The World is Not Your Stage

Aug 18, 2015 | Life Coaching Blogs

Listening Will End Poverty

In this article in the New Republic last November, Stop Trying to Save the World: Big Ideas are Destroying International Development, the author describes a good idea gone bad:Concert mic

It seemed like such a good idea at the time: A merry-go-round hooked up to a water pump. In rural sub-Saharan Africa, where children are plentiful but clean water is scarce, the PlayPump harnessed one to provide the other. Every time the kids spun around on the big colorful wheel, water filled an elevated tank a few yards away, providing fresh, clean water anyone in the village could use all day.

PlayPump International, the NGO that came up with the idea and developed the technology, seemed to have thought of everything. To pay for maintenance, the elevated water tanks sold advertising, becoming billboards for companies seeking access to rural markets. If the ads didn’t sell, they would feature HIV/AIDS-prevention campaigns. The whole package cost just $7,000 to install in each village and could provide water for up to 2,500 people. …

In 2010, “Frontline” returned to the schools where they had filmed children laughing on the merry-go-rounds, splashing each other with water. They discovered pumps rusting, billboards unsold, women stooping to turn the wheel in pairs. Many of the villages hadn’t even been asked if they wanted a PlayPump, they just got one, sometimes replacing the handpumps they already had. In one community, adults were paying children to operate the pump. 

It seemed like such a good idea.

Very little listening went into this project. Instead the professionals came in with a “common sense” idea and implemented it in partnership with philanthrocapitalist…not the residents.

I found myself in this situation just last week. A neighbor of mine, who also has very little  money and relies on charities and government assistance to feed her family, was telling me about an insurance problem that will now drastically affect the timing of a much needed surgery, which will then drastically affect her health. I jumped into, “Let’s fix it!” mode. She just needed a listening ear.

My bad. I was NOT listening. I was fixing. Shame on me.

Seriously, how much true listening do you do? When I’m not coaching individuals and groups, I’ve got some learning to do. As I said a previous post, for those living in poverty, we presume they’ve done something wrong and need fixed. Listening helps us check our assumptions.

How do you know when you’re really listening?

Because you’re connecting.

When we’re on a stage, we’re projecting. Sure, we’re adjusting to visual cues from our audience, but we’ve already prepared what we’re going to say. We’re talking at, NOT WITH, others.

Listening can be difficult. I don’t know about you, but I usually have about 100 different thoughts flying through my head at any given moment. When I stop to listen, they all go away.

How can we listen more to everyone around us, especially those who are living in poverty and tend to have the world telling them what to do?

  1. Slow down. No, really. Slow wwwaaayyyy down. You can’t listen if you’re moving. Physical stillness will help your mind find stillness.
  2. Check your assumptions. Are you asking what the other person needs or assuming?
  3. Share something meaningful about yourself, without giving advice.
  4. Get beyond their needs. For people living in poverty, they are used to giving their sob story so that others will help. When working in social services, you can quickly come to only see people for their needs. The truth is that they are much richer than that. Who do they love? What do they care about? What are their goals? Discover what you have in common. For example, you’re both humans.
  5. Get beyond your needs. We all come into relationships trying to get our own needs met. Find ways to drop these needs in order to really connect with someone else.

Listening is a powerful tool. That’s why I think community organizing is also so powerful. It builds movements through listening. The only way we’re ever truly going to end poverty is through connecting those who have with those who have not: the spiritually poor with the physically poor. Right now we’re only using money to build these relationships. Let’s use all of our resources instead.

I made a bold claim at the beginning: that listening will end poverty. It’ll take more than one article to flesh this out. In the meantime, I’d love to know what you think it’ll take to end poverty.

Would let me know on Facebook or the Tweet machine?