Saturday, 12 December 2009

Open and honest dialogue

Valuable relationships require "open and honest" communication, advises one of my interviewees. Such communication is needed to build up trust.

Trust was not evident last week when I had to deal with council officials on behalf of an aged auntie. I walked into a meeting with a couple of octogenarians, a friend who'd been helping and an official. The official did allow me to put my recorder on when I asked, which was just as well because I'd been given the wrong brief as to the purpose of the meeting. But the wrong brief was what everybody else had, according to the official. The official's voice got faster and louder, hurting auntie's ears. The official within five minutes of the two o'clock meeting as we attempted to clarify the purpose of the meeting told us that auntie didn't have to sign now, but she had to leave at three o'clock. We did not sign and arranged another meeting two days later. We came out feeling as if auntie was being bull-dozed into signing without having the information she needed.

At the next meeting, official had brought re-enforcements in the form of a higher line manager. When I asked if I could put the recorder on, she leaned across the table, told me no, that it wasn't appropriate to record the meeting and could she have the recording I made the other day. So we had adversarial positions immediately.

I like to think that my research participants had given me enough information to turn that meeting round, because we did turn it round. I shared information about myself, the officials gave me their contact details, then more calmly explained all the information that auntie needed to make a decision. I'd done my homework I needed to help her make that decision and could share it with the officials.

Everyone left with smiles, and information.

But I suspect the initial meeting went wrong through lack of information, through poor communication of information that both sides needed. The official hadn't known that auntie needed time to absorb information, that her brother couldn't read the papers because his eyesight is so bad, that neither of them knew what was involved and that the friend had no authority so say that auntie would sign. Relatives and friend hadn't known that the meeting was about signing, not about giving information on what the contract was about. So all went into a meeting that was planned for too short a time slot with insufficient knowledge. Here was an official who wasn't ready to work appropriately with such people, an official who hadn't understood the knowledge limitations and who had another agenda. This official didn't engender trust and although there are smiles, my elderly relatives and their friend now don't trust her for future dealings.

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