Over the years of trying to apply the 16 principles of good sadhu sanga in our home discussions, we have developed certain discussion protocols which we find very helpful. Having a set of protocols that everyone agrees to is really useful. It keeps us all singing from the same song sheet, so to speak.
Also, if something goes wrong in the discussion and it becomes confused and disjointed, it becomes easier to fix as we can more easily see which protocol we’ve deviated from and remedy the situation.
Please use or adapt these protocols as you find helpful.
1. Understanding and Response
Our discussions have two main parts: Understanding Srila Prabhupada, and Responding to Srila Prabhupada.
What is a Response? A ‘Response’ is when we ask a question and then we discuss the lights to that question.
Why don’t we just call it a question? Because we do more than ask the question, we also explore the answer to the question.
2. First Understand
Always start with Understanding…Never with a Response (questions).
When devotees give class, they usually read the purport and then share their thoughts or commentaries.
We suggest that you start with just understanding what Srila Prabhupada has written. Do not add your own thoughts or views at this point of the discussion. Just repeat in your own words what Srila Prabhupada means.
3. Deconstruct Sentence
Deconstruct the sentence by unpacking the meaning, a phrase or word at a time. When you have systematically deconstructed the whole sentence, again reconstruct the meaning of the whole sentence, as far as possible without using any of Srila Prabhupada’s own words.
I illustrate this Useful Tip in all the Discuss With Me videos in which I am understanding a sentence of Bhagavad-Gita As It Is.
4. Reflect back in 3 steps
When empathically understanding your discussion partner, you can use three steps:
- Repeat the word or phrase your partner is unpacking.
- Repeat your partner’s explanation.
- Put their explanation in your own words.
Steps 1 & 2 force you to listen, and also help the other person feel truly heard. If you find it hard to listen, just focus on these two steps. As you become more practiced at listening, you can try adding step 3 which is to put their meaning in your own words.
Step 3 is excellent for giving your discussion partner ‘psychological air’. They hear their own meaning rephrased, which gives them a chance to either reconsider their understanding or to feel more comfortable with it and build on it.
If we are enthusiastic and patient in implementing these tips it really helps our discussions become exciting journeys of discovery.
This useful tip evolved from Principle 8 (assist each other’s understandings by empathic active hearing.)
5. Short sound bites
When you are understanding Srila Prabhupada, remember, your discussion partner will need to reflect back to you what you said. So it’s important that you speak in short sound bites otherwise they won’t remember what you said.
6. Courtesy tips when understanding
After applying Useful Tip 4, end each attempt to understand your partner with the phrase, “Have I understood you properly? Would you like to say more?”
This tip ensures they feel comfortable to speak in short sound bites, because they know they will get a chance to finish what they want to say. It also helps them feel valued, that you respect them enough to want to hear what they have to say. This positive emotional energy enables them to more deeply hear and understand Srila Prabhupada.
This useful tip evolved from Principle 9: Discuss with humility, gratitude, mutual appreciation and respect.
7. Courtesy tips when speaking
Make sure you keep the discussion interactive. Don’t hog it. For example, when it is your turn to understand Srila Prabhupada, remember to keep on point. Your discussion partner will keep asking you if you’d like to say more. Speak for as long as it takes you to unpack the sentence, but don’t keep speaking after that just because you are asked if you’d like to say more.
Remember, they may have something they would like to say too. It’s important that we discipline our speech so that they also get a turn to do their understanding.
The same principle applies when we are making our responses. When you are exploring your light to a question, they will keep asking if you would like to say more. Keep speaking as long as you stick strictly to the topic, but don’t go on to speak about other related points. Give them a chance to say something.
When you’ve finished speaking, and they ask if you’d like to say more, you can say, “No thank you. I’ve finished. Would you like to say anything?”
This useful tip evolved from Principle 9.
8. Who answers the question
When your discussion partner asks a question, first reflect back as described above. Then instead of starting to answer the question, ask, “Do you have any lights on your own question?”
This Useful Tip evolved from Principle 8: Assist each other’s understandings by empathic active hearing.
At first some devotees find this Useful Tip strange. But it’s amazing how often we actually get a light on our own question when given a chance. And when the answer comes from us, it’s much more powerful and convincing. Obviously, if we don’t have a light to our own question, we can say so, and our discussion partner can then offer their light.
Did Srila Prabhupada or any acarya do this? In answer to this doubt, I would first like to point out that when we ask a question to our spiritual master, that’s very different from asking a question to another sadhu. A discussion is amongst sadhus who may not have accepted each other as a guru.
However, even though in his dealings with his disciples Srila Prabhupada was the undisputed acarya, he would often ask, “What do you think?” This is very similar to saying, “Do you have a light on your own question?” It’s an invitation to think for ourselves and see if we can remember relevant scriptural instructions.
9. Positive non-verbals
Make sure you give positive non-verbal messages to your discussion partner. Studies have shown that the spoken word only accounts for 7% of what we communicate. Our tone of voice and other sounds we make, account for 38% of what we communicate. And body language and facial expressions make up 55% of what we communicate.
Keeping this in mind, if we really want to help our partner to understand what they are reading, we have to show our interest not just by repeating what they say, but by being aware of all the other ways we are communicating.
If you don’t give your partner eye-contact, if you have a dead pan expression on your face, if your body is turned away, if your voice is lack lustre when you reflect back, you are effectively saying to them that you wish they would stop talking. This will impact negatively on them emotionally, and consequently they are going to find it really hard to think about what they are reading.
Summary of do’s and don’ts of a helpful discussion partner:
- Give eye contact to the person you are understanding.
- Have your body turned towards them.
- Try to smile.
- Speak with an interested tone of voice.
- Be on your mobile phone texting/messaging/or checking your updates while your partner is speaking….
- Get up and go out the room to get yourself a drink or go to the toilet in the middle of them talking.
- Look like you are struggling to keep awake, or worse still, actually fall asleep.
10. Start Response with Question
After both of you have finished your understanding of Srila Prabhupada’s sentence, it’s time to respond. A response must start with a question. Don’t just start sharing whatever comes to mind. This is called mind-mapping, and it’s the best way to take the discussion off on a tangent.
We will never open the honey jar of Srila Prabhupada’s books, if we go off on tangents. To open the honey jar, so to speak, and fully benefit from Srila Prabhupada’s purports, we must ask purposeful questions. If there are no questions, just do your understanding of the next sentence.
11. Five Categories of Questions
To make sure our questions keep us on track, we limit them to five categories of question. These five categories of questions encompass Principles 10, 11 and 13. These questions are tools that we can use to excavate the deeper meaning and application of what we read. Like any tool we should use them only when we need them. We don’t need to ask the question if doing so doesn’t help our assimilation.
The five categories of questions are:
- “Do I have any confusions about the literal meaning of the sentence?” That is to say, are there any words I don’t fully understand, or do I find the sentence structure confusing? This is an important question, because if we don’t understand the literal meaning we will not be able to extract any useful knowledge from the sentence. This question is directly linked to Principle 10. We always have a dictionary at hand during our discussions. In the Discuss With Me section, I refer to questions of this nature as a ‘First Level Response’.
- If we have properly understood the literal meaning of the sentence, the next question is, “Do I have any doubts, confusions, or misgivings about what I have understood?” This question is directly linked to Principle 11. In the Discuss With Me section, I refer to questions of this nature as a ‘Second Level Response’.
- After this we can consider if any insights. By ‘an insight’ I mean asking if we can see any important lessons that are implied (though not directly stated) by the sentence under discussion. I demonstrate this question in a video. In the Discuss With Me section, I refer to questions of this nature as a ‘Third Level Response’.
- The next question is, “Is there anything we have discussed so far that I need to imbibe more deeply?” By this stage in the discussion you may have uncovered truths you had never previously considered. As we tend to forget things very quickly, you may wish to ask this question to see if there is anything that you really want to remember. In the Discuss With Me section, I refer to questions of this nature as a ‘Fourth Level Response’.
- “So what?” This question comes out of Principle 13. It is short hand for, “How can anything that we have understood make any difference to me: in how I think, see, feel, speak, or act?” When appropriate you can divide the reply in to two parts: the ideal application and your personal realistic application. In the Discuss With Me section, I refer to questions of this nature as a ‘Fifth Level Response’.
12. Show Gratitude When Understood
Every time your discussion partner tries to understand you, always thank them. It is the hardest part of the discussion to understand someone else and to put aside what we want to say, so please encourage them by thanking them enthusiastically.
This Useful Tip evolved from Principle 9.
13. Say Why You Are Saying More
If you do have more to say when you are asked, make sure you tell them why you are saying more. If you don’t tell them why you are saying more, they may think it’s because they didn’t understand you properly so you are correcting them. After a while they will likely feel discouraged and demotivated.
The following are reasons why you may want to say more:
- It may be that they didn’t fully understand you and you want to correct their understanding. Make sure that you explain this very positively and appreciatively. Our standard line if our discussion partner didn’t understand us at all is:
“Thank you for trying to understand me. I don’t think I expressed myself clearly. Let me try again.”
Note that we don’t say anything about them failing. If we make our partners feel as if they are failing we may close them off emotionally. When our emotions are closed, our ability to think also becomes stifled. So we try to always be positive with each other.
- If they only partially understood you, you may want to say more in order to fine tune your meaning. Our standard line in such a case is:
“Thank you. You understood me very well. I just want to clarify one point.”
By speaking in this positive encouraging way with each other we emotionally and intellectually empower each other.
- If they understood you perfectly, but you want to say more because you want to add something, then let them know that. Our standard line is:
“Thank you, you understood me perfectly. Because you understood me so well, some other thoughts have come to me that I would like to share.”
This Useful Tip evolved from Principle 9.
14. Stick to the Point
When you are understanding your discussion partner, make sure you stick closely to the point they are trying to make. Don’t use this as an opportunity to sneak in your own point. If you do, you will simply confuse their thinking. You also don’t do yourself any favours because your point will not be understood. Wait till it is your turn to be understood to add your own thoughts, because then the focus of the discussion will be on understanding you.
This Useful Tip evolved from Principle 8.
15. Stop on Time
Allocate a certain amount of time to your discussion, and make sure you stop on time. We allocate half an hour every morning and evening. We stop on time, even if we haven’t finished discussing the sentence we are on.
By stopping the discussion on time, you will find it easier to regularly discuss because you will feel confident that it will not take long. This Useful Tip evolved from Principle 3.
Start you discussion with a recap. A recap is a really good way of maintaining continuity. It helps you to link today’s discussion with yesterday’s. You don’t want to spend long doing your recap. One minute at the most. You don’t need to recap the whole discussion, just remind yourselves of the last point you were discussing the previous day. For example, if you ended on a Response, remind yourselves what the question was, and if there were any lights.
When we start a new verse or chapter, we do a slightly longer recap (maybe 2 or 3 minutes). In these recaps we give an overview of what’s been discussed in the Gita up to this point. This is a really good way of keeping the bigger picture in mind, and keeping a sense of the flow of what is being said.
Have a facilitator. The facilitator keeps the discussion moving. If there are only two of you, the facilitator doesn’t have much to do, but if there are more than two, then the facilitator makes sure everyone gets a chance to participate and that you are keeping to your agreed discussion protocols. The facilitator’s role is very much like that of a conductor of an orchestra.
18. Interact & Participate
Keep the discussion very interactive and participative. Make sure everyone gets equal turns at leading the Jaya Radha Madhava prayers, leading the Sanskrit verse, leading the translation, reading the purport, doing the recap, starting the discussion.
At home we alternate days at being the facilitator. We’ve agreed the facilitator also leads the prayers, but the other participants read the purport, do the recap and start the discussion.