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Hand the Talking Stick to the Kids

  • February 26, 2018
  • Michael’s Blog, Education, Leadership Development, Culture
Michael J. Nyenhuis

Michael J. Nyenhuis

Americares President and CEO Michael J. Nyenhuis leads a health-focused relief and development organization that saves lives and improves health for people affected by poverty or disaster.

We really need to listen.

For years, I have had a Maasai talking stick on my desk. This colorful, beaded stick keeps order in group discussions — only the person holding the stick can speak; others listen. The stick is passed around until everyone is heard. I have bought them in markets in Kenya and Tanzania as gifts for friends and colleagues.

I like the idea the stick represents, but think it might be misnamed. I see it more as a listening stick. Listening seems a lost art. We live in a time when we often push our voice and ideas and shout and talk over others to make a point. Yet listening is the best way to find new ideas, the place to start when seeking agreement and the only way to really understand — a sign of respect, dignity and worth.

This week, I listened to high school students in two very different settings: one formed in tragedy and the other in opportunity.

Like many of you, I watched from a distance as young men and women rallied for change after classmates and teachers were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. Those who spoke were articulate, passionate, thoughtful. Regardless of how one might feel about the issues they raised, it was not time to debate. Rather, it was time to listen.

Under very different circumstances, I engaged with high school students at a well-regarded boarding school in Connecticut. I spoke to the student body and then, in a classroom setting, listened to their responses, ideas and questions. They were articulate, passionate, thoughtful. It was a pleasure to hear their points of view.

My talk was about globalization, which is, simply, the world getting smaller. This change in scale presents opportunities, I suggested. There can be an easier exchange of goods and materials, but there can also be a smoother flow of ideas from communities once neglected or remote, not unlike high school students. Those ideas have value, though, only if we listen. And to emphasize that, I brought my Maasai talking stick.

One U.S. senator recently tried to encourage listening with a Maasai stick. Sen. Susan Collins invited a bi-partisan group of senators to her office in Washington, D.C. for a typically tense discussion on federal spending. She introduced a Maasai talking stick. It seemed to work, for a while. Then one senator, frustrated at a colleague talking out of turn, tossed the stick at him. It went over the interlocutor’s shoulder, struck a cabinet and chipped a glass elephant on Sen. Collins’s desk.

We still have a lot to learn about listening.

After this week, I plan to hand the stick — literally when I can and figuratively at other times — to the young people I encounter wherever I am traveling around the world. I can’t wait to hear what they say.

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