All Good Strategies Start with Listening

by Dr. Sarah Kastner

As someone who has worked in the non-profit sector as a policy director and a board member as well as in the private sector as a consultant, I’ve participated in the strategy development process from many angles. I can tell you the best strategies – whether for communications, change management or policy implementation – were developed not by people who walked in touting their own knowledge and expertise, but those who walked in the room and listened.

While it may seem simple, too often the art of listening well is not given the respect it deserves.

As a doctoral student studying global literatures at Queen’s University, I learned that listening well starts with a deep recognition of your own cultural identity and lived experience and how that shapes what you know and don’t know about the world and other people’s experiences.

In teaching and learning contexts, this is sometimes called cultural humility and is described as an approach to working with others, often across cultural differences, that normalizes not knowing.

Where cultural competency models tend to promote the idea that someone can obtain a level of ‘competence’ in a culture other than one’s own, cultural humility grounds intercultural understanding in the nuanced context of specific relationships.

In practical terms, that means working with one or even 10 Indigenous organizations, for example, does not mean you now hold a playbook for working with any Indigenous organization.

With each new working relationship, you must remember to be humble. Take the time to listen and learn.

Don’t get me wrong, being competent is key. Part of being a lifelong learner is paying attention to emerging best practices and knowledge, and developing your professional skill set. But in my experience, adopting an approach to client engagements that is grounded in cultural humility will improve your ability to truly hear what is needed, what is wanted, and what is possible.

A good strategy should empower your client, and when people feel heard they tend to feel empowered.

Every organization is different, and taking the time to get to know the internal culture, capacities, limitations, and challenges in a given organization is key to developing a strategy that can be implemented with success.

That’s why we don’t believe in cookie-cutter solutions for clients. Listening well enables Syntax to propose a strategy that is responsive to the nuanced needs of an organization and proposes an approach that our clients’ teams can feel a sense of ownership over.

How does it start? With a conversation. One that involves asking a lot of questions not only about objectives, audiences and outcomes (though, those are critical as well) but also about the organization’s history, challenges, culture, and motivations.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to a good strategy.

While we don’t explicitly talk about ‘listening’ as a key tool in our communications toolbox, it is certainly a big part of what we do at Syntax. When we listen well, we communicate better.

Sarah is the Director of Advocacy and Research at Syntax Strategic.


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