For the Love of Dudley

| Helen Sharp

I’d never been to Dudley before, despite spending a number of years living in Birmingham. So, to have the opportunity to get to know a new area, a new group of people and new community, was very exciting.

Put simply, in September 2017 we were asked by Dudley Health and Wellbeing Board to collect stories from the local residents and turn them into something useful for their future commissioning. Listening to stories in an area like Dudley was a dream come true, because if there’s one thing you should know about the people that live here – they love to talk! Even before we started the project, Anna and I suspected we would love the people of Dudley. During the interview, we chatted with the Council officers as if we’d known them for years. And we met the same uplifting friendliness and warmth wherever we went.

When we think of story-telling, we often focus on the teller and the story – what do we need to know, how should it be told, who is the intended audience. For this project, we switched the focus to the ‘story-listener’ because so much of story-telling is based on how well the listener does their job.

Listening is an art. It is not something that comes naturally to many people and it relies on patience, concentration and authenticity. The art of listening has been circumvented by the sector’s need to save money and time; too often our priority is to gather information useful to us so that we can work out how we can best help people or signpost them on. And all of this needs to be done quickly. So through our referral forms, assessments and action planning, we take charge of what they tell us, we structure our conversations with them and the person tells the story that fits in with our needs and our purpose.

In Dudley, we turned this on its head and put our paperwork away. We learnt from the best – mixing the methods of oral historians with the techniques of the Samaritans – the country’s finest listeners. We used headlines rather than questions, we summarised and reflected back what people were telling us to encourage them to carry on. We employed the five second pause when there was a break in the story and we gave people all the time they needed. I found simply putting my notebook away and switching on my voice recorder, the most liberating experience. I immediately had no distractions.

People rewarded us with their amazing stories, in their own words, choosing what they told us and how. And having time, meant that once they’d finished telling us what they thought we wanted to hear, they could start to tell us what they wanted to; what a difference that made!

Our experience with the people of Dudley will stay with us for the future; we can base so much of what we do now on what they have taught us. And for that, we will be forever grateful.

You can find out more about this project and read our full report and some of the stories we heard here.

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