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A little listening goes a long way

Exploring the importance of interpersonal skills in international development


All governments are changing, all the time. They change to address a new government’s or leader’s priorities. They change because the people within them change. To work in government, and to lead in government, is to be responsible for implementing the policy of the day despite changes around you.

As consultants we work in this environment, but too often it is easy to forget this wider context. To focus instead on technical approaches and technical solutions. This is not a problem faced only by low- and middle-income country governments, high income governments are just as guilty of focusing on ‘perfect’ technical answers. We need to remember that soft skills matter (professional competencies), being aware of constant change and the associated pressures faced by our clients.

What is our job, as advisors to government?

I remember being asked this question when I first walked into the Ministry of Finance in what was then Southern Sudan in 2008. Being a smart (or so I thought), young, and energetic economist, I felt confident in my answer. “Establish the best technical solutions we can for the Ministry — a good budget, aid policy, etc.”. A pause, and my colleague retorted; “No, don’t be stupid. Your job is to provide good advice to your Director, and through your Director to the Undersecretary (Permanent Secretary) and Minister”. I was not in the Ministry to provide ‘exceptional’, ‘best practice’ technical solutions. I was there to provide good, sound advice to my Director, which was relevant to his challenges and his environment.

Over the next four years, I learnt my craft: the art of providing advice that was practical, relevant, and usable to the directors, undersecretaries, and ministers that I had the privilege of working with. I worked with an amazing advisor who found solutions to thorny issues of policy. She performed a daily balancing act, walking a tightrope between technically-sound, politically-appropriate, and context-feasible solutions. It was an art that I was desperate to master.

What was most difficult about becoming proficient (I am by no means a master) at this balancing act, was that it had relatively little to do with technical ability. Do not misunderstand me, my colleague and mentor was and is one of the most intelligent and technically sound people I know. Her technical skills, were not, however, what made her an amazing advisor. What enabled her to walk the tightrope, and what I have sought to emulate ever since, were her skills of perception, communication, and humanity. The skills of rapport, of people management, and of empathy, were central to her ability to provide exceptional advice, make things happen, and develop suitable solutions with our colleagues in the Ministry of Finance.

Why are these skills lacking?

Unfortunately, in my subsequent roles, I have found that these skills are often lacking. Not because the huge number of people who provide advice, or work within government, do not care about enabling governments to perform better. Certainly not because the people who commission the work do not care. No, these skills are lacking because they are not prioritised or seen as important. They are not hard to develop, but it is uncommon to see a public tender looking for a team leader who has exceptional people skills. I think I can count the number of these tenders that I have seen this on one hand.

What do these skills, or perhaps we should call them tools, look like in practice? You can visualise them. Think of the best mentor, coach, or boss you have had. What did they do? I would put money on the fact they did the following — they listened. Good, solid listening is perhaps the most important tool that anyone wishing to give exceptional policy advice can use.

Why is this the case? My best guess, and what I’ve been able to learn from a broad range of academic and business literature, is that policy execution and the process of managing change is not linear. Stephen Akroyd wrote about the process of change management in an earlier Practitioner Insights . John Kotter has expressed change management as a nine step process: the first four are about building consensus, listening, and understanding the challenges. Developing public policy, and introducing new technical solutions, is as much about the way this is done as the content itself. Policy introduced without understanding (that is, without listening) will inevitably lack support or run into invisible policy and social barriers.

Of course listening and communicating is not a one way street. When you listen, as I’ve noted, you build trust. Which means people want to listen to you, and they trust your advice. Listening thus leads to an increased ability to influence how policy is developed and the content of this policy.

What does this mean in practice?

At its heart, it means spending more time understanding individual and organisational constraints and challenges. Serving government official or external advisor, the importance of listening in developing sound policy is critical. When you listen, you learn. The more you learn, the better your advice, to a minister, director, or other official. The more you listen, the more people want to hear this advice and the more willing they are to accept this advice. It’s hard to believe that listening is such a powerful tool. In a world where we pay people for their technical expertise, perhaps we should pay them to listen instead.

Key takeaways:

  • Improving the quality of policy and how this policy is delivered does not only require good technical knowledge. It requires a sound understanding of the constraints and challenges faced by government.

  • Sound advice comes from listening not advising. Listening and understanding the problem builds confidence and acceptance. It is an important way of finding the middle ground. Not enough is invested in teaching consultants, and government officials, to listen effectively.

This blog post was first published on the OPM blog


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