Sophie Tarnowska : the importance of inclusion and listening


A long-time collaborator of Factry, Sophie Tarnowska trains young people and newcomers in the Pause and Creative Canada programs, as well as sometimes teaching professionals. A passionate communicator with an eclectic background, she believes in the importance of inclusion and listening to others to move the world forward.

Tell us a little about your long-standing collaboration with Factry.

The collaboration began before Pause and Creative Canada programs, when La Factry was just starting up and developing its offering. I was doing workshops for customers. For the Pause program, I teach workshops for young people, one on “deep listening”, and the other is a workshop on ikigai, [the Japanese method for] finding your life mission. Pause is aimed at young people looking to explore the possibilities of their professional future. It’s a creative leadership program that gives young people the tools to enter the job market and better understand themselves.

And I also do training for Creative Canada, a five-week program aimed at newcomers, to help them develop their creative thinking skills. This program focuses on inclusion, a very important value for me.

You teach a workshop on listening. Why is this so important?

We live in a society where everyone wants to be heard, but nobody learns to listen. Look at what’s happening on social networks, for example. There’s no emphasis on how to listen to people, or how to understand other people’s emotions. I teach this to young people at La Factry. I ask them: were you listened to by your family members? Right away, you can feel the young people questioning their own listening skills. It’s an unsettling question.

Listening is a complex skill to develop. People are often uncomfortable, and confuse discomfort with danger. It’s OK to be uncomfortable in certain situations, and people need to be taught how to manage their discomfort. A concrete example: how do I talk to my boss who makes derogatory comments? One way of approaching the boss in question would be to say: “I find it difficult that you call me such and such. Could you spare 15 minutes to talk it over?” You have to ask to be listened to, and say “here’s what it would take”. Sometimes, the wording and tone of a question can change the answer.

Your professional and personal backgrounds are very diverse. How do they help you with your work at La Factry?

I really felt challenged by La Factry’s mission and programs. I worked in corporate until 2015, at which point I founded an NPO called WeDoSomething during the Syrian refugee crisis. The idea was to use fundraising to bring together the people who create the news, and those who consume the news and feel powerless. Up until the pandemic, in 2020, I did fundraising events for, for example, aboriginal communities, refugees, asylum seekers, or people experiencing homelessness. After the pandemic, I moved away from fundraising and developed Versus, a program on inclusive communication.

Putting these two worlds together, I conceived the work I do now, notably at the Factry. I teach inclusive communication, digital literacy and how to communicate with people who are different from us. I equip individuals to know how to communicate with people who appear to be different in culture or gender. That’s why I love working with La Factry, with whom I share the same values: curiosity, the desire to innovate in business and inclusion.

When I teach at Factry, I think I bring my expertise and experience to the table, and I learn from my students. I myself understand the feeling of arriving somewhere and not finding one’s place, first as an immigrant to Canada. My father was a Polish refugee, and I’ve lived in Italy, Argentina, the Cayman Islands… I arrived in Canada in 1978, then left several times, as my father worked as a correspondent for the Reuters news agency. And I also took time to find my place in the workplace, a bit like the young people at Pause: I worked in communications, journalism and pharma.

What turns you on most about your work, and why?

I love the idea of creating a sense of curiosity, of inspiring change. You can see how open people are when you offer them the chance to discover themselves. It makes them evolve.

I’m interested in people, I guess because I’m a journalist. I observe, I’m curious to understand people, to get to know my students, to be in symbiosis with them, not just to teach. It means a lot to me to have the privilege of rubbing shoulders with young people and newcomers. Not many people get the chance to talk to people from different cultures. It really stimulates me.

What is your vision of creativity?

What interests me in creativity is to forget the hierarchy we’re used to, to forget our status, to let go of the fear of making mistakes, to be able to do silly things, to say whatever comes to mind. Because people bounce off what you say, because you can sow something. So creativity means allowing yourself to think out loud, without a filter. It’s also about not thinking that you’ve got all the answers and can solve all the problems. Creativity is fundamentally about collaboration.

Do you have a trick for getting back into a creative state of mind?

There’s an idea of permission in being creative. Can I make mistakes? Many people expect permission from others. But also, I think you need constraints to be creative. If you have too many choices and options, it doesn’t work. You can be more creative in 30 minutes than in three days.

For me, reading magazines or things not connected to my work allows me to make connections, to think of new ideas.

What do you see as the future for professionals and the next generation?

We’re at a turning point: for the first time, there are five generations on the job market. I’m reassured by Generation Z, because they’re asking questions about things we didn’t ask before. The new generations are sparking conversations, talking about mental health in the public space, inclusion in hiring. In all the distress of the world, I see a glimmer of light. Internal corporate cultures are changing. Every company I work with is asking questions they didn’t ask before the pandemic, especially about teleworking.

People are giving themselves permission to make demands, and I think that’s revolutionary. The elite are trying to find new ways to act, to include new concepts, new people. Personally, I think all these people would benefit from a course in listening, especially how to listen to these new generations.

Laurence Niosi