Ahimsa 5: Have a Dialogue

We reflect again this week on violence in the work place. Most of our workplaces tend to be quite civilized. Nobody beats each other up, or carries knives or guns to work, yet, there is an undercurrent of simmering violence - one can see it and feel it. It shows in people’s tense or angry faces; in their stiff, ‘don’t come near me’ body language; in the mean, thoughtless way they react to their colleagues juniors.

I observed something interesting in one of the colleges where I did a work shop on Gandhian values for the students. I noticed that in one department, some of the teachers did not have eye contact with each other; neither did they smile or talk to each other in a friendly manner. In conversation, I learnt that some of them were targeted for coming up with new ideas and being creative. A few of the older lecturers and professors who had been there for two decades or more did not want change of any kind. They felt threatened by the younger teachers, so they made life a little miserable for them. This group was given extra classes during their free periods, and put on lunch time duties more frequently than the other staff. This annoyed them, as they felt it was unfair. When the teachers protested, harshly worded memos were sent to them. As a result some in one group were not speaking to the other, unless absolutely necessary, and when they did speak, it was rather sarcastically. The would pass by each other and look the other way. Some of the teachers in both groups were pleasant to each other and maintained friendly conversations despite the war that seemed to be going on. These teachers were targeted too. There was lot of hurt and deep wounds and the atmosphere was very unpleasant.

“ Is there violence in the staff room?” I asked them.

“ No,” they replied. Yet when they spoke they said tings like , “ I’m really hurt,” “ She wounded me deeply,” “ my feelings are injured” “He caused me a lot of pain.” “ I’m really suffering in this place.”

“ Are these words not associated with violence? “ I asked them. They looked at me blankly. This can easily sum up many of our work places.

In most work places, people have forgotten the value of dialoguing with respect for each other. Talking to each other about whatever is the problem, ironing out misunderstandings, making compromises, coming up with a new agenda that pleases everyone, developing a give and take attitude and forgiving mistakes, takes great strength and courage. Showing courtesy, being polite and good- mannered, not using abusive language and listening to what the other person has to say diffuses violence immediately.

One reader wrote saying, “ I live in a college hostel where some students keep their music very loud when others are studying. Talking to them to reduce the volume has not helped. When we hear that loud music when we are trying to concentrate we get very angry. What do we do in an ahimsa way at such a time?”

I understood this readers problem so easily as once I too was in the same situation. I and my friends too tried to reason with the inconsiderate loud music lovers. One day we came up with an idea. The opposite side also needed to sleep and study. When they did so, we too made a loud nice outside their rooms by banging tin and aluminum plates together. We did this for a week, and came to an agreement. The could keep their music loud till dinner time. And we stop making our noises.

Another reader wrote saying, “ If we live these ahimsa values, won’t people take advantage of us? Won’t we be the fools in the long run? “ Whenever we doubt the power of living the ahimsa way, we only need to look deep into our own Indian cultural heritage to find the answers. My favourite is of the snake who kept getting hurt, and of the monk who taught him to stand up for himself without hurting others. { Jataka Tales}

There are many bosses, whether in a school, hospital, corporate office or factory who believe that they can expect better efficiency, respect and competence from their staff only by shouting at them or threatening them in some way. Some also believe that correction can only be done through violent, abusive, dehumanizing means, quite forgetting that the whole point of correcting someone is to prevent them from making the same mistake again.

Can both these issues - expecting efficiency and correcting a mistake be done in a non - violent way? A subordinate who is hesitant or inefficient must have a reason for being so. Is it lack of knowledge? A low self esteem? Lack of practice? Fear? Lack of motivation? A gentle way would be to find out what the problem is and affirm him or her. In my very first job, I had to handle tilling machines. In that first hour, I made so many mistakes, irritated several people by my inefficiency and felt extremely stupid. My boss Gerda, a big Swedish lady, took me aside, gave me a spare till and asked me to practice on it till I felt comfortable enough to come back to the main one. “ You aren’t the only one, almost everyone has the same problem at first, but keep practicing and you’ll be back in an hour” she said, affirming me.

Being an ahimsa person requires creativity, time, energy and generosity of heart. It is taking the long hard way to solve a problem, but in the end, it is the only way that works.

Perhaps in your own work place you can discuss the different ways in which you bring hurt to each other. Perhaps you could even try some of the ahimsa ways and see which brings more harmony to you work place.