The power of listening
During my work history I have heard the term ‘community consultation’ bandied about freely. The meaning of the term should be pretty obvious, and it doesn’t take much cogitating to understand why it is so vital a component for success when planning a policy, strategy or project. If you are wanting to reach or empower a certain community of people and engage their support and/or develop their capacity in some area, you need to really understand them first. You need to do this by talking to them, and developing a variety of means and forums in which to do this that allow this community to speak honestly and without fear or anxiety. You need to be absolutely open minded about what the community has to say, even if they are proving your assumptions wrong or saying things you are uncomfortable hearing.
However, I have seen instances where the community consultation strategies that have been mapped out in funding applications or strategic plans have been carried out in a way that is tokenistic, unthinking or even manipulative. The word ‘consultation’ carries with it connotations of thorough communication and having deep conversations. But I have seen people in charge of running projects who have talked up their ‘community consultation strategies’ in front of their reference groups or Boards and then, in practice, just have a few superficial conversations with some cherry picked community members, fishing for vague statements that suited their own personal agenda. Sometimes I feel as if the words ‘community consultation’ have become weasel words – words that no longer carry any real meaning, words that have been appropriated by managerial or bureaucratic types to mean anything they say they mean.
By carrying out community consultation in a rushed or insincere way, talking at (rather than to) a few bewildered community representatives, these workers or managers rob the community they are supposed to be empowering of the opportunity to be really involved with projects that should engage them. Not being listened to, in the first instance, is extraordinarily disempowering; to then have your presence at some half-baked conversation be appropriated to endorse the planning of a project that has no appeal for you or your community, and to then have that project promoted to you and your community as an opportunity for your development, just adds more layers of insult to deeper layers of injury.
Remember when you’re designing for social change – you’re not necessarily designing for people like you! – Chris Vanstone
What is behind this trend of shallow or insincere attempts at consultation? I am sure that I have seen a couple of people deliberately manipulate the community consultation process so that it gave them answers that furthered their own selfish agendas, but I think the majority of people who stuff it up don’t even know that they are doing it. I think it has to do with the fact that, as a society, much of our history of leadership and organising groups of people has been done in hierarchies, with information and decision making flowing from the top to the bottom. Even well-meaning people can be guilty of riding to the rescue of other folks in such a way that they undercut their own good intentions. Flushed with the confidence of knowing they intend altruism, they can rush in to inflict ‘solutions’ on the beleaguered that arise out of their own assumptions as to what is needed. The problem with this is that these assumptions can be based on a lack of deep understanding, and a feeling of pity rather than empathy. Thus power can continue to be hoarded by the empowered, and denied to the disempowered, and all because of a lack of will to really make the time to talk and listen. Those in authority or vested with societal privilege have got to stop seeing themselves as above or separate from unfortunate or inferior others. Regardless of the sector, the success of group undertakings relies on a flow of knowledge and empowering activity.
When designing for social change, you must step outside of your own concerns and be prepared to lay aside your own assumptions. Only by adapting your communication methods and really listening to others can you be assured of successful consultation.
I will talk about the importance of community consultation, along with other things central to starting up a project or organisation with social outcomes, as part of my workshop – Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise – on Friday 24 October 2014.