My Peace Corps life has been full of training. Just in the last few months I’ve been trained on M&E, STEPS Films, all things Malaria, and how to teach a youth economic empowerment curriculum – not to mention hour upon hour of Peace Corps trainings. This week I find myself in Kanye, training on Grassroot Soccer (GRS). This program combines soccer and HIV education, reaching youth by appealing to their interests. GRS uses soccer-based games to teach about our immune systems, how HIV is transmitted, problems of stigma, and how we can protect ourselves. It provides a platform for talking about unhealthy relationships, gender norms, and other topics that can be hard to talk about. During the last four days we’ve dribbled our way through minefields of risky behaviors, raced against HIV, and pretended to be ARV’s. We have practiced being kids.
Every training I’ve been to has been about more than the facts, the games, or the new approach to facilitation. Each training has taught me something about myself. There has been one pithy phrase or catchy tag line that resonated with me, some lesson that I can apply to myself or my life in general. Learning in Peace Corps is holistic – you learn about new cultures, the world at-large, and yourself. Grassroot Soccer is no different.
In this training we learned about the 11 “Be’s” – guiding principles for good facilitators. Some are pretty straightforward: Be Prepared, Be Flexible, Be Positive. Some tie back to Soccer: Be a Coach, Be a Teamplayer. But there’s one I will never forget: Be an Elephant.
Elephants are pretty awesome. They have lots of excellent traits that we should try to embody. Elephants never forget, after all. They are majestic and powerful. They are caring and cautious. Elephants are like nature’s ninjas – silent and sometimes deadly. But most of all, they have really big ears. Like REALLY big.
Being an elephant is all about the old adage: listen more than you talk.
This turns out to be much harder than one thinks. While elephants have incredibly large ears, humans only have little tiny ones. We are naturally talkative, wanting to share ideas and opinions. And I for one was never really taught how to listen.
Since becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’ve learned more about what being a good listener actually means. It means taking the time not to say something and reflect on what other people are saying. It means listening to more than the words that are being said. It means more than waiting for your turn to talk. It means listening with more than your ears, but with your eyes, your head, and your heart.
Learning to be a better listener is more than knowing this. It comes with a change in your mindset and a new level of self-awareness. It changes your perception of people around you and the situations you find yourself in. You become quieter. You become more thoughtful. I’ve started to hear things in new ways, and to hear things I’ve never heard before.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, listening is a key skill. To learn and integrate into a new culture you really have to hear what people tell you. When you’re facilitating you have to respond to the needs of the participants, which all starts with listening. When you are learning a language you have to hear it first. In almost everything I do, the first step is to be an elephant.