Narrative Competence Is the New Must-Have Skill for Professional Service Providers

by | 10 April 2015

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you know; but when you listen, you learn something new.” — Dalai Lama

In the constant struggle to differentiate themselves in saturated markets, it is easy for professional service providers to give up and give in to the notion that there is nothing new under the sun. However, there just might be a new must-have skill for professional service providers.

Plus: I don’t work for freeBig businesses watch their backs!

Amazingly, that skill would seem actually not to be new at all but is, instead, one that has been around as long as humans have. Harvard Business Review calls it a strategic tool with “irresistible power.” What is it? That tool is the understanding of the power of narrative and the development of narrative competence.

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Some are already using this tool — with great results

Education and training is already happening around narrative and narrative competence: Columbia University Medical Center, a pioneer in this area led by the thinking of Dr. Rita Charon, offers a Master of Science degree in Narrative Medicine. The School of Education at the National University of Ireland offers courses in Narrative Technology, and the Law School at the University of Virginia offers a law and humanities program that teaches the power of narrative in the law. Professionals who are putting narrative into practice are experiencing great results.

What exactly is narrative and narrative competence?

Human beings create narrative (tell stories) to give meaning to our chaotic experience of time. It gives us access to history and our communal past and allows us to imagine the future. Narrative meets the seemingly universal human need to lay out experiences and put experiences together so that they have a beginning, middle and end.

Narrative competence is the entire set of skills involved in the ability to identify, listen to, tell, understand, be touched by and act on the stories that one is exposed to. Simply put, it’s the ability to take in and understand stories, and the ability to tell them.

Narrative in the business world

Until recently, there has been no recognition of the importance of narrative in the business world.  Stories are things told by children. And if they are told by adults, they are usually told to friends. In a business environment, most people have been trained to explain experiences, unpack them, judge them but not share them as stories – with beginnings, middles and ends and a message.

Imagine, though, the professional service provider with narrative competence — who can sit down and hear a client’s story, start to finish, with the understanding that every piece of work, every transaction, every service provided comes out of a story and will become part of the client’s story.

What narrative competence looks like

Narrative Competence could be displayed in the following way:  A commercial real estate service provider goes to an initial meeting with a client. The client says that the company needs to find new space in order to expand. Instead of starting to talk about the availabilities and markets, that real estate service provider begins, “I feel that I can best serve you if I learn as much as I can about your business objectives. Could you please tell me how you arrived at the decision to expand?”

The real estate service provider then listens to the story that the client tells, paying attention to its content — the facts — but also the way it is told: – the subplots, the course of the story over time, the way the narrator (client) decides to tell it. Where is the emphasis? Where is the emotion? Are there gaps that need to be explained? Does the conclusion follow from the story that is told?

Although it takes some time, patience and practice to gather information in this way, the client’s narrative will actually facilitate the eventual quest for space: There will be fewer wild goose chases, less time wasted on realizing that there was one crucial piece of the puzzle that hadn’t been shared or understood.

Be part of the client’s next narrative

To be able to hear a story is to make room for the person who is telling it.  The simple act of exercising narrative competence and listening to a client’s story will confirm for the client that the service provider is interested in more than the work or the service or the transaction – that he or she is truly interested in the client and all of the client’s objectives and issues. From this place, the service provider will be well-positioned to deliver a service that truly meets the client’s needs – needs that are spoken and expressed, and those that can be gleaned through the message in the client’s narrative.

The message in all narratives occurs to the audience at the narrative’s end.  As professional service providers develop the skill of listening to clients’ stories, they themselves will become a positive part of those stories — with their virtues “told” to others by the client as part of the next narrative.

A lawyer by training, Kate Hay is Vice President of Client Strategy for Colliers International in Canada. Over the last 15 years, she has worked in almost all aspects of the business — as a consultant, lawyer, broker and in the CRE department of a large, publicly traded retailer. Kate loves spending time with her two amazing sons, and trains for and competes in triathlons in the small amount of time not spoken for by family and work.