It's Not Them, It's You! Training Ourselves to Listen


If you think you are not being understood. You might not be understanding.

I recently sat with two indigenous women from a rural area in Peru as they patiently waited on line from a loan from a local cooperative. After a few rounds of questions and answers about their risks and how climate change has impacted them, it became clear that the women had no interest in insurance. But I still wondered. Perhaps they don't understand me? Spanish is not their first language. They have never had insurance before. I tried rephrasing my questions, only to have both women reinforcing each other in re-stating that they had absolutely no interest in insurance.

And then I realized, it is not them who didn't understand me. It was me, who didn't understand them. They were trying to let me down easy with their measured words and silent responses.  Insurance had no value to them. They kept small animals that they sold when emergencies struck and they did not trust banks or insurers to keep their promise of payment. Looking around the town, I couldn't blame them. The town was a busy agricultural trading center. It had resources. Yet, there was no municipal sanitation collection or pavement of roads other than one main highway. Schools looked like small prisons. The Mayor of the next town, much like Peru's President, had been recently jailed for corruption.

To truly learn from clients, we need to apply intuition and skills to our listening. We need to listen to a silent response. We need to listen when someone averts their eyes. We need to listen when someone tells us "no", not because they don't want something but they don't trust that you could ever deliver. Remember that the most vulnerable people we meet- like the indigenous, rural, poor, women i was speaking to- have heard it all and have seen many disappointments. Their silence carries the sounds of that disappointment and it is up to us to learn to hear it.