Be the Change

By TM Shekhar Khobrekar

Mumbai Toastmasters has played a vital role in my life. Being a member of this club for the past five years has not only developed my public speaking skills but has also improved my listening skills.

Earlier when I was at home, at the workplace, or with friends, I wouldn’t listen – I would only speak and speak.

However when I first stepped into the shoes of an Evaluator, things began to change. I was left with no choice but to listen and make notes. It was extremely tough in the beginning. I could not share my ideas or thoughts on the topic spoken. I had to be a listener – a passive one at that. I remember the first speech I evaluated. It was very difficult for me to just sit with my mouth shut. I badly wanted to grab the mike and speak but I remained calm and did my work.

Gradually, things changed at work too. I work as a Sr. VP (Project Management) at SPENTA Housing Corporation. There are a number of problems that we have to face onsite. Situations have to be evaluated, decisions have to be taken, and work has to go on. We cannot afford to waste time. Some of our projects are S.R.A. (slum rehabilitation) related, where we have to deal with slumlords and slum residents. Many times, unaware of the magnitude of what we do, they come and obstruct our work making us lose precious time.

On one such occasion, work was in full swing at a site. Huge bulldozers were digging out the earth and rock breakers were crushing rocks. Amidst all this I saw a huge crowd led by some Muhammadan clergymen charging towards us. They were yelling at us to stop the work. I knew panic was not a choice; I could not hurt their sentiments in any way either, I had to handle the situation delicately and smartly. Everyone was talking at the same time, just screaming away. I could not understand a word. I then remembered the listening skills I had developed at Toastmasters. I asked everyone to be quiet and narrate their problems one by one. A woman in her forties got up and spoke first. She said that they were facing problems because of the machines used to break the rocks. The continuous vibrations were felt in their homes. An elderly clergyman said that cracks were formed in the walls of the mosque which could be dangerous. Everyone voiced their grievances which were the same in different ways and all this while I just played the role of a listener. Then, very calmly I addressed the crowd. Seeking their permission, I offered to call the structural consultant who would ascertain if the cracks formed were dangerous or not. On his advice we would stop work as we meant no harm to anyone, only good will. As I said this, the crowd dispersed, content with my solution. No harm was caused in the process, and the situation was in my control.

Had I not developed my  listening skills the entire situation would have spiraled out of control. I would have spoken without understanding the grievances of the people, and in the process severed relationships.

A volatile situation was diffused not because I had great speaking skills but because I used the listening skills I learned as an Evaluator at Toastmasters. Being a Speech Evaluator at Toastmasters has thus been the turning point in my life.

This article was first published on District 98’s bi-monthly newsletter ‘Communicate 98’. To read other articles, click here

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