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  • Marnie Freeman

Deep Listening with Residents - it’s always worth it

When we talk about social connection, everyone’s invited. Here at Neighbourly Lab, we create new spaces for conversations, enable openness for more listening and provide opportunities for people to safely share their experience on topics that matter to them. These typically relate to place, belonging and community. Each conversation is an opportunity to learn, and the insights shared help inform policy making and framework development.

Recently we’ve been lucky to talk to residents in different councils on issues relating to EDI, support for children and families with additional needs, housing transformation and community engagement/disengagement with the council. We have done this ethnographically, by spending time with people in their local area, in home, and on their estates.

This type of work is soft, rich, takes time and feels very necessary for helping to bring lesser heard voices into a mainstream narrative. Residents become our guides, sharing what matters to them, showing us what’s challenging and pointing us to what’s working. For example, being in-home with a resident when a delivery of a special supportive seat arrives. It’s for their child and they’ve been on a council waiting list for it for 18 months. Being there, we are privileged to see the mixed emotions behind that delivery, and explore from there additional issues and opportunities. For example, going for a walk around an estate with a resident and meeting others on our way, who all stop to ask each other if they’ve got water. From this we learn there’s been an issue and seemingly no communication to the people who rely on its supply. Another opportunity for changing the way things are done is revealed to the Council, in real time by real people. Gaining a snapshot of residents’ lived experiences may not yield data from which to draw trends and patterns, but instead, this way of working elicits rich insights that help policy makers understand what’s really going on and how they could potentially make things better.

It is a privilege to meet residents in this way, people who want to share their experiences to help make things better. It is a privilege to work for teams in Councils who realise the value in these experiences and are determined to press the pause button and start listening, before they develop more plans, even if there may be wider hesitancy of doing things differently from ‘higher up’. People responsible for programme delivery benefit from spending time in a natural environment with residents. This informs their work and the wider impact of their organisation on residents’ lives.

One of our preferred ways of doing ethnography is to train up the Council’s frontline staff, as a Listening Squad, to join us in the field. This upskilling helps them to connect with residents more effectively in the future and helps them to see what is possible. We do this by facilitating inter departmental workshops, bringing staff together who don’t usually get to share knowledge and experiences, and then we go out and do field work with them to apply their new skills.

Time in the field is where the shift into deep listening happens; it is where staff meet the diversity of their residents, see the complexity and intersectionality of challenges and get inspired by the community's resilience and motivation for working together. When they are back at their desks, it is these touchpoints that remind them that real people are at the heart of what they do; not KPIs, budget deadlines or the politician’s votes and that makes a difference to their motivation at work. Many have told us that it is a different and refreshing way of working, shifting them away from linear problem solving to more creative and empathic engagement.

If you would like to better understand the lived experience of the residents or customers you serve and explore new ways for connecting with them, please contact to learn more about how ethnographic research can benefit your team.

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