Our most valuable skill is our willingness to listen


Lessons Learned from Culture

Written by Mark Mandzik

I've always liked memes. Sayings, catchphrases, mottos, you name it. Each one exists for a specific reason, and history has an uncanny tendency to repeat itself. Although I've made a career of being contracted to help and teach clients how to run their organizations better, I simply can't think of a single time where I didn't come away learning something from each particular engagement.

One of my favourite places to sit down and talk to people about lessons learned from life is Liberia. The people there love to converse and tell stories, and their language and demeanour is always jovial, animated, and engaging. 

Liberians have no shortage of sayings to illustrate their points, and every time they make me smile and realize that wisdom is something that comes from experience. It's a good thing if you're like me and looking for some "bright-side" benefits of getting older. You can see some of my favourites below.

A drowning man Liberia was devastated by civil war, and years later is still putting the pieces back together. That said, even during tough times, a bad idea is still nothing more than a bad idea. One fine day I found myself in Monrovia discussing options for addressing some issues that a client had with my organization in the electricity sector. The subject gentleman was of a different mind than I on the type of solutions my team was proposing, so to make his point that my offer was better than nothing, or perhaps, more aptly translated, even worse than nothing, he simply said to me "A drowning man will even grab hold of a sword". Great way to make a point, I thought - no pun intended. Needless to say, we revisited our approach.

The village idiot Some people sure know when to lay down a quote in order to achieve maximum impact. This time I was in a client's office discussing a particular individual that my client wasn't getting on well with. Having heard the individual's arguments earlier on, I diplomatically tried to illustrate his points to the client. The Liberian gentleman politely listened to my explanation and once I was finished he imparted the following nugget upon me "If your friend has a problem with one man in the village, then that man may indeed be a problem. However, if your friend has a problem with everyone in the village, then it is your friend who is the problem". Hard to argue against that one.

Sailing Ships The last piece of advice came to me in the form of a maritime story recounted by another Liberian gentleman who wanted to demonstrate to me the proper way of affecting change in his (or any) country. His story went something like this "You know those big huge destroyer ships you see once in awhile anchored offshore or on television? They're huge, massive vessels that carry tanks, aircraft, and thousands of sailors. And do you know how you steer one of those gigantic steel monsters? Simple. With a soft touch. A simple turn of the ship's wheel with something as delicate as a single finger can manoeuvre a ship the size of a small city if you do it right, but if you don't, the strength of all the men on board couldn't so much as make it budge if they all pushed their strength against it at once."

You learn a lot from people when you listen. Unfortunately, most of us don't hear very well because our lips are always moving.