faced was a product of my inability to build a working relationship with a person of mindsets divergent to mine. I did not make a sincere effort to understand the emotions of a teacher who had controlled the classroom all this while. I used teaching methods that helped children enjoy and learn differently, without realizing what he went through. My efforts, unknowingly, seemed to indicate that his were lesser, and that I was a messiah.

Most Teach For India Fellows who move to teach into notorious state-run schools fall into this trap in their initial months. What I faced was a reaction of an extreme kind, but there was a background to this – my failure.

Reflecting on this helped me cement my belief in the two rules of leadership I stated in the beginning. I had not made enough efforts to shape my experience, and had taken for granted the class teacher’s support without doing anything for it. I had allowed myself to be a consumer of an experience, without taking charge of it. Also, building a strong relationship with a teacher I work with was part of my challenge of teaching in a public school – and I had to find ways to do that, not excuses as to why he didn’t yield to my liking.

This story led me to figure out how learning the art of conversation is important to solve personal and professional conflicts, whether as an ordinary individual or as a changemaker.


To end this story, I quote excerpts from an internal e-mail I circulated among Fellows and alumni, sharing my take on the Art of Conversation and Building Relationships. (You can read the full letter here, reproduced by a colleague on his blog.)

These pointers have helped me immensely in my personal life as well, for example – yes, it’s true – having conversations with my mother when she is disappointed that I am not yet ready to marry! This is also important to solve many present-day socio-political conflicts that are polarizing us.

  • Protesters demand instantly; leaders invest over time. Protesters seek short-term change, because they work with the situation; leaders seek to change things for the longer run, because they work with mindsets.
  • If it seems impossible, it’s not because there’s no solution, but because the right solution/way/approach has not been tried yet.
  • As a true leader, one must practise and master the art of building and maintaining difficult relationships in order to achieve one’s larger vision. If we don’t have this belief strongly, we may tend to crib about the challenges thrown at us. We may start hating the conditions and people we work with, instead of looking within ourselves to see what we can do better.
  • Building relationships is a human skill. Be human; approach issues with basic human values of respect, empathy, patience. Use basic human tools that work everywhere: examples, evidence, and just talking.

Questions to ask yourself in case of a conflict:

  • Why should the other person think the way I do? Why should they agree to me?
  • If they think similarly to me but still do things differently, why is that?
  • What are their struggles? What is their life like?
  • Am I starting conversations from my perspective, or their perspective? (Start conversations from the others’ point of view, not yours)
  • If it’s something they have done/believed in for years and decades, why should they immediately accept my view?
  • Do I think of myself as a person with mindsets and ideas different to them, or do I think of myself as someone with mindsets and ideas superior to them?
  • Am I expecting changed mindsets immediately? Why?
  • Do I have a basic relationship at a human level with the person, before I even think of solving issues?

Read the second part here.

1 Response
  • Amenla
    Nov 25, 2017

    The first three paragraphs had me getting into deeper thoughts. The whole was a stimulating read, so many to take away.

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