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Stonegate Listening

I am sitting in the beautiful little church of Stonegate in the heart of historic York. I don’t have a camera with me so you will just have to imagine. Ancient architecture darkened with time but enriched with a sense of history. Outside there is a busker sininging ave maria operatic style. It is a creative place where memories unfold into the present day multi dimensional culture.

My meeting at York University ended about thirty minutes ago. We have been talking about how we serve people at the most deprived end of the UK’s social scale, specifically the homeless.

The aim of the conversation was to determine what kind of change steps are needed to ensure those vulnerable to homelessness find a pathway offering hope. Financial security, food, shelter, safe spaces are the basics but what then?

We discussed the concept of “home” and whether this needs to be a much richer concept than simply having a place to go or a family to belong. We imagine home as a place where memories are made and celebrations are held. The walls of a home, like this church in Stonegate, tell the family story which is constantly being retold and enriched. When you find yourself at home your history and culture will change the fabric of the place and new layers of memory laid down.

Going from being homeless to being at home is a profound thing.  We felt that deep listening was a good place to start – without the ability to listen. individually and as a society, we will all be poor. When we listen we are doing so in order to allow others to be heard. We are saying let’s appreciate who you are, we want you to be part of us – and more than that we want to be changed by you.

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We won’t solve our economic problems unless we solve our social problems.

You’re never really going to be able to cut the amount of public spending unless you cut the demand for public spending unless you tackle the social problems which are often the reason that demand for public spending rises. We won’t get the economy moving unless we deal with the terrible poverty that so many people still live in today unless we deal with the generational unemployment, the welfare dependency, the debt, addiction, family breakdown the linked problems of deprivation and inequality that are the costs of social failure. So we won’t solve our economic problems unless we solve our social problems.

David Cameron in 2010 talking at Citizens UK event in relation to his Big Society idea.

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Talking about Talking

A day talking about talking. First of all in Keighley looking at how the town understands the difficult issue of sexual exploitation. This is a scourge that afflicts every community almost without exception. The consensus seems to be that this is something we must learn to talk about.

Discussing difficult issues is more that simply daring to speak. It is the very nature of the subject which holds us back from conversation not necessarily an unwillingness. As in many important areas of life we sometimes fail to find the language and the confidence to speak. In the case of sexual exploitation there is a fear of the facts, some of which are unclear and clouded by prejudice. We lack the confidence to speak because we worry about the consequences or the complexity of the issue and wonder if we have properly understood.

The second part of my day has been immersed in the discipline of Appreciative Inquiry. Appreciative Inquiry provides a framework for asking questions in a way that exposes the positive. Rather than asking about problems and weaknesses we ask what has been exceptional and  search for those golden nuggets which we can discover and refine. Apologies if this simplification betrays my inexperience of this.

The broader idea for today is that good dialogue requires space, framework, sensitivity. How we ask questions is as important as what we ask. The tools can seriously influence the answers you get.

Creating a safe and fair space for properly examining our work and issues is vital. We know from the General Elections that debate can be manipulated and steered in way that is outrageously manipulative. There were whole communities and issues that were not heard in the run up to the elections – and largely because some of them would have been problematic for any potential government.

To create a properly open space for conversation requires the courage to confront the answers you get. If we are being truly open then we have to set aside our inclination for confrontation and defensiveness. True dialogue will reveal that issues are often not as black and white as we might like to think – and that those we might condemn as being wrong may require understanding and accommodation.

A stimulating day.