I’ve just come back from a great week in India – Goa, beautiful. It matches the Jungle Book picture we have in our heads, in a way that most of India does not.
It was actually my 4th visit to the country. The last time I was there, I was teaching in a school and had an experience that is hilarious in retrospect but the trainer’s worst nightmare at the time.
And it’s a story that holds some interesting lessons for the negotiator.
Off to India
A friend of mine had attended a workshop I ran in London, loved it, and asked me to do something similar for a school in Rajasthan that she sponsored.
It was a school for disabled children, it did some fantastic things and was extremely supportive of them. But when they left and went back to their villages, things were not necessarily so comfortable.
Sadly, many people in those parts believe that disabilities are a punishment for wrong-doings in a previous life, so anyone with a handicap is often shunned or looked down upon. For the students to leave the protected environment of the school and go back to a normal life in their village could be quite difficult.
It was my job to give them some of the life-skills they would need when they were out there in the world fending for themselves. As a precaution, I asked about their language skills and my friend told me they all spoke perfect English and there would be an interpreter available, just in case.
I was looking forward to it.
Plans A & B
It was an overnight flight to Delhi, followed by an overnight train journey to the school, in the middle of the Thar desert, just outside Jodhpur. I arrived at 8am, ready to start the week’s teaching at 10. I was hot and tired, it was already 35°C and getting hotter. We had breakfast and as we finished, I was introduced to one of the children I was going to teach, who happened to be passing by.
There was a problem – he didn’t really speak English. Or, at least, I couldn’t understand him and he couldn’t understand me. So I asked how did this student compare with the rest of the class. Was he top of the class? Bottom? Middle?
Hmm, probably the brightest student in the class. Ok, it was time to implement Plan B and call over the interpreter. It was the English teacher, naturally. Except, it appeared the English teacher didn’t really speak English either. Kind of explained things, I suppose.
Ok, I now had about 30 minutes before my 5 day programme began and I realised that my audience would not understand a single word I said and there was no interpreter. Ouch!
Plans C, D…Z
But I had a flash of genius and I came up with my Plan C! These were behavioural skills I was teaching so I decided to demonstrate the behaviour (a “how to” contrasted with a “how not to”) and then ask the students to discuss what they saw amongst themselves. This way, the learning would be in their own language. Genius! I felt very pleased with myself.
So I acted it out and they seemed to get the gist and then told them (this was translated) to get into groups of 4 and talk about what they saw.
They sat there, staring back at me. “Ok, get into groups of 4…now”. They sat there, staring back at me. I jumped down from the stage and got 4 people into a group and told them to discuss what they saw. They stared at each other and then stared back at me.
The English teacher joined in, as did my friend, the trustee and the trustee’s wife. Even the trustee’s dog was running around, seeming to join in.
I stood back and looked at the scene. I was half an hour into a 5 day programme and it was utter chaos! The trainer’s worst nightmare! Please tell me I could wake up soon!
Where had it all gone wrong?
As it happened, things turned out well in the end. We had to improvise our way through plans C, D, E and most of the letters through to Z but, with everyone pulling together, the week was a successful one.
But how did it come to this in the first place? After all, I had asked if the students spoke English and I was given a very clear answer, with a back-up plan as well. Hadn’t I done everything I could?
Now, it wasn’t that they lied to me. They were my friends, they were intelligent, successful people and they wanted the venture to succeed.
But it boiled down to two things:
a) since they weren’t trainers themselves, they didn’t understand the level of English needed for the job (by either students or translator)
b) it wasn’t their a*s on the line! Since I was the person who was going to be looking stupid up on the podium, they probably weren’t as careful about their answer as they might have been had it been them.
The lesson for the negotiator – don’t rely on a rumour
So the next time you strike a deal and you ask will they be able to deliver on their side, just because they say ‘yes’ does not mean that it will turn out that way in practice. Even if they’re nice people. Unless you check for yourself, it is simply a rumour.
What I should have done in that instance is called the English teacher on the phone before coming out. That way, I could have made my own first-hand assessment.
In negotiations, it is important to be a belt-and-braces man. But more than that, if it is you that stands to lose out if it goes wrong, don’t rely on the belt and braces that the other party hands to you.
Keep a piece of string in your pocket, too, just in case.