Annette Simmons specialises in helping organisations build more collaborative (and generally, nicer) behaviours. She’s a community activist and an eclectic, disruptive thinker. Her seminal book on storytelling, The Story Factor, has been named one of the 100 Best Business Books of All Time. –
As a kid, I was frustrated to hear people “play nice” in public and then voice their true thoughts in private – when it never did them any good. My nine-year-old brain didn’t understand if they were afraid, didn’t think they had the skills to stand their ground or maybe the issues wasn’t a hill worth dying for? All I could see was it looked as if they seemed sure that speaking up would not make any difference, so why try?
Of course I soon learned (first-hand) there are damn good reasons people stay silent. In my own work, I like to create a safe place for people to talk about what really matters to them. Afterwards I hear, “Oh my god, why didn’t we have that conversation before?”
We should all feel permission to think a little “out there” without being punished for it. We can always rein it in if it gets too crazy but innovation doesn’t come from mainstream thinking.
When you ask someone to share their experience and respond with high quality listening, you meet deep human needs to feel connection and belonging. Stories and information flow to the best listeners. After sharing an experience, people generally want to know how it fits with what others been saying too.
Humans are social animals. Understanding where we are in relation to other people is essential to our wellbeing. Genuine engagement generates curiosity toward the world outside ourselves.
If you want people to respond to a survey (not that I’m a big fan of surveys), try delivering on a promise to give them their results at the end. Better yet, overtly deliver evidence that somebody’s listening: real evidence, not polite acknowledgement.
Why complete an email survey from my airline after every flight when I get the same happy face at the end of it? The happy face doesn’t prove anyone listened and brings me no benefit at all.
I think it is important to prove you are listening: they feel it as power and they want to engage with you further.
Reciprocity is the number one predictor of human behaviour. Listening for meaningful engagement starts and continues the cycle of give and take. Validation keeps moving back and forth. It’s a ping pong delivery and return of attention. If you drop the ball, the game is over.
Pay users to engage?
If I’m engaging with people who are under-served, I try to reimburse them for their time with attention, a good experience and if I can, with cash! Dr. Betsy Carlson, a nurse practitioner and expert on health disparities taught me to do this. If we can provide a little relief from the demands of poverty/illness, a community is much more likely to share their stories and help us interpret those stories. I think in many situations, if we are getting paid, we should share. Engagement can ask too much of people.
Here’s a story… A local arts council here in the US brought in a very cool, international artist who wanted to create art that told the important and hidden stories of a local disadvantaged community. He would train local artists to engage volunteers from the community to make elaborate, beaded story-blankets that reflected the stories shared while stringing beads. The beaded blankets would be part of a mixed-media arts installation in a local art gallery.
But theory doesn’t always accommodate real life. And this was a much bigger project than anyone knew. The international artist wanted to create huge pieces and some of the local artists reported the project changed from engagement to slave labour and/or hounding the working poor who quickly got tired of “working” for free.
There is a lot of unhappiness around it now. And people are asking: why pay an international artist if you don’t share some of that money with the ones who are providing the stories (and in this case the labour)?
It shows how easily our own ideas can become a burden on the very people we’re supposed to be supporting.
Engagement extends more deeply when you allow a group to make sense of their own stories
There’s something very powerful about users telling their stories to other users rather than to us. There’s a level of validation that we can’t equal but we can be there when it happens. And we can learn from it.
Back in 1998, Betsy (the one with the PhD in health disparities) and I met on a plane and ended up talking about how research funded by segmented groups trying to solve individual problems like diabetes, domestic violence, teen pregnancy, and childhood obesity rarely collaborate to find big picture solutions. We came up with a plan and she got a grant to gather a very diverse group of 40 community members to participate in three half-day sessions in a process we called Photo Story. Derived from Caroline Wang’s work on Photovoice, we gave everyone a disposable camera a little training on pictures that tell a story and asked them to take photos that told their story as a community. Next they chose two images to share with the group and added some words to describe what story it told from their perspective. Then we used a silent process and voting dots to narrow it down to twenty stories they collectively interpreted in a large group dialogue.
It was very rich information, generated mind-blowing feedback and deeply touched every person who participated.
And yes, we paid them!
Ideas to take away…
- Good engagement grows curiosity in the wider world
- Engagement is like ping pong: keep the ball moving back and forth
- Engagement can happen without us: the value of user-to-user storytelling