There are ways of thinking about consultation and engagement that can help boost your organisation’s courage in listening and to do it more efficiently and effectively.

  1. Go beyond mere compliance to the duty to consult.

Avoid a check-box approach by stretching beyond minimal standards of compliance and reach for excellence in Inclusive Listening and the feedback loop. It’s possible to do this using less resources than you are now – really!

  1. Respond stoically and objectively to negative, unfair, or inaccurate feedback.

Often people will make these comments after an emotionally challenging experience when they didn’t get what they needed, for whatever reason, maybe even due to their own error. Show empathy with their experience, explain what isn’t accurate, and inform them with what is. Then offer a constructive action so they can get what they need.

Blaming people for not getting what they need, or taking away their control of their actions doesn’t help them have a better experience next time. Understanding from them what went wrong does help you design a better, more accessible service for others. It isn’t personal, even if they used language that made it personal.

There are ways to give people a way to ‘unload’ this kind of feedback that helps buffer its effects on staff but make it even more easy to use for service changes and improvements.

  1. Bear witness, be accountable, and acknowledge. 

Give people a way to express their experiences of using your services. Nine times out of ten, people just want to vent and get a frustration off their chest. Once they do that, that is the end of it in their mind.

If they can do that easily and safely, you have gotten valuable information about something that might need tweaking to make your service better, and they will have had their say.

People often get angry or negative when they feel powerless. You or your service may have done everything right, but they had a bad experience. You have the power, so be accountable, apologise and show empathy that they had a bad experience. You can do this without falsely admitting to wrongdoing. You are bearing witness to their lived experience.

The “You said, we did” feedback loop supports this. Tell people what you heard, then tell them what you did about it.

  1. Cherish the complainer!

Of course this is easier said than done! It is hard to hear negative comments when you are working hard to do well, you are making tough decisions within tight resources, and you truly thought you were doing right.

But people who take the time to make a comment, especially the negative ones, are very valuable to organisations. Knowing about an aspect of your service that causes a bad user experience means that you can take steps to correct it.

You may get the same few people who complain regularly. The important thing to learn from this is that making it easier, feel safer, and feel meaningful to complain means you will hear from a wider range of people with a variety of experiences.

This information becomes even more valuable in the continuous improvement of services.

Collect those complaints efficiently and completely, and watch service quality spiral up.

  1. Look inside the organisation as well as outside.

No one knows your services and how they interface with the public and service users better than those who are delivering them. Frontline staff have an invaluable level of understanding of your services and how they are received.

Give them a way to easily capture the insights they get day by day so that this information can also be a part of the cycle of continuous improvement.

This can become a seamless part of their everyday work without additional burden or resource.

  1. Provide anonymous methods for listening.

Anonymous ways to feed in comments and insights means that unfiltered information is collected. Without fear of reprisals people will tell you things that can help you make your services better that you can never get in a focus group, for instance.

Yes, people may feel bolder about saying mean things, unfair or inaccurate things, but as before, we can remember that we have the power and we need to take these types of comments and use them to our advantage, in order to make them advantageous to our residents and service users.

Remind ourselves: It isn’t personal. Again, easier said than done. Support each other when these types of comments come through. Help staff remember that it isn’t personal. Talk about how the negativity makes you feel when you read them.

Then, discuss what about the comments might have some element of truth, no matter how skewed, and think about what it means for ways the service might need to change. Use it. Turn the emotion into action and take back the power of the comment.

  1. Get leadership behind the commitment to make consultation easy and meaningful.

 Quantifying the true value of inclusive, diverse feedback from consultation, even or especially the most negative, makes the case for taking real action to listen. Move from expensive, labour-intensive plans for consultation to more effective, inclusive, valuable methods to make it really count.

Make a business case and show how it benefits the whole organisation as well as the community it serves. Create policies that enshrine these meaningful methods in the organisation’s planning and budgeting processes.

Celebrate this commitment and share it.

  1. Be transparent- about comments, feedback, and resulting action.

It’s easy to hide the negative comments and complaints as misinformation or inaccurate and therefore not worthy of sharing. This can undermine the trust between the organisation and the community. It stops future engagement or reduces others’ willingness to engage.

Sharing all comments gives the organisation the chance to refute them. Or explain what is being done to make things better.

It also helps the organisation to build trust and strengthen relationships by being truthful about what can and can’t be done. In response to a negative but true comment an organisation can say exactly why a change can’t be made. Or it can commit to doing something in due course. It can even ask for suggestions for action to make it better.

Creating an open, transparent communication channel with service users improves the relationship. In time this can mean less unjustified, inaccurate criticism and more meaningful, constructive feedback that helps everyone do better.

Even making aggregate rather than specific information available can support this change. Making the policies open builds trust in the processes behind it.

  1. Use the power of your organisation to address the bigger issues.

Once your organisation shows this courage in consultation, in truly listening to the people it serves, you become a leader in meaningful consultation.

You can share your experiences with others, including what didn’t go well as well as what did. We can all learn to do better and spiral up the power of organisations to have a positive and constructive impact on the lives of all people.

We can begin to address bigger issues of isolation, marginalisation, and disenfranchisement. Getting more voices heard gets more power into services to address for instance worklessness, health inequalities, and inaccessibility for certain groups, because the information we all gain by more inclusive consultation and feedback helps us improve.

Produce and disseminate the knowledge you gain. Find a way to use your experience to benefit others.

  1. Commit resources.

The good news is, this more inclusive way of listening can require fewer resources. Making it easy for people to have their say in a way that is easy for organisations to hear, capture, and translate into action doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, done right, it can save significant time and money.

Textocracy can show you how.