“If you respect the dignity of the individual you are working with, then his desires, not yours; his values, not yours; his ways of working and fighting, not yours; his choice of leadership, not yours; his programs, not yours, are important and must be followed; except if his programs violate the high values of a free and open society.”
Saul Alinsky, 1971
Respect, humility and empathy are the foundation on which you could build a productive and functioning relationship. As an advisor, you need to be conscious of these principles at all times and throughout all stages of your mission. The absence of one of these elements could severely impair your relationship with your counterpart or even jeopardise your mission. Their presence, on the other hand, can help build trust and [a] lasting relationship. Indeed, trust is a prerequisite for being receptive to your advice. Without trust, effective advice cannot be generated, delivered or received with any confidence.
An effective advisor will have respect for those with whom she or he is working as well as for what already exists and why it exists (including capacity and systems). She or he will also respect the absence or lack of certain other elements, seek to understand the reasons for this, and acknowledge it as a reality.
Humility is the quality of being modest, reverential and politely submissive. It means never being arrogant, contemptuous, or rude. You need to bear in mind that the system within which you operate in your deploying country or institution is not perfect. An effective advisor would acknowledge this reality and make sure to highlight the pros and cons of an idea that he or she puts forward as a potential solution.
At times, you may be tempted to emphasise your successes and you may be convinced that you have the ideal solution to a problem. Remember, however, that your experience was in another context. Even if you have worked in the same country, it may have been in another time where the context and your interlocutors may have been different. While your cultural and professional baggage could help you in some instances, you need to be wary of making quick analogies and importing ready-made solutions.
Empathy is the ability to understand individuals in their context and to see things through their eyes, without needing to refer to one’s own culture. Empathy is not synonymous with sympathy. Very often, your counterpart will not need your sympathy-and it could at times be badly received. Your understanding on the other hand, will be greatly appreciated and help to establish the human element of a professional relationship. The key communication skill needed in order to develop empathy is active listening.