The Art of Connecting Communities – Why Bother Connecting? (Day 1)

Over the last few years, ‘The Art of Hosting’ has been transformative to my thinking and practice as a Doctor, as a Commissioner and as a Director of Population Health. Part of the core theory that undergirds this way of working is the 4-fold practice. It involves learning to:

 

  • Host Yourself
  • Be Hosted
  • Host Others
  • Host with Others

 

Hosting yourself means doing the inner work, and tending to your own needs. It is important, if I am to give my best-self to those around me. As a type-7 personality, for me this has meant learning to embrace disciplines like silence and fasting. It has also meant learning to rest, learning some healthy boundaries, to take care of my physical needs, embrace pain rather than running from it and become more aware of my emotions, resisting the need to rationalise everything. In being hosted, it’s about letting go of control, embracing humility and receiving the gift of others. In hosting others, it’s about learning to hold space for someone else, to deeply listen and to resist the need to fix things, but rather to respond and to coach, where this is welcomed (perhaps the very art of the classic GP consultation!). Hosting with others, is about learning to collaborate, to play to each other’s strengths, to enjoy the dynamic of relationship and to create a space together which opens up exponential potential!

 

We have now hosted 5 different trainings across Morecambe Bay in the last 2 years, and hosted many more conversations. Our latest training, in the City of Lancaster (our first without the incredible Linda Joy Mitchell), was an amalgamation of some of the ‘art of hosting’ practices with our own developing practices, here in the Bay. We called this training, “The Art of Connecting Communities” and together we explored some of the theory and practice under the question: “Why Bother Connecting?”

 

We began with the amazing, Yak Patel, CEO of the CVS in Lancaster District welcoming everyone and framing our 2 days together. Yak has become a good friend and is one of the best connectors of people I have ever met. He is deeply humble, kind and compassionate. He has lived and worked in this area all his life and has taken the time to build really wonderful relationships across many communities, which means he is trusted. So when someone, like Yak, puts out a call across the area to invite people to come and learn together about how we connect communities, people respond very eagerly. there has, perhaps, never been a more important time to connect together. Isolation and loneliness is literally killing us, and our walls of division and suspicion are leading us into dangerous territory. Bringing people and communities together is an art form and one which is worthy of serious collaborative learning.

 

To welcome everyone in, we did a ‘check-in’ using circle practice. Circle is an ancient practice, and is great for breaking down hierarchies, welcoming everyone into a space and ensuring that every voice is heard and every person knows that they matter. It can be quite simple and straightforward, though my experience is that it tends to go quite deep, quite quickly. For us, in Morecambe Bay, this has always been helped by having members of ‘The Well’ communities with us. People from The Well know how to be community at a level you won’t encounter in many other places. They know how to be vulnerable, with such a natural humility and so when they open up, it gives permission to the rest of the room to also go deeper. When this happens, we find people meet at a very human level and relationships form within the group easily. in this circle, we gave people pipe cleaners and asked them to make something which represented them. We than asked them to share this with the circle. Our harvest from the circle was very rich and the amazing Jon Dorsett, a truly brilliant host and one of the best graphic harvesters around, transformed it into a stunning piece of spoken word.

 

 

After a short break, the team hosted a world-café. Hosting a good café, depends on taking time to set the room well, explain the process and have a really good couple of questions. Our café took an appreciative enquiry approach. Our first question was: “What gives the Lancaster District It’s Heart and Soul?” – after two rounds of incredibly rich conversation, we than asked: “Where and How do you Experience This?”

The beauty of a world café is the ability to find great connection and synergy in a room. The sense of positivity this conversation brought about the assets we have in this district was palpable and it created a dynamic in which everyone felt like a real participant and collaborator in the process.

 

Sue Mitchell, one of our team, a seasoned, wise and excellent coach and host did a teach-piece on ‘Deep Listening’, which we could also call ‘Transformative Listening’. Listening is an art form and one that many of us never really learn – at least not to the deepest levels. Sue, expertly took us through those levels and helped us develop a framework to challenge ourselves about how well we really listen. Level 1 ‘My Turn’ is when we’re not really listening at all and we’re just waiting to jump in with whatever it is we want to say. Level 2 is when something the speaker says sparks a memory in us and we start contributing about our own (perhaps) similar experience – oh yeah – ‘me too’! It’s about us trying to sense make and find connection, but can mean we really miss what is actually being said! Level 3 ‘My Fix’ is about the listener stepping in and trying to fix the problem. It’s a level at which we don’t really want to connect too deeply, so we try and sort it and move on! Level 4 is where it begins to be about real listening – ‘I WITH you’ – it’s quite a sacred space. It’s where we allow ourselves to feel real empathy, to be with someone in their moment and experience, putting our own thoughts and experiences aside and creating a space for them. Level 5 is where ‘we begin to hear’. It is the art of self-awareness, it’s where we allow ourselves to be changed by the encounter and have our previously held perspectives and understandings changed. If we are to really connect within and across communities, we need to learn this art of listening.

 

Having learned about the art of real listening, we practiced it, using one of my favourite practices – Triads! The concept is pretty simple – three people, together – one is the speaker, one is the listener and one is the witness. The three people take it in turns to be each role, and each time, the same question or theme is explored. The theme we worked with was: “Share a story of a connection you made that changed your life. What was the impact?” – The listener asks the question, the speaker has 10 minutes to speak, with perhaps a few questions of clarification. At the end of the time, the listener sums up what they have heard and then the witness can give any feedback on what they have seen, things which have perhaps remained unspoken or anything else they have noticed. It is a very powerful experience to be listened to and to really hear another human being.

 

Learning to harvest is one of the most important aspects of hosting well. We harvested the learning from the triads, by bringing two triads together and asking this question: “What do we know about what builds connection?” – We then asked the 6 people together to come up with one sentence that reflected this knowledge and learning. Our harvesters then cleverly weaved a web of the learning.

We finished the day by checking out, again in a circle, simply speaking words of gratitude for the day and how we left feeling ahead of Day 2. As always happens on these days, people left feeling encouraged, hopeful and connected. I love it, because it is in the spaces formed between us that creativity is catalysed, ideas are formed and new things begin to emerge.

 

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A 3 Fold Approach to Population Health

Here in Morecambe Bay, we are trying to develop a strategy around Population Health – by that we mean we want to take a much broader view of the health needs of those who live in this area, ensuring that we try to tackle the disparities we see in the health of our population. In my opinion this needs a three fold approach.

 

Firstly, we need to get our own house in order. We know there is work

© www.stevenbarber.com – Dr David Walker

for us to do as a health system when it comes to ensuring we’re proactive with people’s health. With the resources we have available, we need to ensure that we are treating preventable conditions as well as possible and use the best evidenced-based approach to the care we are delivering. That is why, the excellent Medical Director of UHMB, Dr David Walker, with his vast experiencing in Public Health, is helping us focus on making a significant difference to preventing Strokes (CVAs – Cerebro-Vascular Accidents) across the Bay this year. We are making a concerted effort to ensure that all our patients are getting the necessary pulse checks, blood pressure checks, blood tests and appropriate medications to monitor and manage conditions which can lead to devastating consequences if left untreated or mismanaged. Within this, we are encouraging people to know more about the conditions they live with, understand them and take responsibility to ensure that they are caring for their own health.

 

Secondly, we are working with people across the Bay to live more healthy lives. We continue to see more and more children running a mile a day and hope that this will soon become the Morecambe Bay Mile, in which it becomes the norm for everyone who lives here to move a mile a day. Our sedentary lifestyles are hugely affecting our health and we’re wanting to encourage all business owners and leaders to ensure that staff have time to be active every day. On top of this we’re starting to work with schools around healthy eating and involved in projects with supermarkets to enable people to make more healthy choices in the face of fierce advertising. We’re also working with high schools around mental health issues and seeing many community initiatives springing up, run by the community for the community, which will improve the wellbeing of all. All of this is backed by our ‘Flourish’ work in our hospitals and ‘Let’s Work Well’ in the community, in which NHS staff are leading by example in changing the way that we work and live.

 

Thirdly, however, we need to dig deeper. We keep trying to put a sticky plaster over the great pus-filled abscesses that are the leading causes of ill health in our country. Traditionally we have paid much of our attention to dealing with the symptoms of ill health, and whilst thinking about the root causes, we have simply not putting anyway near enough time, energy, or resource into tackling them. The reason for this is two fold: firstly, health and social policy is directed far too much by the political cycle and the short term gains that can proven in small time windows – so we keep tackling symptoms because we can then prove how effective we are!; secondly, in truth, we don’t actually know how to tackle some of the issues and those of us in leadership roles are far too clever and proud to admit that we don’t know how to fix them and that we need to find a new way together, with the communities of which we are a part.

 

I was having a conversation with Cormac Russell the other day, via twitter, and he gave me this beautiful quote by Ivan Illich: “I believe it is time to state clearly that specific situations and circumstances are “sickening”, rather than that people themselves are sick. The symptoms which modern medicine attempts to treat often have little to do with the condition of our bodies; they are, rather, signals pointing to the disorders and presumptions of modern ways of working, playing and living.”

 

The reality is that many of the determinants of our health and especially of the health inequalities we see in our society have little to do with the availability or quality of services. No, the biggest factors affecting the health gap in this (and every) area are poverty, housing, loneliness, hopelessness and adverse childhood experiences. If we’re not careful, we end up thinking the real issues are waiting times in the ED, difficulties discharging people from hospital, breaking the 18 week target for hip and knee operations and ensuring there are enough GP appointments at weekends. We must not look at the symptoms and believe that if we tackle these surface issues then we will automatically have better health outcomes for all. Here in the Bay, we are trying to be brave enough to take off the sticky plaster and gaze into the festering wounds in our society, so that we can begin to really do some deep debridement of them and allow real healing to ensue.

 

That is why my team are focusing on hosting conversations that matter across our communities and seeking to co-create a social movement. Using the ‘Art of Hosting’ we are holding spaces open in which rich conversations can happen. “We don’t just want people to be more healthy and well – many people don’t even know what that means”, as an amazing woman called Gill, from the West End of Morecambe told us recently, “No, we want everyone to be able to experience life to the full, whatever that means for them”. We can’t do this simply by having good clinical strategies – we need something far more holistic and it will involve all of us.  We need to start our conversations together with appreciative inquiry. What is already going well? What can we learn from here? Knowing what is good, however, is not enough – we must go further, dig deeper and get to grips with some extremely difficult issues.

 

When it comes to Poverty, here in Morecambe Bay, we are trying out new economies (like time banking) and having challenging conversations. The Poverty Truth Commission is causing is to really listen to those with lived experience of poverty and learn to co-create and co-commission services, rather than presuming that the ‘experts’ know best.

 

When it comes to homelessness, inspired by the work in Alberta Canada (https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/find-out-how-this-canadian-city-has-eliminated-homelessness/) and the Manchester Homelessness Charter (https://charter.streetsupport.net/) – we’re beginning to explore ‘housing first’ for Morecambe Bay, but imagining what it might be like with extra support in place from a caring community like ‘The Well’ in Morecambe and Barrow (https://www.thewellcommunities.co.uk/). I’m so pleased that Dave Higham is provoking this conversation for us here and I’m excited to see where a conversation between those with lived experience of homelessness, poverty and addiction, along with some of us in the public sector, might take us. There’s a challenge to all of us in society – we like the sound of these kind of things, but not in our own backyard….our values must begin to align with our actions. Love without action is not really love.

 

And what about loneliness and hopelessness? More than ever, we need connection across the generations, turning off our screens and actually being together as humans. In Morecambe we are seeing the launch of the new Morecambe Fringe in September, bringing people together around Comedy and the Arts. More Music are doing incredible work with young people. There are amazing community initiatives right around the Bay. We have loads of festivals connecting people across the district. And what is the role of business here? We need businesses to think abut what kind of enterprise we could see emerge for the youth in our area. Are there more opportunities for mentoring? We have left many of our young people to boredom and with few aspirations. With the help of Stanley’s Youth Centre and the great heart of Yak Patel, we hope to host many conversations with young people to really listen to what it is we could create together to break these problems and build community and hope.

 

What are we together going to do about the huge issue that is child abuse? We don’t have answers, but we do have questions – and we need to keep asking them. We know that the mental and physical consequences of abuse are utterly devastating and we find it hard to talk about because it affects so many of us. But our interventions are happening too little, too late, and we are missing the vast majority of cases. Our services simply cannot cope with the volume and serious case reviews tell us the same lessons nearly every time. So what? What are we going to do differently? There are definitely things that the public services can do better – but not when our resources are being stripped. What is especially terrible about the cuts to services in our most deprived areas is that ACEs cause poverty, homelessness, isolation and ill health! As a team, we take this really seriously and will be hosting discussions in our schools and local communities about how we raise happy, healthy children. Where is help needed? We’ve become so focused on grades and outcomes in schools…..but do we teach people what to do with their anger? Do we focus enough on values? Are there enough parenting (the hardest job in the world) classes – and if so, are they hitting the mark? What do we need to do differently? We know the situations in which children are more likely to suffer – so what? Have we become so focused on getting people into work that we’ve forgotten just how important parenting is? And if we know that ACE is such a massive issue, are we really making the right choices in terms of what therapies we’re making available for those who have suffered them?

 

Is it the role of those of us in healthcare to get involved in these discussions? YES! It is the role of all of us in society. Together, we must reimagine the future. We all know that prevention is better than cure, but our short-termism is stopping us from finding the kind of positive solutions that will really make a difference. In face of downward pressure from hierarchical powers, it is tough to make brave decisions to invest in the future, rather than cut our way to balancing the books. But if we really care about the health and wellbeing of our communities, then we have to stop the sticking plaster approach and clean out the gangrenous wounds in our society. We have to deal with the root and not the fruit.

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