“We must be silent before we can listen. We must listen before we can learn. We must learn before we can prepare. We must prepare before we can serve. We must serve before we can lead.”
–William Arthur Ward
People generally hover on two extremes; they either say ‘yes’ to one and all and get frustrated in the process or they out rightly dismiss all opportunities for growth by a rigid ‘no’. Both stances leave us unhappy; a ‘yes’ to all, driven by an ‘approval seeking behaviour’ isn’t sustainable. And a universal ‘no’ to proposals other than one’s own selfish driven plans, leaves no scope for spontaneity and learning- both of which bring immense fulfilment to the heart. How does a spiritual leader seek to serve positively and at the same time ensure he isn’t fired out by the pressing challenges that are made upon him daily?
Getting the foundation right
The first principle to be strongly grounded upon is the ‘attitude of servitude’. A leader lives to serve; it’s the principle of service that drives him to lead; its ‘service’ that motivates him to excel, set high standards, and add meaning to life. Recognizing our role as ‘contributors to service’, we could have a deep ‘yes’ burning inside- the ‘yes’ to serve and please all; the ‘yes’ to add value to others’ lives. It’s this deep internal ‘yes’ to servitude that also gives us the strength to say ‘no’ to other unimportant things.
Radhanath Swami assures that if we have internalized the ‘servitude’ principle, most of our worries are taken care of.
“I am for God, I am the lover of God, I am loved by God, I am the servant of God, I am the servant of the servant of God, and I am the well-wishing instrument of God’s love towards every living being, with all humility. The emergence of that realization is the greatest attainment in life.”- Radhanath Swami
How do we translate this into practical action, especially when people make unreasonable demands of us and take advantage of our giving in to all demands? I learnt this in an enlivening interaction with a friend who had a ‘yes’ as an answer to all at all times.
Translating the principle into action
Rama dasa, a close friend, was overseeing the computer department of our ashram. I was panicky as I needed a whole document printed in two hours for the management council meeting. Rama dasa humbly reminded me of the new policy that we decided upon of not to allow any printouts, however urgent they are, beyond a certain time. And I was now not entitled to this facility according to the new policy. I was desperate; I hoped he would circumvent the law for me. He sensed my urgency and assured me of help while insisting that it would be a bad example if I broke the policy. He then took the document on a pen drive and promised me that in couple hours he would get the document ready. I carried on with other duties and sure enough two hours later, Ram das was back with the printed document; I later discovered he had gone out to the market, found a good printer and got the job done in time for the meeting.
I realized how Ram das is grounded on ‘yes’ or ‘servitude’ principle while not compromising on important rules. He denied me access to the computers he was in charge of, but nevertheless since his spirit was right, he volunteered to do the job for me, albeit from another source. He could have told me a polite ‘no’ and I couldn’t have made an issue of it. He however knew the sacred virtue of being a ‘servant’ and thus he extended himself to serve; he balanced ‘yes’ and ‘no’ due to being strongly rooted on the positive attitude of servitude. No wonder I always see him happy. James Hunter worded it better than I could say in his ‘The Servant’, “Serving others breaks you free from the shackles of self-absorption that choke out the joy of living”
What I learnt in my interaction with Rama dasa is if you are deeply internally scripted to serve, then even though on certain occasions you can’t serve, your strong desire to serve helps you discover ways to brings happiness to others. Rama dasa could have done his dutiful job by refusing the printout. I couldn’t have complained. However by going that extra mile and getting the printouts while sticking to the rules, he ensured I would be grateful and obliged. Besides, in future I wouldn’t push him to make exceptions to the rules. He achieved both purposes; helped keep friendship and also preserve order and discipline. He achieved this due to his inner desire to be a servant and please all.
Most often we miss the priceless joy of ‘service’ because of our own egoistic nature to be competitive and materially successful. The Jewish Rabbi, Harold Kushner’s poignant remark sobers me up, “The purpose of life is not to win. The purpose of life is to grow and to share. When you come to look back on all that you have done in life, you will get more satisfaction from the pleasure you have brought into other people’s lives than you will from the times that you outdid and defeated them.”
Avoiding conflict by ‘inclusive communication’
However certain situations could be more challenging where you need to out rightly say ‘no’. Yet avoiding a ‘no’ is healthier to preserve relationships. One could express the ‘no’ positively and thus make the person feel included; you say ‘yes’ to the person although the situation may call for a ‘no’. An outright, blunt ‘no’ is an invitation for conflict.
For example if you are a parent and you are concerned that your teenage daughter not goes for the party and instead finishes her study. And when your child asks you if she could go out, you would instinctively say ‘no’ and that could be the seed of a potential conflict. Instead you could reply, “I can see you are really keen to go out and yes you can after you have finished studies and home work.” On many other occasions, you could begin your response to provocative situations by first affirming a ‘yes’ and then speaking positively about the different other priorities that you have. “I wish I could do it, it’s just that right now my priorities are these…..”, when you speak these words in a non-apologetic tone, that’s an example of inclusive communication; you have communicated a clear ‘no’ and yet not alienated the person.
The main thing is the motivation; if you are genuinely an instrument of love and have a sincere desire to serve; God gives the intelligence to speak the precise words. However if our foundational character is fundamentally flawed and marked with duplicity, no amount of communication techniques can really help. It’s the attitude that really matters. Martin Luther King (Jr) echoes these sentiments, ““Everybody can be great because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
Radhanath Swami’s appeal to cultivate ‘servant’ consciousness
Following his guru Srila Prabhupada’s example, Radhanath Swami teaches his students to address each other as ‘prabhu’ which means ‘master’. A spiritualist considers himself as a servant and all others as his masters. In a recent conversation, he revealed to us the deep significance of an apparent ordinary Indian custom of folding hands, “In India, people fold their hands and say “namaskär,” which means that we bow our head down, we prostrate ourselves. It is an act of worship, is it not? And who are we bowing down to? We are bowing down to the Lord within the heart of that person. Even an insignificant ant, if we are actually conscious, we would offer respects to it in our heart, because we are identifying the presence of God and the presence of a part of God within even that ant. Wherever there is life, there is the presence of a part of God. We are offering our worship to the Lord within the heart of that person. That is the greatest respect; that is culture; to not only do it, but to also feel it”
It’s cultivating these sacred principles that help improve communication skills in the long run.