The Importance of listening and tomatoes in Zambia

how to listenDo you know how to listen?  I meet new people all the time through my work and travels and I’m amazed at how many of them just don’t understand the importance of listening.

They talk and talk and talk about themselves and have no interest in finding out about me.

Having been taught good manners by my parents, and being Irish, who are a hospitable people, I always attempt to strike up a conversation when I meet someone new.

I ask their name, and where they’re from and what they like to do.  Whatever it takes to build rapport and learn something about them.

But I have noticed how many people just talk about themselves and don’t seem to know how to listen.

Just because you listen doesn’t make you a therapist

Several months ago, I was having tea with a colleague at Starbucks.  We were discussing various topics related to our business – nothing remarkable.

My friend later told me that after I left, a man sitting nearby asked her if I was a therapist.  He said he hadn’t seen anyone listen to another so intently since he was getting counseling for PTSD after the Korean War.

I tell this story not to praise my own listening skills.  I just want to make the point that I think it’s a sad state of affairs that so few people listen in our society that, when they do, it’s assumed they must be therapists!

The fact that people need help in learning how to listen is also evidenced by the fact that THE MOST POPULAR POST on my website is:  “38 Conversation Starters.”  Absolutely the top-raking, most-read post.

And that tells me people know they need help in learning how to have a two-sided conversation.  Which means alternating between talking and listening.

The benefits of learning how to listen

  1. You can broaden your knowledge.  You will probably learn something you didn’t know before.
  2. You show respect when you listen to another, and they in turn will respect you for having listened to them.
  3. People like a listener; you’ll be well thought of and have better relationships.
  4. Listening carefully can avoid misunderstandings.

How to practice active listening

  1. Remove distractions.  Put down the cell phone or i-Pad and look the other person in the eye. [with a smile I might add]. No multi-tasking!
  2. Listen to the speaker, giving them your full attention.  Notice their mannerisms and tone of voice. Don’t just listen to their words, but try to understand their message.
  3. Show you’re listening by occasionally nodding, laughing, make small verbal comments like “yes” or “uh huh” to indicate you’re paying attention.
  4. When they pause, ask a question and wait for the answer.  Listen, then ask more questions. Paraphrase back what they’ve said to make sure you understand.

Asking the right questions while listening

A big part of listening is asking the right questions. You might be surprised at what you can learn.

In fact, there’s an old teaching that the person who asks the last question is in control of the conversation.

Have you ever noticed that if you go to a store or car dealership, the salesperson will ask you a lot of questions?   They’re taking control of not only the situation, but of you.

I like to turn the tables when I shop and I ask the questions of the sales person.  I know what I want and what information I need.

One salesman told me I was the most discerning buyer he’d ever met!

Just be sure to add to your list of questions, “Is there anything else you think I need to know!

I believe one reason my Conversation Starters article is popular is that it’s a list of questions.  Ask the right questions and you’ve started a conversation.  And you can also avoid a whole lot of misunderstanding down the line.

The importance of listening and tomatoes in Zambia

In his popular talk on, Ernesto Sirolli tells the story of going to Zambia with seeds to teach the Zambian people how to grow Italian tomatoes and zucchini in their magnificent fertile valley.

The Italians couldn’t understand why the Zambians didn’t have any agriculture in such a fertile area.  Yet the Zambians showed no interest in learning how to farm.

The Italians thought, “Thank God we’re here.  Just in time to save the Zambian people from starvation.”

The tomatoes grew beautifully in that valley and, just when they were ripe and red, overnight, some 200 hippos came out from the river and ate everything!

And the Zambians pointed out, “That’s why we have no agriculture here.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?

You never asked.

So ask questions and listen carefully to the answers.  There is a whole new world out there for you to discover.

“If you listen close at night, you will hear the creatures of the dark, all of them sacred – the owls, the crickets, the frogs, the night birds – and you will hear beautiful songs, songs you have never heard before. Listen with your heart.  Never stop listening.”  Henry Quick Bear, Lakota

Molly Larkin is the co-author of the international best-seller “The Wind Is My Mother; The Life and Teachings of a Native American Shaman.” She is passionate about helping people live life to their fullest potential through her classes and blog at
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  1. FireSign

    I love the tomato story!

    Well, Molly, it could also be that compassionate and friendly air about you that helps people think you’re a therapist too. Not just the listening! :o)

    • Molly Larkin

      LOL Thank you!

  2. Corey

    Thanks again Molly, really enjoyed this post! 🙂

    • Molly Larkin

      You’re so welcome. And thank you for commenting!

  3. mikael hertzberg

    Really true about listening, there is a saying here in sweden, translated it goes “We got 2 ears and 1 mouth, so we can listen double so much that we talk”

    • Molly Larkin

      Interesting. Native Americans have the same expression. Thank you for commenting all the way from Sweden.

  4. connie

    So true, so true! People, in general, do need a good listener. Maybe they wouldn’t need so much therapy if someone in their life, just listened respectfully, as you do!

    I love the Zambian tomato seed story, too!

    • Molly Larkin

      Thank you, Connie

  5. Jane

    Hi Molly,

    That tomato story had me giggling out loud!!! The title of the story is captivating as well!!!!

    It’s amazing so much time is spent in school, and many life skills, such as listening, are not taught in the indoor classroom. I always enjoyed the Outdoor classroom, Nature. Nature may be the greatest teacher of all and a gift about many things, including the gift of listening.

    And I love the way you shop!

    • Molly Larkin

      Good point about skills that should be taught in the indoor classroom. Of course, indigenous peoples are the masters of listening outdoors. Thank you for commenting.

  6. Jane

    Good Morning Molly, I’m reading back through your posts on this Sunday morning. It is always good for me to re-look over and over again.

    Yes, indigenous peoples are masters of listening outdoors. I’m beginning to see more and more teachers bringing their students to the outdoor classroom.

    And I believe the indigenous peoples try to teach listening and respect of all of life, in such a gentle and kind way. I pray more people will hear what they have to teach.

    And thank you for bringing the words of the Elders as reminders and your words in such a gentle and kind way!

    • Molly Larkin

      Thank you.

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