It is often hard to remember that listening is the best first step to creating solutions, especially when the solutions are not for us, personally. The older I get, the more I understand that listening is truly the best first step in nearly every situation, though, whether it’s meeting someone new, planning a project, walking with a friend.

If we don’t listen, it’s easy to forget that someone else’s perspective might be incredibly valuable.  Last October, Gloria Steinem told this story to a room full of people I was lucky enough to be in.

She had traveled to Africa to attend a summit on sex trafficking with many, many organizations and governmental representatives all gathered together to come up with ways to combat this rising challenge.  During a break in the meetings, she was approached by a woman who asked her to travel with her to a small village where several women had recently been lost to this trade. Gloria was flattered and shocked, unsure of what she could do to help this small village, much less how she would manage to communicate with the villagers, but she went.

She described a scene where a feast was prepared and blankets spread out on the grass, with all of the women in a circle ready to address her.  Translating their concerns was difficult, but they found a way to get their request across – the women of the village wanted elephant fences.  Gloria was confused. What do elephant fences have to do with sex trafficking? The women explained:

The livelihood of this village was largely dependent on growing maize.  Over time, though, as elephant habitats become smaller and smaller, the elephants discovered the fields of maize and came  to the village to feed on them.  This left the village in dire straits – they had not enough maize to feed their own families, much less to sell to others.  It is because of this that three young women traveled to the nearest large city to find work to send home money to support their families. When they arrived in the city, they were kidnapped and sold as sex slaves.  The rest of the villagers reasoned that if they raised the equivalent of a few thousand dollars to erect fences that would prevent the elephants from eating their maize, they could keep their young women from having to leave the village to find work.

Gloria was stunned by this simple solution – one that nobody at her enormous conference would have come up with. She traveled back to the city and worked for several days to raise money to build the fences.   More than that, she demonstrated the power of listening. By traveling to the village to hear the ideas of the people most affected, she was enabling them to empower themselves and helping them find a way to prevent their girls from being sex-trafficked.  It is not a solution for the many, to be sure, but for this village it was monumental. And it cost mere pennies compared to the proposals being raised at this multinational conference, most of which were not preventative solutions, but punitive ones for the traffickers themselves.

I am so often struck remembering this story as I read stories in the news about government agencies or non-profit organizations who are puzzling over potential solutions to poverty, hunger, major health issues, and violence in particular countries or communities. The first question I ask myself these days is whether the folks with the leverage and money to provide help have asked the communities in question for their stories, their ideas, their solutions. Bringing American-style answers to questions that exist in non-western countries may turn out to be wasteful or overkill and it may well be that if one or two people listen to the individuals living with the struggles and ask for their perspective, they can come up with simpler, more comprehensive solutions.

It seems obvious, but it is so easy to get caught up in our own viewpoint and the belief that wanting to help is enough. I do the same thing with my kids all the time, swooping in to offer advice or put into place some new system that I think will fix a pervasive problem in our household without asking them what they think. And, especially when it comes to kids, I think adults do that a lot. I watched my daughters’ middle school revamp their dress code four times in four years, having discussions with staff and administration, parents and board members, but it wasn’t until they listened to the students that they came up with a solution that everyone feels good about. It was a student that got so frustrated she crafted a PowerPoint Presentation to illustrate the issues and potential solutions, and it took a month of student council meetings to come up with a new set of guidelines that has everyone breathing a sigh of relief. Four years (at least). Four years of meetings, research, discussion, fiddling with different ideas, and nobody was happy.

I have a photo of an elephant fence tucked inside my nightstand as a powerful reminder that listening is one of the most effective, efficient things I can do every day. Even if I see my strengths as collaboration and a strong desire to help, it turns out that the best way to do that is by asking the stakeholders what they think, no matter who they are.

Lola is making a scarf for one of her teachers. She found some thick, alpaca yarn in our craft box one day and remembered that, once upon a time during a quiet moment in class, this teacher taught her how to finger crochet. She decided it would be cool if she put those skills to use and, after polling everyone in the house to see who could help her, she settled on me, whose yarn-craft skills are limited to, well, scarves.

She set about crocheting a long chain of warm, fuzzy wool and when she figured it was long enough, she came to me and asked how to turn the corner and double back. Tough to do when finger-crocheting. Even tougher when this seemed like good idea because it wouldn’t take long and now you’re realizing that the days are getting longer and sunnier and what you really want to do is go outside and shoot baskets instead of picking at yarn until your fingers cramp. She stuck to it for several days, though, and I was pretty excited.

This morning, she discovered a knot in her yarn. The scarf is nearly done and Lola was looking forward to being free of this task that has taken on a life of its own, so her frustration tolerance was pretty low to begin with. Monday mornings are not her strong suit, either, given that they require lots of transitions – weekend to weekday, getting dressed and eating on a schedule, deciding what to pack for lunch, ensuring that all the homework you did way back on Friday is actually complete and in your backpack, etc. So this knot was a problem. She pulled and tugged, gently at first so as not to rip out all of the stitches she has done up to this point, and then with more gusto as she realized this knot was stubborn.

In the beginning it wasn’t much of a knot and I tried to step in and caution her not to pull it tighter, but she brushed me off, determined to do it herself. I watched with mounting frustration, my bottom lip thrusting up and the corners of my mouth pulling down in that universal look of, “Oh, no!” as the knot itself became smaller and smaller and tighter and tighter. By the time she had reached the end of her patience it was in there good.

The last time I got really mad at Bubba I did the same thing. Instead of treading lightly and reaching in gently to unravel the issue, I pulled. Without yelling or screaming, I moved away from the knot because it made me uncomfortable. At the same time, I mortared my resolve to be mad by justifying my anger in my head, ticking off all of the reasons I was “right” to be upset. Tugging, tugging away at that knot. Even though I know that moving toward the issue and looking at it from all sides was the only way to undo it, I pulled away. Instead of trying to get those two opposing ends to come together and work around, under and through the problem, I cemented that knot in there.

Try it. Get a piece of string or ribbon about ten inches long and tie a loose knot in it. There is no way you’re getting that knot out by pulling the ends in opposite directions. But if you gently reach your fingers in there, between the strands, and loosen them, all the while pulling the disparate ends closer to each other, you’ll soon have your string back. Now, I know there are all types of different knots, some much more complicated than others, but I tend to think that the vast majority of trouble we get ourselves into with each other is of the garden-variety, regular old knot type. No matter how complex it seems, the best way I know to get that knot out is to move toward it with the intention of using our wits to unravel it. I’ve never met a simple knot I can undo with brute strength.