These are turbulent times; that much we know. With the country embroiled in Brexit, there seems to be little else in the news beyond equally gloomy rumblings from across the Atlantic.
The danger is that when a single issue dominates to such a degree, the voices of the most vulnerable in our society get drowned out. That’s why we as a sector need to listen more attentively now than ever. It’s the only way we can identify where to direct our time and resources to maximise our impact.
New YouGov research released today paints a picture of a polarised society. Eighty-six per cent of adults who expressed an opinion said we don’t listen to each other enough in the UK. We can guess at the reasons behind this, but living in our social media bubbles and switching off to beliefs and attitudes that do not match our own must be key factors.
Learning to disagree well
By the same token, almost the same number (87 per cent of those surveyed) said that society would be more cohesive if people took more time to actively listen to each other. It is only when we can understand different viewpoints, disagree well and find common ground that communities can move closer and grow stronger.
The social sector is at its best when we truly listen to the voices of our beneficiaries, but also to our critics. The Civil Society Futures PACT report is right when it says "building deep connections is civil society’s historic role" and if we are to remain relevant we need to "listen deeply to different people".
Great listening is about understanding and showing empathy while working towards compromise and meaningful action. Over the past few months, I have seen a hardening of attitudes. So many people are switching off to other points of view. It’s a defence mechanism and, ultimately, an ineffective one. The current tendency towards narrow self-interest, lack of openness and willingness to compromise has led to a marginalisation of groups and individuals. This is simply storing up problems down the road that we, as a sector, will be tasked with solving.
Listening in our local communities
As agents of positive change, we need to show that we are here and that we are listening. That means connecting with those we are have historically struggled to connect with, not as a distant entity, but on the ground, working with community leaders. For example, since 2013 we have opened more than 830 Scout units in the UK’s poorest areas.
That required us to do things differently, but critically and listen deeply to different people. One of the highlights of my year was joining one of our fantastic funders, the Pears Foundation, in a deprived community where we’ve opened a new provision thanks to its investment. By immersing ourselves for two days in listening to young people, parents and Scout leaders, we came away with a much deeper understanding of the barriers people are facing, and have been galvanised into action. This also shows the power of foundations in accelerating innovation and change in the sector.
A month ago I spent a couple of days with the chief executive of the Prince’s Trust in Belfast listening to service users and Explorer Scouts looking into partnership opportunities. Again, that experience underscored how active listening can deepen the understanding of our beneficiaries and drive our work. And if ever a part of the UK represents what can be achieved by active listening and compromise, it is surely Northern Ireland.
By their very nature, volunteers and Scouts can be some of our best listeners. Instinctively they know that active listening goes beyond hearing. It’s about understanding, responding to and remembering what was said. The YouGov research found that nine in ten UK adults believe the Scouts help young people to develop this important skill by working together with different kinds of people in small teams. If we can instil this quality in young people and promote good listening between generations and across divided communities, I genuinely believe our society will grow stronger.
Society never stops changing; that’s why the social sector cannot afford to stop listening. Listening leads to better outcomes for charities, society and people.
Matt Hyde is chief executive of the Scouts