Listening with kindness

Guest blog about #SpacesForListening by Claire Longmuir & Melissa of Simon Community Scotland, introduced by Charlie Jones & Brigid Russell

We need to create spaces for the real conversations in our workplaces. But how? Isn’t that a bit risky? What if people get upset? Don’t we need specialist training for something like this?

Let’s be clear at the outset. We aren’t dismissing the value of professional expertise, of course there is a time and a place for this. But most of the time, do we need an expert who is ‘qualified’ to host a space to have supportive conversations? Surely for most of us, most of the time, what we need is to feel heard; the chance to have a supportive conversation with a peer or group of peers.

What if we create spaces which are for everyone, and anyone, and make them ‘safe enough’ with a light structure? We can each make an informed choice to take part, and then choose to say what we like, or pass if we do not want to say anything. We can meet in a spirit of generosity, giving each other equality of time for listening. We can listen, without trying to jump in to ‘fix’ the other person.

We meet as people in #SpacesForListening with no job titles or hierarchical formality. We hear our commonalities, and we have the space to be curious and respectful about our differences. We feel connected through listening to each other, knowing and trusting that it is helpful to be able to tell some of our story without interruption. To tell our stories in our own words, unedited, and free of jargon.

In our blog in November 2020 we wrote that the spirit of #SpacesForListening has been to get on with it, keep it simple, and create a place which feels welcoming for people to come together. It’s been uplifting to connect with people around the UK and beyond who are putting #SpacesForListening into practice in their own contexts. We are delighted to introduce this guest blog about the impact of creating spaces for listening within Simon Community Scotland.

For the people who need to seek support from Simon Community Scotland the doors are always open. There are no ‘criteria’ for entry, it’s not scary or formal, there’s no hierarchy or judgment. As #SpacesForListening ripples out in an open and organic way, it is about letting go and trusting that there are so many people out there who get it — who get the point of listening to each other in the spirit of generosity, humanity, and community. It won’t be for everybody, and that’s OK too. It’s the risk we take, and it’s a risk well worth taking as this example from the Simon Community Scotland illustrates beautifully. It’s the risk of being human.

#SpacesForListening caught me off guard. I didn’t know what to expect when I first entered the space. It showed me how much emotional baggage I was carrying around with me without even knowing. What I found the most refreshing, the most impactful, was that no one was there to try and ‘fix’ anything. A truly unique experience, one which has had a lasting impact on me both personally and professionally. The power of being heard and the simplicity in just listening to others without expectation was exceptionally and unexpectedly life-changing…

Over to Claire & Melissa …

Introducing #SpacesForListening within Simon Community Scotland has come at a time where we, as a sector, as a society, and as individuals, have been faced with a set of extremes.

COVID-19 has brought into sharp relief the inequalities which exist within communities and no more so than for those experiencing homelessness. COVID-19, the immediate effects and the wider repercussions of lock-down measures and the stay at home message, have impacted on the people who use our services and our staff teams in ways we couldn’t have anticipated this time last year.

Compassion, understanding, and kindness in our systems and towards one another have never been more needed. Yet, while these may seem obvious, and are very often assumed, too often these principles can be missed or overlooked in times of crisis when our attention is so focused on what needs to be done. At a time when the focus was on securing safety for others, were we paying attention to the importance of creating safety for ourselves?

While many people were told to stay home, in Simon Community Scotland our world got a lot busier. Our staff teams, like so many others on the front line, have continued to support people experiencing homelessness, worked with partners to ensure people experiencing rough sleeping were safe and housed, and continued to provide services on the front line, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The now popular phrase of ‘we are all in the same storm, but in different boats’ rings very true within our organisation.

The relentless negative news and information which has dominated our feeds and our consciousness has often brought with it feelings of anxiety over what else is yet to come. However, while social media can often be criticised for polarising us, during the pandemic and through times of increased social isolation and loneliness it has offered vital connection, sharing, and community.

No more so than through #SpacesForListening.

Connecting through Twitter and being invited into a space with Brigid and Charlie was driven through curiosity around what #SpacesForListening was all about. Being invited to join a group of strangers to simply listen was initially quite daunting. Yet, the results were rather extraordinary. Listening is something we all think we know how to do, but it wasn’t until the time was protected, and the noise was quietened, did it become apparent how little listening we actually do to and for one another. And how powerful it can be to simply listen to one another, and to be heard. There is a real kindness in it, a connection, and a relief.

So far we have facilitated eight #SpacesForListening within Simon Community Scotland — and the early feedback from our staff highlights the potential this simple, structured space has in offering much needed breathing space.

At first, we wondered whether they would work — was it the anonymity that provided the magic? Was it that it was facilitated by Brigid or Charlie? Was there something specialist about it we would struggle to replicate internally? Was it too much of a risk to invite people to share their experiences during the pandemic? Our questions were answered during the first session.

Spaces for Listening was not like any other group support, training, or therapeutic session I have ever taken part in. There was nothing contrived about it, no hidden design or ulterior motive, no analysis or attempt to ‘solve’ each other, just an open safe space to fill with your thoughts — the result was really quite powerful”.

Within Simon Community we live by the philosophy — make it easy, make it right, and make it happen. And that is what we did. We offered a space for people to voluntarily enter into as adults, we provided information to ensure they knew what they were signing up for, and we left the door open to link in with support if they needed it. We made it safe enough, as safe as any of us can hope for. We prioritised connection and kindness. Facilitating #SpacesForListening internally has its own unique power. We have a shared understanding as colleagues, a commonality; we are — in many ways — in the same boat.

The overwhelming power that is naturally created by eight people listening to each other blows my mind every time. Such a simple but organic concept is helping to heal hearts. Emotions that are normally hidden are allowed to be exposed and we are all allowed to be real”.

The past 10 months have tested our resilience in ways no one could have expected, it has been dominated by stories of loss and fear and change. Yet our staff have continued to turn up, continued to deliver excellence, and continued to provide support and care for people experiencing homelessness day in and day out. What #SpacesForListening has offered us, as an organisation, is a space to be vulnerable, to show that it has been really hard, and to find a bit of common humanity and connection. It offers more than a well-being intervention, it builds on the type of organisation we want to be. With kindness, compassion, and connection at the centre for both our staff and for the people we support.

SpacesForListening gave me a place where I could breathe. It let me be ‘off duty’ from life and work for a while and just be me, and that felt good”.

It has allowed us to level the playing field — we are all people, all with our own lives inside and outside of work regardless of what our role is within the organisation. In order to perform our roles well, it’s essential we bring our whole selves to work as relationships are central to what we do. Showing kindness, compassion, and understanding is the foundation of our practice. #SpacesForListening has shown us how important it is to give to ourselves too. It has invited people to listen to each other with kindness, and to be heard. And what we have learned in the last couple of months is that, actually, sometimes, that is what we need most.

[Quotes in italics are from people who have taken part in #SpacesForListening in Simon Community Scotland so far]

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Thank you to Claire & Melissa and all their colleagues in Simon Community Scotland for sharing so generously their experiences of #SpacesForListening with us. We are keen to share more about the experiences of #SpacesForListening as they ripple out farther and wider — and we invite the people who are putting spaces into practice in their own context to keep in touch with us. You can find us on Twitter @charlie_psych @brigidrussell51 @clongmuir88

See more about spaces for listening in participants’ own words by searching #SpacesForListening on Twitter.

All about working relationally, learning, coaching, & listening. Noticing & exploring how leadership develops in practice.

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