Schaffer&Combs principal Arthur Combs returned this week from a client project in Kenya, where he had the privilege of working with volunteer Annie Taupier.
I take some pride in my own ability to listen. Working in a myriad of cultures and countries, I have had to cultivate a particularly un-American sense of conversational rhythm. Over the years I’ve watched, in pain, while Americans and Europeans have talked over soft-spoken Kenyans, especially. But I got another dose of humility this month after observing Annie at work. She is not merely a deep listener, she is infinitely patient…
In August and September 2011, I spent three weeks in rural Kenya performing due diligence on seven active medical projects and three proposed investments in a comprehensive, community health care system being built in a particularly impoverished region.
Over the years, we have expanded our sense of what constitutes health care to include far more by way of prevention. To that end, we enlisted the volunteer services of Annie Taupier, a project manager for the mayor’s office in San Francisco.
Annie has performed a myriad of jobs for the city of San Francisco, ranging from the mayor’s political adviser to investigator for the District Attorney’s office. Her expertise encompasses legal, real estate, business, elections, and political affairs.
She brought all of these skills to bear in her two weeks in Nyanza Province, Kenya. She was here to assess the viability of health care investments in supporting a school for especially vulnerable teen age girls, as well as a health insurance scheme for the same demographic. In order to understand the lives of the girls these programs would serve, Annie spent days in the field, visiting remote villages on foot and by bicycle, meeting with local officials, teachers, principals, and getting to know some of the girls personally. She was paid the highest compliment with a bestowal of a Luo name. She is now Annie Achieng Taupier.
It was a pleasure to observe Annie at work. Her listening and analytical skills are especially acute. Her natural, gentle skepticism are tremendous assets in the work we do. We get pitched daily. Not all ideas are good. Even when intentions are. Annie cuts through the irrelevant, sees to the core of a business proposition, of human capability, of intention, of resources.
For my own part, I took particular note of Annie’s capacity to listen. I take some pride in my own ability to listen. Working in a myriad of cultures and countries, I have had to cultivate a particularly un-American sense of conversational rhythm. American meeting rhythms do not often match up with other cultures’ practices. It is very, very easy to talk over people and forever miss the gist of a conversation or that nugget of information essential to success of a project. I’ve watched, in pain, while hundreds of Americans and Europeans have talked over soft-spoken Kenyans, especially.
I had to reassess my own practices after watching Annie. She is not merely a deep listener, she is infinitely patient, letting silences have their way, waiting until she is absolutely sure that the speaker has expressed everything they wished, and then engaging carefully, slowly, and then going back into listening mode. When it’s time for Annie to speak, she has understood the lay of the land to an impressive degree. Until then, she keeps her counsel.
I can stand to improve at this; that’s become clear in the past three weeks. There is no substitute for intelligence and hard work–nor is there for these undervalued qualities: humility and capacity to listen.
We are looking forward to the fruit of Annie’s skillful work in Kenya: a strong, lasting program that will help especially vulnerable girls in this hard place to finish school, avoid the trap of early pregnancy, of HIV, of a lifetime of poverty.