Short on ears and long on mouth?

We all know the feeling – your stomach drops, a deep and anxious feeling rises, you feel hot – it is the realisation that you have you screwed up – royally! I asked recovery leaders, what is the most common mistake that leaders make in post-disaster recovery? The essence of the responses was that most mistakes could be traced back to one key element – simply, not listening. A former boss gave me some very helpful advice before heading out on my first recovery mission. He said, “Elizabeth, for the first six weeks, just listen”. It was super advice because if you think back on any ‘epic fail’ you generally come to the realisation that ‘not listening’ was a major factor.

I was up to my ears in logistics, assessments and tuna (breakfast, lunch, dinner) on a remote island in the Maldives, when an official from a large UN agency came to visit our recovery operation. She proceeded to ‘strongly advise’ me for the entire day starting most sentences with “When I was in Bosnia…..” the classic Kiwi line, “Well, you’re not in Guatemala now Dr. Ropata!” wasn’t far from my lips. The frustrating thing was that she was an accomplished person who could have been very helpful, if she had just listened – listening was her key to understanding our local issues and giving advice suitable for a small island nation not a war torn European country!’

I am rather fond of Winston Churchill at the moment (thanks for the fellowship!) who put it this way: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” I was at a recovery presentation some time ago where a senior recovery leader described an international ‘lessons learned’ workshop he had just returned from. He said excitedly to the audience, “I actually got to meet real people and listen to real communities.” Ironically, members of the large audience had wanted this leader to do this at home, with his own affected communities, for a long time! You could feel the collective sigh…………

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A selection of reflections to the question – what is the most common mistake that leaders make in post-disaster recovery?  

  • “If only I had done what the people clearly wanted and needed, and not been persuaded by superiors who did not understand the community”
  • “I did not consider ALL who may be affected by my decision making. It didn’t have to happen more than once for me to learn a lesson”.
  • “Be prepared for the worse, have patience, know that you are not alone, reach out for answers, and never stop moving ahead”
  • “To not consult means we are absolutely confident – we give a cast-iron guarantee we know everything”
  • “Leaders typical mistake is to think they know what communities want and don’t put the effort in to find out.”
  • “Putting ego above the needs of people and not listening – thinking they know the answers already.”
  • “Act too quickly, do not explain what they are doing; treat the affected community as mugs, rather than people with an interest in their own community.”
  • “Thinking that they can do it all – their way”
  • “They don’t always tap into knowledge or ask the right questions”
  • “Not being willing to listen – to take on the wisdom of other people”
  • “You must constantly confront and confirm the way you think”
  • “Listen to your instincts and common sense, and don’t be bullied by those who don’t understand the field realities”
  • “You do the best you can, so it is hard to even think about it – hell, I did the best that I could do and that’s all that you can ask of people”

Hillary Clinton understood the value of public listening when she undertook her state-wide ‘listening tour’ in her run for U.S. Senate in New York. She began her campaign by stating: “I think I have some real work to do to get out and listen and learn from the people of New York”. Perhaps regular and authentic ‘listening tours’ for decision makers in disaster recovery is a way to connect them in an authentic way to affected people?  I have myself paled and winced from this experience, especially as emotions run high in recovery. You hear things that are inconvenient, upsetting and confronting but you are also inspired, motivated and informed and this inevitably strengthens decision making, generates ideas and creates partnerships.

Gregory L. Rynders, Battalion Chief, of the Sandy Fire Department in Utah sums it up well, “We believe that talk is power; when we have “the floor” we are in control. Ironically, the reverse is the truth. True power is in listening. When we truly listen to others, they tell us how to best approach them in meeting their needs.”

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