The Best Way to Help Someone: Shut Up and Listen!

I was recently blown away by a TED Talk titled, Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and listen! As a young Italian aid worker in Africa back in the 70′s, Ernesto learned how we often get helping so wrong. The talk is so good that I not only encourage you to watch the entire 17 minutes video yourself, but also took the time to write extensive notes for those of you who prefer to read or scan text.

For me, the video has not only inspired my thoughts on entrepreneurship and aid, but also is triggering ideas for how these principles can be applied regarding cultural change within an organization as well.

Lessons from an Agricultural Aid project in Zambia

Worked with an Italian NGO. Everyone had great intentions and truly wanted to help. Yet everything they touch failed. For example, the came to part of Zambia near the Zambezi River and were amazed why the local people in such a fertile valley would have no agriculture. So they taught people to grow italian tomatoes and zucchini. But the people weren’t interested, so they paid them to come learn…and sometimes they showed up. Instead of asking why they weren’t growing anything they said, “Thank God we are here. Just in nick of time to save the Zambian people from starvation.” Of course everything in Africa grew beautifully and they were telling the Zambians, “Look how easy agriculture is.” Just when the tomatoes were nice and ripe, hippos came out of the river and ate everything. And they said to the Zambians, “My God, the hippos!” and the Zambians said, “Yes, that is why we have no agriculture here.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?!?”
“You Never Asked”

The fundamental problem with how we help

  • We think we have the answers
  • Western people tend to be Imperialist Colonial Missionaries
  • There are only 2 ways we deal with people: We either patronize them, or are paternalistic
    • Paternalistic: Treating everyone from a different culture as if they were your children. “I love you so much.”
    • Patronizing: Treating everyone from another culture as if they were my servants. Why white men in Africa are called “Bwana” (Boss).

“Above all in economic development, if people do not wish to be helped, leave them alone.” - Francis Schumacher

The System of Enterprise Facilitation

The first principle of helping someone is respect. So, at the age of 20 he decided to only respond to people.

  • Never initiate anything
  • Never try to motivate anybody
  • Become a servant of the local passion
  • Become a servant of the local people who have a dream to become a better person

What this looks like

  1. You shut up and listen
  2. You never arrive in a community with any of your own ideas
  3. And you sit with the local people. Not in offices, but meet them where they are at/comfortable. Such as at a cafe, pub, etc. This has added benefit of eliminating additional infrastructure
  4. Become friends
  5. Find out what that person wants to do. The most important thing is passion. If that person doesn’t want to do it, what are you going to do?
  6. That passion will be for their own growth. This is the most important thing.
  7. Then and only then do you step in and offer to help them find that knowledge.
  8. Because nobody in the world can succeed alone.

One-on-one, not public meetings

The problem with community meetings is that the most enterprising individuals never come. They aren’t going to tell you in a public meeting what they want to do with their own time and money. What opportunity they have identified. Planning has this blind spot, you often miss the brightest people in your community because they don’t’ come to your public meetings. Peter Drucker said, “Planning is actually incompatible with entrepreneurial society. Planning is the kiss of death of entrepreneurship.”

Family Doctor of Enterprise

So what they do is work one-on-one, and to work one-on-one you have to create a social infrastructure. You have to create a new profession. It is the family doctor of enterprise, who sits with you in your house at your kitchen table, or at the cafe. And helps you find the resources to help you transform your passion into a way to make a living.

First tried this out in Australia. Met a fisherman who was smoking fish in his garage. Together they found a way to sell his fish not at the market, but to a restaurant in Perth. Then 5 of his fisherman friends came and said, hey, aren’t you that guy who helped so and so? And together they found a way to sell their beautiful tuna, not to the cannery for 50 cents a kilo but to the sushi market in Japan for $15 a kilo. And then the farmers came to me…

The australian government asked. How can you do that?

“I do something very, very difficult. I shut up and listen to THEM.” - Ernesto Sirolli

Entrepreneurs Dying of Solitude

There are a new generation of entrepreneurs who are dying of solitude. You have to figure out how to get people to come talk to you.

  1. You have to offer them confidentiality and privacy
  2. You have to be fanatic about helping them.

Then they will come.
They will come in droves.

The best solutions come from Entrepreneurs

We have systems which are currently not sustainable. Who is going to invent the technology and new systems? Universities? Forget about it. Government? Forget about it. It is entrepreneurs and they are doing it now.

In 1860 a large group of leaders speculated about what would happen to New York City in 100 years. Unanimous decision…the city of New York will not exist in 100 years. Why? Because if the population continues at the current rate, to move the population of New York around, they would have needed 6 million horses. And the manure created by 6 million horses would be impossible to deal with. They were already drowning in horse manure. So 1860, they see this dirty technology that is going to squeeze the life out of New York.

But 40 years later, in 1900 entrepreneurs had formed over 1001 car manufacturing companies in the US. The idea of an entirely different technology had absolutely taken over. Tiny tiny little factories in back waters.

The secret to working with entrepreneurs

In addition to confidentiality and fanatic service, you also have to tell them the secret of entrepreneurship.

  1. Product that you want to see has to be fantastic
  2. Must have fantastic marketing
  3. Tremendous financial management
  4. No one person can do all 3. You can’t do it alone.

Guess what, we have never met a single human being in the world who can make it, sell it, and look after the money. It doesn’t exist. This person has never been born. They have done the research and looked at the 100 iconic companies around the world and there is only one thing that these successful companies have in common. Not one of them was started by a single person.

When teaching youth about entrepreneurship, they give them the first 2 pages of Richard Branson’s biography and have them underline times Richard Branson uses the term “I” and how many times he uses the term “we”. Instances of “I” = 0, Instances of “we”, 32. He wasn’t alone when he started.

How to truly help

So they can create the community, that has facilitators who come from a small business background sitting in cafe’s, bars, and who are your dedicated buddies. Who will come to you and say, “What do you need? Can you make it? Can you sell it? Can you look after the money?”

“Oh no, I cannot do this.”

“Will you like me to help you find somebody who can?”

They activate communities and have groups of volunteers supporting facilitators to help you to find resources and people.

We have discovered the at the miracle of the intelligence of local people is such that you can change the the culture and economy of this community just by capturing the passion, energy, and imagination of your own people.” - Ernesto Sirolli

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How might your organization apply these principles in your programs or even within your own corporate culture?