Radical Listening by Karin Woodley

Karin Woodley

Karin Woodley

In a Better Way, we’ve been talking about creating organisations ‘without walls’ which truly focus on the people in our communities. Radical listening can help to change our organisations back into authentic change makers and catalysts for significant and inclusive social action.  This blog explains how we have applied in my organisation, Cambridge House.

In my, never so humble opinion, our sector has been walking a pathway to self-destruction for a very long time.

In response to our funding environment, we’ve created paternalistic organisational cultures that victimise and alienate our so-called ‘beneficiaries’ by breaking down service-users’ lives into small, disjointed and disconnected units of problems.

The unintended consequences of this approach are that we stigmatise our service users, fail to disrupt stereotypes or combat oppression, and the value of our work is regulated and constrained by private sector modelling, paternalism, and the patriarchal value-led requirements of funders, stakeholders and the state.

Radical listening is a process that enables us to disrupt stereotypes, tackle social injustices and transfer control of our organisations back to the people we work with. It helps us to regain control of our destinies so that we do what matters most and has real value to our service users.

Radical listening drives a liberatingly authentic and creative culture of ‘outside-in’ continuous improvement. It stops us tinkering with existing approaches and enables us to make fundamental change that is rooted in our knowledge of what matters most to the people we were established to support.

To become radical listeners, we need to realise that our communication with service users is frequently undermined by us saying too much and filtering what we hear with our own preconceived notions.

Unfortunately, our ‘hearing’ has become contaminated by our funders’ values and measures and our institutional attachment to the ways we believe we’ve done things successfully in the past.

The starting point for radical listening is believing that the lived experiences of those we work with need to be more clearly reflected by the lived experiences of our own teams.  

This brings up the thorny issue of diversity and inclusion and our failure to ensure that our service users see themselves reflected throughout the governance and staff structures of our organisations.

Culturally exclusive norms are not tackled by devising volunteering and training programmes that recruit inexperience and put training in the hands of a structure that demonstrably lacks diversity and cultural competence.

We have to understand that there are people with so-called protected characteristics out there who can do all our jobs – but we lack the competence to attract them.

Over the past 6 years Cambridge House’s ability to communicate authentically with our service users has improved immeasurably because the lived experiences of our staff, and to a more limited extent our trustees, has become the same as our service users and the south London community in which we are based. What our service users want and have a human right to is the same as our team.

Radical listening also requires us to stop thinking that what matters to funders is the same as what matters to service users. It forces us to unlearn many of things we have always taken for granted and strips away our preconceptions.

In Cambridge House’s experience, engaging service users in conversations (where we listen more that talk, where we allow our thinking and assumptions to be openly challenged, where we stop ourselves making judgements, and where we stop our internal and organisational narratives filtering what we hear), inevitably demonstrates that funder and commissioner driven outputs, outcomes and contractual specifications are totally arbitrary and constraining.

To tackle this disconnect, we consciously engage in more and more conversations between ourselves and with our service users in focus groups and 1:1 and group meetings where:

  • We conscientiously increase the ratio of questions to assertions and propositions.

  • We resist the temptation to categorise what is being said, recap, or offer solutions about what is being said.

  • We focus not only on what people are saying and the words themselves, but also focus in a way that enables us to appreciate the meaning of the words and understand what’s behind them.

  • We avoid immediately trying to say the next thing or connect the next dot – as this can reaffirm our preconceptions, silence our service user and prevent us finding out how things could be better.

  • This approach has meant that our normal service data is enriched with authentic insights that capture what people want from us. We use this information to make strategic decisions about our structure and service priorities.

It has given us a different view of sustainability – In addition, to viewing sustainability as a positive measure of our organisation’s financial stability and secure future, we now view sustainability as being only as a positive as the work our service users want us to perpetuate.

One of the greatest benefits or radical listening is that it has helped us to draw attention to some of society’s most difficult social problems without stereotyping our service users as passive victims, or the disadvantaged.

We want our service users to be able to read anything we write about them, we want them to feel respected and understood. It is easy to fall into the trap of language that would sap our service users’ confidence or alienate them.

We try to communicate the fact that:

  • Poverty is not someone’s fault, or someone’s choice.

  • Poverty does not diminish or change a person’s inherent skills, talents or value to society.

  • People who live in poverty are often incredibly resourceful, gritty and resilient.

  • Children who live in poverty are as capable as anyone else.

We are also more careful about how we portray poverty. We try not to over-simplify a complex issue or fall into stereotypes or broad generalisations. We try not to use words, examples or images that fall into trap that link:

  • Poverty and race.

  • Poverty with single parents.

  • Poverty with violence.

We now chase our own theory of change outcomes as vigorously, if not more, vigorously than the often distracting, in our service users view, targets of our commissioner and funders. Our theory of change is now totally focused on our service users have increasing agency.

Structurally, we are less and less focused and dependent on functional specialisms in our team and we work to exploit the spaces between our services which have frequently mirrored gaps in statutory provision because of the funding sources. We are more focused on the vacant spaces and increasingly innovative at designing ways to link services in a way that our service user want.

The impact has been that  frontline delivery staff feel liberated and managers focus on how we are making things better in the interests of the people using the service alongside how we attract funding.

 We are faster to divest; less constrained and radical listening has given us permission to work creatively in partnership with our service user to make things better.

Examples of how this has changed our work.

1.   Our law centre does not ‘do’ generalised work – we are specialists that can take service users through the complete journey from advice to the court including the Supreme Court if necessary.

2.   Our youth empowerment programme only offers projects of 12-month length or more.

3.   We hand back statutory contract on ethnical as well as financial grounds.

In the end we feel less and less like puppets of the state and more like radical activities – its GREAT!

Karin Woodley is the CEO of Cambridge House, a Southwark based centre fighting poverty and injustice, a community hub and specific services including law centre and advocacy.  Her earlier roles include CEO of the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust. She was awarded the Lifetime Achiever Award at the 2016 Excellence in Diversity Awards.