If this pandemic has taught us anything so far, two things are already loud and clear: first, that trust and relationships matter and second, that we cannot make assumptions about how people are impacted, so we will need to listen, learn and adapt. But how do you listen in a lockdown to people whose lives were already very challenging and already felt socially isolated? Are they feeling safe and aware of coronavirus guidance? How can we listen in a way that is helpful to them in these radically new circumstances? Our organisations, Changing Lives and Centre for Public Impact UK, realised we didn’t really know the answers to those questions or even how to ask them in a lockdown.
So we set out on a mission of discovery. We spoke to 90 people who are in contact with Changing Lives across Northern England – people experiencing multiple disadvantages, which may include poverty, homelessness, domestic abuse, addiction, sexual exploitation or involvement in the criminal justice system.
We realised that people facing challenging times – those unhelpfully dubbed ‘hard to reach’ by many public services – could easily be missed out of any conversations about how best to manage this pandemic. People’s voices matter, not just for their survival and to relay messages back to services and government, but so that everyone can play a part in the rebuilding of Britain too – something we learned is as important for people’s sense of feeling valued and connected.
We realised that people facing challenging times – those unhelpfully dubbed ‘hard to reach’ by many public services – could easily be missed out of any conversations about how best to manage this pandemic.
We could have assumed that to listen, we should just call people, knock on their door, make a video call, or deploy a sophisticated platform for deliberation and ask questions – but we instinctively knew this could possibly do damage to trust and cause more anxiety and worry for people facing lockdown. We needed to throw aside all our assumptions about how to listen and engage with people and experiment with a bottom-up approach that would itself adapt to the needs and preferences of people we wanted to hear from.
While we’re only part-through this experiment, we wanted to share what we have learned so far with anyone who is thinking about listening better to citizens or is in a decision making role within government. As we write this, lockdown measures are tightening once again and connection, communication and trusted feedback loops couldn’t matter more.
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What we learned
By giving Changing Lives staff the space and time to have conversations in ways they felt worked best and through an inclusive sense-making approach that focused on people’s strengths, we heard three things mattered most when it comes to listening:
Trust, connection and relationships
The best listening typically builds on existing trusted relationships, yet this alone does not ensure good listening; participants must also feel comfortable with the method of communication and feel that the conversation will have impact and their voices will be heard. Very few new relationships were built during lockdown, so a key challenge for new front line staff is to know that they won’t be automatically trusted – they will have to rely on others who have that trust whilst working harder to build it themselves. They will need the time and space to do so and seek guidance from others who hold that trust.
A challenge for government at the centre is that they are expected to be relatable and human in their communications but have lots to communicate in short spaces of time. Unfortunately, part-way through the national lockdown, government lost the trust of many of our participants. The impact of confusing messages on people’s desire to listen and communicate cannot be underestimated – even one negative interaction can affect the next. Communication and messaging, people felt, was often aimed at the ‘middle class’, full of jargon and conflicting. This impacted people’s willingness to engage with other parts of public service, even with trusted listeners. Government, locally and nationally, will need to enable, empower and value people by listening to those who have that trust – they can be our country’s vital connectors. However, those connectors will need to be able to have conversations with people that feel comfortable and bespoke, not prescribed or time bound.
Agency and choice
The exercise provided us with a sense of the range of social and technological barriers associated with different communication methods. No single form of communication could be accessed by more than two-thirds of the participants. One-to-one, face-to-face communication was clearly the most popular way of communicating. Beyond this, it was apparent that certain methods – such as digital platforms – facilitated engagement for some but provided barriers to others. This suggests that the listening process needs to be bespoke and flexible and give agency to participants, so they can choose how they engage, and we will need to be more imaginative about how we do that. It is obvious but needs to be said that we also need to ensure people have access to at least a phone as we potentially return back to lockdown conditions; and we cannot assume people have access to data or the internet.
The listening process needs to be bespoke and flexible and give agency to participants, so they can choose how they engage, and we will need to be more imaginative about how we do that.
Feedback, altruism and impact
It is important for people to feel that their voices are being heard and also have impact. Indeed, some participants seemed to have an altruistic outlook on engagement and indicated that they were most motivated to engage in conversations that would help improve services for themselves and others. This could be an important behavioural insight for future communication and collaboration. Yet the methods we typically use to obtain and impart information can be experienced as impersonal, dehumanising and clinical, and do not reassure people that they will have an impact. We need to consider carefully how engagement is communicated, how it is experienced, and how the impact is communicated back to participants. Though people feel inclined to participate again when listening is done well, one bad experience can put people off from engaging in any form of conversation. The links people currently have are therefore fragile and it is vital we look after them or risk losing connections with those who most need support.
Our emerging approach to listening
Our methodology for listening in this stage of the experiment shows promise to help get to the insights and build trusted bonds with those experiencing complex challenges. We used an Appreciative Inquiry approach that built on the positives and strengths of people: there was no dictating the conversations, no dictating the spaces to have them in and no dominating the sense-making sessions. In fact, we invited those we interviewed to join us in making sense of what all we had heard. This method seemed to open up new bonds between people who otherwise might not have met or spoken so openly. This is important because we need to broaden the circles of trust and engagement beyond one or two trusted individuals, to help reduce the burden on a few, but also because this is essential for learning and helping to increase people’s sense of belonging.
These insights have sparked new conversations for us and provoke many questions. Can we tap into the altruism of those we spoke to in order to spread corona safety messages? How can we scale up a bigger engagement exercise without using digital tools? How can we communicate what we hear better to central and local government and key decision makers? How can we build collaborative spaces for learning across the silos and include charity and civil society organisations in playing a central role?
What comes next?
We are excited to take our listening to a deeper level now, with the help of the National Lottery Community Fund ‘Emerging Futures’ programme. We have lots more to learn and follow-up on. We heard for many life got harder, for example experiencing homelessness, those who, on top of their already tough challenges, experienced racism. For all though, not being heard or communicated with well sparked a great deal of anxiety.
Through this exercise we learned, even in lockdown, people are not ‘hard to reach’, but seldom heard. And there is a big ray of hope – the good experience of being heard in our listening experiment meant many stated that they wanted to do it more and even play a role in helping Britain recover and build back better. Perhaps through this work we can help to close the democtractic deficit that exists when we don’t believe all voices have equal value. It is the moral duty of all in public and community service to elevate the voices of everyone – but we don’t need to speak for them, they are perfectly capable of doing it themselves.