Whilst recently attending a social research conference, I remembered that nearly 8 years ago we undertook a community research project here in Firs & Bromford. It was in the very early stages of Big Local, with the end goal of having a neighbourhood plan written through a greater insight and understanding of our communities ‘passions’, ‘wants’ and ‘needs’. I’d forgotten we’d done this project (or maybe buried it in my memory!) and was again reminded of it when one of the connectors said this is where and when we’d first met. This is what had drawn her into wider community life. It made me reflect on that project, and I began to ponder the experience of this activity on street connecting today.
The community research project had its positives. It drew in a wide group of people. I remember a buzzing room filled with excited, passionate, motivated people ready to get to know our neighbours and neighbourhood better. I also remember it wasn’t the usual faces, this had drawn out a different crowd from those who usually attended meetings. Looking back I’d say many of these were connectors (although we didn’t understand this role yet). It was neighbour led, using the gifts, skills and passion of local people tasked to have conversations about what we love about our neighbourhood, what we didn’t like, and what we’d love to see happen. These conversations began to widen the circles of people involved and drew more people into community life. This all fed into our end result ‘the plan’, which gave us possible ways forward, project ideas and possible programmes to improve life here, all based on what people had said they were passionate about and cared about.
But crucially, when the plan was ready to be implemented, the listening had been done, the conversations ended, the group disbanded, and it was a job well done! We said thanks to the community researchers, we will take it from here. Now the ‘we’ was a group of residents passionate about our community, and of course nobody said: ‘we will take it from here’. But because we didn’t encourage, support or invest in this group of people to keep having conversations, years later we found ourselves struggling to widen the circles and get more people involved in community life.
We passionately wanted to get out into our community and find out what people are passionate about, have skills in, and ways they would love to get involved. We had wonderful examples of how this was happening; Bromford Theatre Group, Women’s Group, Open Door Place of Welcome, but what if we did this more. Through this the idea of street connecting was born.
At the heart of street connecting we have been promoting a different kind of conversation with our neighbours. Street connecting is about hunting the edges of our community and inviting people to contribute to an abundant community life. But what are we seeking when we are at the edges, at the doorstep, at an event, on the street, in the local shop, or wherever we find ourselves seeking to build community; a conversation! A good life conversation.
The notion or a ‘Good Life Conversation’ was introduced to us by Cormac Russell:
‘The Good Life Conversation is a set of helpful questions that explore contributions people might make to the communities in which they reside. They are suggestions an able conversationalist will sparingly dip into to discover which best suit the person and circumstances within which the conversation is happening.’ Good Life Conversations
This conversation helps:
1) discover the things that enrich a person’s life
2) explore which passions can be developed into new options & contributions to community wellbeing
3) connect a person’s gifts to other assets to create an abundant community
In this blog I want to share some of the insights we have gained through putting ‘Good Life Conversations’ at the heart of our community building efforts for over 3 years.
Two or more neighbours are making a connection with each & know each other is welcome in community life.
This should not be crucially overlooked as a considerable effect of the conversation, and an important bedrock to community building. Nothing is possible without trust and going at the speed of trust. Much of street connecting is having conversations with people on the edges and currently not involved or not showing up in a shared community life. One place for us this happens is on people’s doorsteps, and we find introducing ourselves by name and as neighbours is our starting place. We explain we are wanting to get to know our neighbours, find out what they love, what they care about, are passionate about, and how they might love to get involved. We obviously want the conversation to go further, but we always know this is where it begins, and possible knowing each other by name is all we get out of this conversation today. That is ok because our neighbours know that there are people who genuinely care about them and want to get to know them, that there are people in this neighbourhood who care about this place, and that there is an opportunity and ways to show up in the lives of others in our community if they wish to.
Now please don’t confuse this as a cunning way of awareness raising, publicity, or promotion for a project. This isn’t a new way of doing outreach, neighbourhood watch or care in the community! It is about a neighbourhood gaining trust with each other, getting to know each other and becoming more connected to each other. This takes time and good life conversations can take years to mature, grow, and deepen.
Creating the environment for the conversations to happen
On the door-step we have a clear focused time to begin good life conversations with our neighbours, but what we have found is that the deeper conversations happen at events and activities that people have shown up to. It is so important to therefore create the environment and have the intention of animating good life conversation in this space. There is a crucial role in making people feel welcome and paying attention to the edges of events where people are tentatively showing up. Making people feel comfortable, safe, and able to participate is a skill and its important people are performing that role at events and activities. Obvious roles include the refreshments and people doing activities like craft, arts, games etc, and also the way tables, chairs and social spaces are set-up. This sounds basic, but how many events or activities have you been to where you are encouraged to share a table with someone you don’t know? Or where you have space for a stranger to sit with you and you are encouraged to chat? So many events I have been to where it feels like I’m either being entertained, sold something, or told about something really important (to the person telling me!). All nice and good, but is this community building? When there has been someone there wanting to listen to what I care about it’s been because of a timebound plan being developed for someone else to deliver on. How many 2020 visions are being created right now and maybe more pertinent how many visions for 2020 are currently sitting gathering dust with very little having been achieved! Note: this isn’t me downplaying a long-term plan and vision, we are producing one now! What I am stating is how conversations about what we care about, what we love, what we would do for our neighbours and neighbourhood should be happening all the time, not just when a strategic plan needs producing or when funding needs applying for.
We have learned that we need more of an intention to promote good life conversation, and that needs people totally dedicated to performing that role. This can be hard, because holding events and activities requires people performing so many roles, like who’s going do the facepainting!? But these are crucial opportunities to get to know our neighbours deeper, and if it’s at the heart of our community building, it should be at the heart of the spaces where people show-up.
At street events, we have people dedicated as connectors and listeners in those spaces. We do have badges for this role, and also a clipboard with questions on. I know some people will say this isn’t quite in the spirit of good life conversation, but we find it helps both the person doing the listening (they have a reason to start an intentional conversation with a stranger), and it helps the person being listened to (this stranger asking me what I’m interested in can be an alien experience!). We have lots of experiences of how this has been the beginning of a new contribution to community life, and the way someone has been connected in to share their gifts, skills and passions. We also do have lots of stories of this happening because someone has been a bit more naturally paying attention and animating good life conversations more spontaneously.
Paying attention to listening
In the last 12 months we have done some focused activity to explore listening skills and nurture more attentive listening within our connecting. I would suggest that being a good listener is one of the most crucial skills of a connector, but paying attention to those skills, and nurturing them as a team has become an important element.
I think this has reinforced our passion and motivation to really take the time to get to know our neighbours, to understand what they are passionate about, what life is like for them, and what they long for. Practicing good listening really opens up that space for life-enhancing questions and moments of silence (and not feeling like we have to fill that).
I know I have been challenged by a focus on listening to not being the provider of solutions when a problem, issue or opportunity is being identified. When you put yourself out there in community life people do come to you for help and support, and our identity can be shaped by the longing to ‘help’ and also a longing to see a solution or a new opportunity. But the challenge is to be the bringer of better questions, not be the source of better answers.
The fruits of ‘Good Life Conversations’
So what has happened? Many people are making incredible contributions to community life in so many wonderful ways. Some structured like making happen groups, activities, events, projects, performances, making stuff, growing stuff, cooking stuff, serving stuff. Some are more of a feeling or an experience; we feel we are a more welcoming neighbourhood, more open to receiving the gifts of our neighbours, more willing to share, more confident to get involved, more willing to speak up and to step out of comfort zones. I’m hesitant to give specific examples, as I’m fearful some will see this as a way of finding more gardeners for the allotments, more volunteers at the café, *insert existing project and pre-defined role required here.
What this may unearth is people who care about gardening, the environment, and want to make a contribution to community life in that way. Get alongside them, listen to what they would love to do, what they could share, and see who could assist, collaborate, encourage to make this happen.
We have played with imagery and wording to describe what is emerging, and the closest way to describing it is an ‘ecology’. A complex system of living organisms, connected together in relationships of interdependence (description from Al Barrett, in our latest Together We Can report). There is growing community of people, groups, activities, traditions, places, and relationships. It definitely isn’t like operating a machine. It’s not as simple as putting something in at one end (adding in good life conversations), pulling a few levers (getting the staff onboard and training the volunteers), pressing a few buttons (write a new policy, write a new questionnaire or survey), and seeing the finished product pop out at the other end (*insert your project outcomes here). My fear is that people reading this within organisations will think if we put Good Life Conversations into what we do, then we will meet our outcomes. That will make you more asset-based and person centred which is good. But what I’m describing is community development, not organisational development, or project development, or volunteer development.
What forms a ‘Good Life Conversation’?
We use a range of questions that our connectors use to animate a conversation. Cormac offers the following questions that help people to explore what contributions they might make to communities in which they reside.
What contributions do you like to make to others?
What’s your thing?
What’s your jam?
What do you like doing that makes you forget time?
What matters to you that you’d join with others in doing?
If three of your neighbours were willing to help, what would you love to do to make your community a better place to live?
What are the three activities you do best?
Would you be willing to show someone else how to do one of them?
What are the three skills you would most like to learn?
What are your passions?
What gives you greatest joy or pleasure?
What kind of job (paid or unpaid) might be associated with your passion?
What are your gifts of the head? What do you know about? (music, movies, singing, playing music, history, languages, birds, sports, books, etc.)
What are your gifts of the heart? (volunteering, listening, being with children, nursing, poetry, caring for others, etc.)
What are your gifts of the hands? (recycling, gardening, cooking, walking, stamp collecting, quilting, fishing, arts and crafts, driving, plumbing, delivering, sewing, cutting hair, ushering etc.)
Which clubs or groups do you belong to?
Which are organised around your passions?
Which ones exist in your community?
What could you teach others?
What would you like to teach others?
What product or service would you enjoy selling?
If you could start a business, what would it be?
What are your favourite games?
How do you have fun?
Do you have other hobbies or special interests we have not talked about?
Have you ever made anything?
Have you ever fixed anything?
What is your greatest accomplishment in life so far?
What will be your greatest accomplishment in the future?
Can you imagine your most challenging characteristic turned into a gift or contribution?
Where in the community do you think you could make your contribution/share one of your gifts?
It’s important to ensure these questions are taken and turned into the language that would commonly be used in the context you are in. Our connectors have found questions that work for them, and they are comfortable asking. These questions are not the basis for a survey (even when we have our clipboards and badges), they are to help steer and animate a good conversation, and hopefully lead to a gift, skill and passion that could be offered, a connection to a place or group, or an invite to something for the conversation to continue.
At the social research conference, I stated I didn’t understand what we do as research, and that we aren’t researchers. Very respectfully someone responded by saying they believed it is, I’m still not convinced. What I am convinced about is asking good life-enhancing questions, and having good life conversations isn’t a time-limited, time-bound exercise, it’s a way of life if you are seeking a flourishing neighbourhood and abundant community life.