Listening as Basic to Serving (Listening Seva, Part 2)
Challenges: feed the hungry, respond to crises and disasters, deal with recessions. Listen.
In a previous article, “Listening as Service”, we have explored how we can serve others through safe, effective and compassionate listening: “Listening is built around and is supported by the other essential human behaviors: trust, care, curiosity, reason, and patience.” That article was about the individual listening to serve others. As quoted from that article:
Service leadership is very important in our organizations, communities and governments. But listening is particularly important as the conduct critical for modern human civilization.
This article takes up where that article left off and explores how organizations and institutions can serve by effective listening, listening that attends carefully to the needs of communities and even whole countries. This article is about nonprofits, but also governments, foundations, and other institutions that provide service to humanity. It is about organizations like the Bangla Sahib Gurudwara in New Delhi—in the name of Sri Harkrishan Guru—which is providing seva in the form of free oxygen cylinders to COVID-19 patients in the midst of an acute shortage of oxygen for patients.
Much like startups, nonprofits survive on funding for cash flows. They need the resources to serve others, and to be most effective in serving others there must be listening. What works on the largest scale is equally important on the local level as we desire to help family and friends.
There are many ways to serve, but to serve well requires listening.
Not only does listening give us the information we need to serve well, listening is also a basic means to economic survival and the spiritual growth of self and other. In the larger sense (national and global) various groups such as NGOs, religions, governments, and other institutions provide service to people in need around the planet.
For instance, who would have thought that Sikhs had set up a community kitchen (a langar) in Queens Village? Inside a low, brick-red building, the Sikh Center, in Queens Village (New York), a group of about 30 cooks has made and served more than 145,000 free meals in just 10 weeks. Anyone, Sikh or not, can visit a gurdwara and partake in langar. With the biggest free kitchens—like the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India—serving more than 100,000 people every day.
Catholic Charities as another example has been launching pop-up pantries in communities of need in these times of a devastating pandemic.
On the border with Ethiopia and Sudan, the UN has been helping refugees escaping the military offensive in the Tigray region of Sudan. Although the Sudanese are Muslim, some have been reaching out to help the mostly Christian Ethiopians. What motivates the Sudanese to open their ears and their village to these strangers? What is the source of their compassion and how are they able to listen and hear the needs of strangers? What makes some people empathic and open to hear the needs of another? What are the conditions that require that we care and reach out?
We know practically that there are many situations where listening is not only essential, but really critical. Above we have cited a few examples of some of the larger issues of listening in order to be of service and solve some of the most important problems in our modern world. But how does one get the commitment, the compassion to listen? That is a crucial question to ask. How do you or I or an organization come to listen so that we know what to provide?
Listening, with our ears on the ground, close to the needs of those served, is always unique in some way; individuals differ, “one size fits all” doesn’t work very well. The people and the community’s needs do have some generality, but through listening engagement we also hear differences of culture, geography, local flavor, and the special needs of the community. Indeed, we want to respond and help by being responsible, but that requires listening, —our special use of listening and not generalities or opinions of others not in touch with those in need—how can we know how to respond if we haven’t listened to the others needs and concerns and situation?
Another case is Oxfam, a service-oriented non-profit organization that listens. In fact, listening is in their depiction of their mission. On their website Oxfam states: We focus on activities which directly address community perceptions. Our teams go out and meet people. We take the time to listen and discuss what needs to be done: “To fight COVID-19, we must listen to the communities.” They emphasize that teams pay attention to people’s feelings, their way of perceiving the disease, their questions. Oxfam knows that it is important to be aware of where their attention and response is focused. It must be on the people and situation that most matters.
A different example from politics, is that of Mario Draghi, who was head of the European Central Bank during darkest days of the Great (global) Recession. With the EU he managed a financial crisis. It is said that he served by listening first: his modus operandi was “more in listening and less in talking.” Now he serves as the leader of Italy in a time of pandemic.
First, regardless of the organization—service, government or other—to be effective it must have leaders, and workers at all levels who listen to know what is needed in any situation. Without listening there is no way to know the needs of those many who are suffering in the world today.
Second, it is a necessity to listen, as heartfelt attention, in tune with the others, and in a responsible manner. Such behavior requires reflection so that we may realize compassion, empathy, a cool head, imagination and wonder, through being circumspect and curious. One should be a careful listener open to consider all circumstances and potential consequences—how can we make the world better? How do we acquire, learn, bring that to the fore, shift to that vibe, attune ourselves in that way? We need each other. Tendencies to listen with one’s own ego driving the listening does not work well. Get out of your “shoes” and stand for a moment in the shoes of the other. Treat others as you would like to be treated. These are rules, but how do we take them up? How do we adopt and carry out the weight of these behaviors? What moves us to change?
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation ran their efforts from Seattle for many years, but lately discovered that moving their work to centers to Africa was much better as those closest to the problems were more attuned and could be empathetic and listen better to the needs of the small cities and villages where development and support was needed. Also, on the Gates Foundation website we find goals such as, “We strive to be a respectful and fair partner to our stakeholders.” This respect requires listening to be effective on joint projects with local partnerships. Of course, not every NGO or support organization is refocusing its energies as is the Gates Foundation. But many are rethinking how they decolonize their efforts.
We must take some institution of ethics and adhere to its dictates. We need some guides and guardrails for listening communication and action.
So much is organizational, but in the final hour listening is as much an individual act as an organizational imperative. As above so below, or as for organizations, so for the individual. As we have implied, organizations are made up of individuals and those individuals must listen at work, but also in their personal lives. In the end, life goes better with listening.
NY Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/08/dining/free-food-sikh-gundwara-langar.html