Listen, listen, listen
About a month ago, when the reality of lockdown still felt relatively new, I attended an online meeting in which we were asked to consider ‘what is changing now that we’d like to keep for good?’ Alongside reflections on innovation and changing practices, people spoke of a new-found gentleness and generosity in the way we interact with each other.
We noticed that our ‘professional’ relationships with colleagues and associates had shifted. We were taking time to ask about the wellbeing of those we work with, and we were listening – not in a superficial way, but actively and deeply, creating space for people to express themselves. Our interactions had become characterised by humanity, compassion and kindness, valuing ‘the whole person’, in a way that did not feel possible before.
This is happening, too, in small ways, in neighbourhoods everywhere. Because of our shared experience, COVID-19 has given us permission to be kind. Despite being physically cut-off, people are forging new connections based on listening to one another, offering help and support, and caring about those around them in ways that previously felt risky or uncomfortable.
If the crisis has allowed us to listen more as individuals, it has also shone a light on those who already listened well. Those civil society organisations that are embedded in communities were able to identify local need and transform at pace. The speed of response – delivering emergency food provision and medication, maintaining social connection with those most at risk of being isolated – was possible because of the strength of networks of connection and the depth in understanding of people and place.
We’ve also seen a response from funders – relaxing targets and reporting mechanisms, enabling more flexibility to listen and respond to the needs of communities; and from local authorities, working more closely and collaboratively with local organisations. In these instances and in these places, we are perhaps beginning to see what can be achieved when we are united by a shared sense of purpose, when we work to our collective strengths, and when relationships are the operating principle. This feeling is strengthened by research suggesting that local authorities with a history of listening to communities have been better placed to deal with the current crisis as a result.
And yet, despite these positive reflections where the response has been underpinned by listening and by kindness, we are already seeing the virus take a much higher toll among certain communities, and we know that the longer term effects will not be distributed evenly. There are places where we have not listened well – and voices that are not being heard.
So, as our communities and key services respond to the crisis, and others turn their minds to recovery, it is important – just as in our personal relationships – to take time to listen. This is not a passive act: “radical listening,” in the words of Karin Woodley, is something that can “disrupt stereotypes, tackle social injustices and transfer control of our organisations back to the people we work with.”
Over the next few months, at the Carnegie UK Trust we will be talking to communities across the UK, to listen to their experiences and hear their stories; to understand where people have come together, where communities have been able to take control, and where this has not been possible. We hope that this, alongside other listening and learning, will ensure that the stories of people and place become the centre of policy and decision making about recovery. But more than this, we hope that hearing the experiences of communities becomes a core part of our approach – and that we never revert to a ‘normal mode’ where only some voices are heard, but instead embrace radical listening to build a kinder, more inclusive society.
Ben Thurman, Carnegie UK Trust