The importance of learning to listen

david wilson captionedOur relationship with David Wilson, previous Robert Owen Communities CEO, has been a strong one for a long time now. He was telling us he has moved in to a coaching role these days. After many years in the sector, we asked him for his reflections.

After all but 40 years in the sector, and all of these involved with people with a learning disability, I find myself in a place to reflect and consider some of the ups and downs of those decades. Having started my career in Camphill and then having the privilege of being with Robert Owen Communities from the start, my perspective of supporting people with a learning disability has had the opportunity to grow and mature as I tracked the changes in and around the services and the people we have supported.

On the whole I would describe it as one of those “two steps forwards and one back” experiences. There has obviously been a vast increase in regulation, scrutiny and critical comment. Much of the limelight goes to those bodies that have evolved to our present day CQC and, in my view, CQC deserve praise for perseverance and eventually seeming to take a proper view of how the sector should look and be.

The true praise, however, must be given to the people with a learning disability themselves. With the assistance of the political times, particularly Valuing People, this group of our society has gone through a process from being excluded and at times feared to being where we are today as included citizens who are offering role models of achievement and insight into how support services could be run in the future.

Sometimes it is worth stating the obvious. I have no amazing new revelation to offer the next generation of support staff in our sector other than a reminder to never lose sight of the fact that the real change has come about in organisations who have learned how to listen to the people they support. Every sector of the business world knows that one must listen to the customer. Our sector went through a (brief) era of referring to the people we support as “customer”. It always seemed a bit odd and seems to have faded away but it brought about the change of relationship that has become ever more powerful. There will still be some doubters who worry that people with a learning disability cannot really know what they want or what would be best for them. However, the experience of really (and I mean really) listening is an enlightening and rewarding experience and those that have learned this practice as a professional skill will attest to the fact that it leads to a discovery of the wisdom that overrides intellect or logic. It allows people with a learning disability to make great aspirational and ambitious life choices, as well as making it clear that they don’t like custard.

It is to this inherent wisdom which is in us all that I have now turned the next part of my career. My deep belief that every individual is on an individual pathway which we all ‘know’ but so often struggle to articulate, has led me to train and now offer to the sector the experience of Coaching. Whereas a consultant might feel they must earn their worth by telling the client how to go forward, the Coach will listen and in listening and questioning will enable the client to perceive for themselves the way forward.

We have surely had pleasure from the Rio Olympics. This time I have heard a lot more recognition for the coach and the part they have played in bringing out the best in the athlete. In bringing that way of working with people into the adult social care sector we can discover all the perceptive wisdom of person centred planning and the importance of finding the way to draw out from every individual the pathway they are on and need to follow. Practice that skill with the people we support and then practice that skill with the people we work with and lead or manage. Let ‘coaching‘ be the word that describes every aspect of the work that we do. And don’t forget that it might help you to find your own way forward, at work or in life and imagine how much more fulfilling that experience will be.

David Wilson started ROC in 1990. He has now set up David Wilson Coaching Ltd. and anyone interested in coaching or being coached as a way of taking your services forward can contact him: