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Learning to Listen Again


Why the so-called “hard to reach” may hold a key to the pandemic recovery – and how government could be listening more inclusively

Listen, learn and adapt


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. 

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 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.

Learning to listen again


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.

Download the report

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, participants must also feel comfortable with the method of communication and feel that the conversation will have impact and their voices will be heard.

Agency and choice

The listening process needs to be bespoke and flexible and give agency to participants, so they can choose how they engage

Feedback, altruism and impact

It is important for people to feel that their voices are being heard and also have impact.

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.

People are not ‘hard to reach’, but seldom heard


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 democratic 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.

Download the report

Learning to listen again

The Centre for Public Impact UK and Changing Lives are committed to facilitating better listening across the nation, but are aware that listening and creating safe spaces are challenging. We hope that our new report will serve as a conversation starter to anyone wanting to listen to people with complex challenges.

Get in touch to learn more