Learning to listen: ‘No sense making about me without me’

July 15, 2021

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by Laura Seebohm, Executive Director of External Affairs, Changing Lives

At the start of the pandemic one women told her support worker “I’ve been told what to do for years, this is nothing new”.

We know that policy decisions impact directly on the lives of people we support at Changing Lives and people who experience disadvantage are most affected by government decision making and the workings of our public services.  We also know that it is people with least privilege in our communities whose voices are least likely to be heard by people making these decisions.

This has become even more apparent during the last 16 months.  Some decisions made during lockdown have been welcomed; the ‘everybody in’ policy to ensure everyone was given somewhere to live was a real success. But at the same time, families under the supervision of children’s services have been cruelly denied face-to-face contact with their children for the full lockdown, and people with no access to tech or data have been excluded from vital services.

It was with this in mind that led Changing Lives and Centre for Public Impact to develop a partnership during the first lockdown.  Our aim was simple – to learn how we can listen better to people whose voices are seldom heard; those who were experiencing significant challenges even before the pandemic, such as homelessness, addiction, domestic abuse, selling sex, women in the criminal justice system and women with insecure asylum status.

So far we have carried out two iterations of deep listening, learning and adapting at each turn.  We have designed and tested a new methodology to learn how we can listen well and how we can make better sense of what we hear. Crucial to our approach is that the people we listen to are involved in the sense making alongside the listeners; they are the ones to collectively identify the themes and tell us what is important from what they have heard.

This process has raised people’s concerns about the political, social and economic landscape, already hostile to many people and exacerbated by the pandemic.  We have heard stories of great altruism; people want to be listened to but only if it’s going to help their peers.  These discoveries break down lazy assumptions that people experiencing disadvantage might be less engaged or ‘community-minded’ than other groups in our society.

Significantly, people we have listened to have a very clear understanding of ‘the system’; the failings of siloed services, assessment and referral mechanisms and short term funding cycles – and how this directly impacts their lives.  Unsurprisingly, relationships are vital and people are acutely aware that the ‘way the money works’ damages trust between all actors in the system.

Perhaps what has emerged most strongly is people’s recognition of the value in the experience, of being listened to and opportunity to be part of collective sense making.  This has had a powerful impact on people’s feelings about their place in the world and the power they do have.  Those of us already in positions of privilege experience this each and every day, often without being aware of it.  People whose situation means that their lives are at the mercy of and frequently battered by decisions imposed on their lives often do not.  They are telling us that this approach to listening has changed something quite profound about their sense of self and sense of agency.

This raises some much bigger questions.

  • Does this approach to listening bring about a sense of connection and belonging, with everyone playing their part as vital connectors?
  • Can reconnecting with our authentic self when we are properly listened to be a starting point in connecting us with the world around us; possibly reconnecting with how our political, social, economic and cultural landscape impacts on our lives and accessing our own agency to shape all of these?
  • What might this mean as a way of challenging ‘otherness’ and dislocation, and instead build compassion as well as community and social cohesion?

Fundamentally, there is potential here to think about new ways to rebuild the democratic deficit.  So many of our current challenges stem from a failure to listen.  Grenfell residents had repeatedly raised issues of safety; charities working with refugees were already challenging the hostile environment well before Windrush scandal hit the press; scientists predicted a global pandemic …

When we listen properly we learn about what really matters, what good really looks like, and how decisions made in a traditionally patriarchal, western, hierarchical or bureaucratic systems so often become barriers to people’s sense of agency and possibility.  When we listen well we hear some uncomfortable truths, we must to challenge ourselves, and we make the invisible become visible.

None of this is new.  Carnegie UK’s Route Map to an Enabling State was first published in 2014 and revisited a year ago.  The Guiding Principles for Recovery asks governments and service providers to ‘urgently seek out and listen’ so people can tell their own authentic story of change, and ‘use these perspectives to challenge existing orthodoxy’.

As we try to reimagine the world and what this could look like post-pandemic, new ways of listening will be the most fundamental change we can make.  This is about the ‘radical listening’ I have learned about from Karin Woodley in the Better Way Network; the kind of listening which specifically sets out to disrupt power imbalances, puts people first rather than organisational structures or ‘ways of doing things’, and results in radical change.

 

Photo credit: Cristina Gottardi, via Unsplash