REACT Services

Posts from a league of extraordinary partnership catalysts

A Short Attention Span, by Todd Poulter

A Ugandan colleague once told me, “Americans have a short attention span.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Eastern Africans take longer to respond in conversation than Americans. You step in and speak before we have a chance to say anything. So we frequently get left out in meetings.”

I observed this phenomenon at a conference I attended near Nairobi, Kenya several years later. Leaders representing an expatriate mission agency met with a number of African organizations to dialogue about the challenges in their relationship. It didn’t go well. After the meeting, the expatriates expressed frustration with their African colleagues: “They didn’t talk when we gave them a chance.” The Africans were equally frustrated: “They didn’t give us space to talk.”

Some years later I attended a meeting in Asia in which there were only a few non-Asians present. The Asians, who were in a context where they sensed that they would be listened to, and their input would be valued, participated freely and comfortably. A senior Japanese leader watched this happening and said to me: “Asians aren’t stupid.” That was his shorthand statement for what he had frequently observed: “Asians are often dismissed as stupid because we keep quiet in a fast-paced discussion in English with westerners who don’t appear to be interested in our thoughts.”

Some of us, whether for cultural or personal reasons, think and respond quickly. Others of us need more time to formulate our thoughts, process, and express them. But we, or our partners, may not be patient enough to wait.

I remember a conversation with a Malaysian of Indian descent who was very competent in English. “When I speak English, I am able to speak it well. But I am actually thinking in Tamil. So what I say may not actually be what I mean, or what you think I mean, because I am actually working simultaneously in two different languages.”

But there is more to this than simply a mismatch of communication styles. If you go back and reread the two responses from the Kenya gathering, which group had the power to set the rules? “We gave them a chance…” “They didn’t give us space…” The expatriates had no idea that they had set up a conversational environment that served them well, but shut out the very people they professed to want to hear from.

Think about a network or partnering effort that you’re involved in. The next time you’re together (virtually or face-to-face), sit back and observe the interaction. How widely is the conversation shared among the participants? Who is doing most of the listening, and who is doing most of the talking, especially when decisions are being made? Who is setting the rules for how everyone interacts, even if the rule setting is done implicitly? The ones setting the rules may not even be aware of it, because they are simply doing what they are most comfortable with.

In the network and collaboration conversations that you enage in (or lead), what can you do to ensure that that everyone’s voice is being heard, respected, and valued?


Todd Poulter Todd Poulter and his wife, Karla, have served with Wycliffe Bible Translators for nearly forty years. They started their life together learning the local language in a remote village in northern Ghana. They then took on a progression of significant leadership roles that led them to places like Nairobi, Kenya; Dallas, Texas; and Penang, Malaysia. Their approach to ministry was shaped early on by sage advice received in Ghana: “It’s not what you do, but what you help others do, that matters.”

Todd did his doctoral studies in transformational leadership with a focus on developing intergenerational and intercultural communities of leaders. He currently serves as a Shepherd with International Partnering Associates. The Poulters now make their home on the Island of Hawaii, and have two adult sons — one in California and another in Malaysia. They enjoy nature photography, gelato, and befriending younger couples and their families.


About REACTServices

REACT Services is an architect of decentralized movements that create space for Kingdom collaboration. We assist networks, organizations, businesses and churches in real, results-focused partnering strategies among the most vulnerable and least reached.

One comment on “A Short Attention Span, by Todd Poulter

  1. Peter Hall
    January 19, 2021

    Very insightful. Your article encourages me to be a better listener (James 1:19).

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