Sunday, 18 June 2017

Look them in the eye with confidence...

“The one minute that changed Constance’s dynamics with the world, her outlook and worldview, forever”

I met Constance, a 40-year-old adult literacy worker from Sierra Leone, at a leadership training conference in Singapore in 1996. We shared a room during the three weeks the conference lasted. She was chatty and fun to be with.

Dr. Usha  Paulraj
“When I was young,” said Constance during a chat, “I was very thin and small. At the street tap the big fat women always assumed right of way and made straight for the tap ignoring queues formed by puny ones like me. I used to envy them and thought, if I were fatter I could enjoy more freedom of speech.”

“But a day came,” continued Constance, “when I surprised myself with the power of my tongue. A big-built woman pushed me aside saying she needed water more than I did. I retorted, ‘Of course you do. I know you have many nappies to wash for you’ve been giving birth every year.’ The woman was shocked speechless. Then began a torrent of abuse. She yelled at me like mad. But I got more respect from her from that day.”

Constance’s newfound felicity with freedom of speech was short-lived. It had not grown with her years, obviously. Our conference schedule included a course in effective speaking. As part of the training we were called on to make one-minute speeches about ourselves.

Constance was visibly uneasy as she prepared for her speech, and when the time came for her to address the class, her composure failed her totally. I was both shocked and amused to find her extremely nervous. Her feet shifted uneasily and her hands clutched her skirt at the sides. When she spoke her eyes vaguely fixed on something beyond the window and what she said went over our heads. She was rated poor by the instructor, who suggested she leave her skirt alone, steady her feet and look at the audience in the eye when she talked.
Back in the room I ragged Constance about her nervousness. She smiled lightly as if to mean she couldn’t have done anything better. She began to tell me of her first experience of addressing a group.

“That was when I was doing my teacher’s training. For the first practical lesson I had to face a class of 12-year-olds. I was so nervous I just stood before the class trying in vain to pluck words out of my mouth. P’s, t’s and k’s stuck to my tongue and I could do nothing but stammer. I was painfully aware of what a comic figure I cut before the children but I could do nothing about it. They were enjoying every bit of it and were rocking with suppressed mirth.

My professor was seated at the back as an observer. I saw him writing a note and passing it to me through a child. I opened it and read: ‘In case you die of heart-failure today, I don’t want to be held responsible.’ I looked up and saw him striding out of the room, in disgust,” Constance concluded.

I reminded her that in a few days there would be another round of one-minute speeches in the class as per our training schedule.

She became thoughtful and began to talk with a worried look on her face. “What is this business of looking people in the eye?” she frowned. “When we were small, we were instructed not to look in the eye of the people we were talking to. If I looked at my grandmother in the eye, she would exclaim, ‘What a cheeky little thing! Can’t you show respect when an elder talks to you?’ Looking at people in the eye was taken for defiance. So we trained ourselves meticulously to avoid making contact with people’s eyes while talking to them. Now I’m instructed to do just the thing I’ve been afraid to do all along. It beats me.”

I offered a suggestion: “Why don’t you make this the topic of your next one-minute speech? Just tell us about your difficulty in looking people in the eye when you speak to them.”

Constance thought well of the idea. She moved about thoughtfully and during nights I saw her at her table brooding over pen and paper.

The appointed day arrived and one by one we all went up and delivered our speeches. When Constance’s turn came, I waited with bated breath to see what she was going to do. She walked to the front with firm steps, stood there and passed her eyes over the whole class, making contact with every pair of eyes that watched her curiously.

“Friends,” she began confidently, “let me confess to you that this is my first experience of looking people in the eye while talking to them. I could not do it during my first speech and this defect was pointed out to me. I thank our instructor for her guidance. As a child I was taught that to show respect to people, you must look down or away when you speak to them. Looking at people in the eye was considered a sign of cheekiness. But now I realise that I cannot enjoy freedom of expression unless I learn to look freely in the eyes of the people I am speaking to. I also think that I feel a lot more comfortable this way. I shall take this lesson home and train my children to face people when they talk to them. I hope to be a better parent and teacher in future thanks to this lesson. I’m grateful for the experience.”

Constance stole the show that day with her frankness and earnestness. Hers was one of the best speeches of the day and the instructor gave her the full score of fifty upon fifty.

The Hindu, Sunday, 18 June 2017

Blogger's note: The author was formerly Professor of English with Bokaro Steel City College. Her children did their graduation and postgraduation at MCC. Dr. Usha Paulraj is also the author of Speak in Style, a book on Communication Skills, and a Memoir.

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