The systems we work in and the scale at which they operate can have a dehumanising effect on us and the people we come into contact with. Here’s how to use a change in your perspective to nurture the humanity in your conversations with people.
Why power matters
When we’re aspiring to co-production with the people and communities we serve, do we always think about how they will experience our advances? If we can recognise the power we hold and how we as agents of a bigger system might be perceived, we can take some simple actions to start establishing the terms of a good conversation.
First, here’s some thoughts on how we might be perceived, along with some simple diagrams for illustration.
Here you are, a person who works on behalf of an organisation that delivers some sort of service to people.
Relative to your organisation, you might not feel like you have a lot of power. You have a certain amount of freedom to choose how you do things but that’s within a tight set of parameters that are controlled by the organisation – for example when, how and where you work .
Here’s what it might feel like to you when you get to talk to one of the people who are served by you and your organisation. You’re aware that they have their own challenges and limitations in what they can do in their life – permission, resources, access to and control of these – and so do you. It feels pretty equal and you feel like you’re on an equal footing to talk. In these conversations you are you, not your organisation.
The power you represent
But here’s what they might be seeing. Even if you’ve got the same access to the things you need as they do and you’re starting on an equal footing in that sense (often not the case), you’re not just “little you” in this context. The fact that you are effectively part of the organisation in this relationship makes you big. You hold a lot more power than the person you’re speaking to. And often that’s not even the whole picture.
The big picture
Often you will represent not only your own organisation in the eyes of that person, but a whole system of services, institutions, processes and resources; along with the myriad historic and current challenges that this person may experience in their day-to-day existence as a result of the action (or inaction) of these entities. You are unfeasibly huge to the person you’re interacting with.
So what can you do about this?
1 Tread softly
Reassure and affirm to the people you speak with that they can speak honestly and openly with you and with anonymity when it is safe for this to happen.
Organisations that deliver services for people can make decisions that completely alter the direction of the lives of the people they serve. This is often done unwittingly and is frequently to the greater disadvantage of people who are already the worst off. As a person faced with such an organisation, it can feel these decisions are made vindictively and reactively. If we’re not careful, people can feel they need to “be careful what they say” in case you as an agent of the organisation are offended and make a decision that poorly affects them. You can mitigate this by acknowledging and validating any feelings of concern and gently reassuring people that you won’t be taking any action from the conversation that they’ve not specifically approved.
2 Take responsibility for your place in the big picture and change what you can
State clearly what you will do and what you’re not able to do; do whatever is reasonably possible for you to act on what you’re hearing.
When I worked in adult social care commissioning for a local authority, we would sometimes receive phone calls from people who were (for example) having problems with their bin collections. I had no jurisdiction over bin collections but I did have an easier way to access internal departments than an external person did. I would take notes, listen with empathy and tell them what I was going to do (email or call the department, pass everything on and ask them to reply and tell me what they would be doing in response).
The thing that made the difference to the experience of the caller, I’m pretty sure, wasn’t that I was doing something (it was fairly possible that what I did would be no more effective than their own attempts – we both knew this) but that I was listening openly on behalf of the organisation they saw me to represent. It’s easy for us in these situations to feel like people want us to fix something for them, and to then feel powerless when we can’t and react defensively. But more often than not, in my experience, people want first to be heard and seen, which is something we’re all capable of doing, regardless of our role and authority.
3 Don’t take it personally – listen to understand
Remember the bigger picture and the system you might represent to people, along with all the past and current issues that brings. If you’re hearing criticism before you’ve even started, know that it’s not about you.
When Co-create are undertaking collaborative work with local people alongside a service, we will usually go in with a plan of what we want to ask. Quite often though, the question we want to ask is not the one that people want to answer, and they arrive to speak with their own burning issue to raise. It might be about a recent experience with the service we’re interested in or it might seem completely unrelated. For the people we’re hearing from, that’s what is important to them right now.
It’s easy to feel defensive when someone doesn’t want to do the thing you want them to. And especially when they are emotional and frustrated with you before you’ve even started. Reminding ourselves of the bigger system we are representing is a useful tool to help us step back from our own reactions and listen openly and without an agenda. The result is usually richer data and the opportunity to start building a productive relationship instead of a one-off bit of feedback.
A final note
The model above assumes you are starting on an equal footing to the people you serve. Often this will not be the case. You may in your life have access to far greater resources and opportunities than the people you are serving in your role. Very often the starting point is more like the image on the right and the people we are working with have less advantage within the bigger systems we all depend upon than we ourselves.
This means we must tread with even greater care and act with even greater purpose if we want to approach people and communities with the appreciation, openness and care that’s required to do productive work together.