Genevieve Hargrove | October 22, 2020
When we collect feedback, how we ask questions matters as much as what we ask. There is an interrelation of how to ask questions verbally to shift power and how that can lead clients to feeling empowered. When people feel heard and empowered, we gather better feedback and thus improve the feedback loop and our programs. But how often do we investigate practices that shift power through the unsaid?
From my experiences working directly with people experiencing homelessness, I believe that successful feedback relies on interacting with people in an empowering way and my intent is to provide a different lens to look at our interactions and reflect deeper.
After working with those experiencing homelessness in varying capacities, I discovered a few simple practices that garnered a more trusting, genuine, and open conversation that led to better feedback. The practices pull from my experiences doing outreach on the street, running intakes in a day center, and listening through difficult stories of trauma. These Three Things can support you to better engage clients and shift power through the environment, how you speak, and your authenticity.
Shift the environment. While doing street outreach, it was common for us to interact with clients while they were laying down or sitting in a wheelchair. We are taught to crouch and meet someone on the same eye level. This small shift changes the power dynamic in physical space and also a psychological space. A second example of shifting the environment is offering new physical arrangement or spacing to make the client feel comfortable. For example, if the client keeps turning around to look at the door behind them, note this and ask if they would like to switch places and then honor their wishes in shifting the environment or not. Through asking and honoring their wishes, you open space for candid dialogue. Being aware of the environment brings energy of mutual respect and openness that welcomes clients to share their concerns in the future. These changes may seem trivial, however, on many occasions I found that a simple willingness to work with the environment resulted in better conversation or survey outcomes.
Consider your tone and inflection while asking questions. If you speak another language, you may be aware of how vocal inflection is used to emphasize certain words or phrases. Depending on what you emphasize and the rising and falling of your voice, you can change how the message is interpreted. This same rule applies to how we ask questions of clients. How a question is delivered in tone and inflection can change the meaning and intention of a survey question. Without considering our tone, an unintended bias or judgement can be clearly felt.
A great way to reflect on this is to ask a coworker to listen to a question and provide feedback as you say the same thing with different inflections and tone. Then switch roles and listen to how they approach the question. If needed, you can also record yourself and listen that way, too.
I’ve seen tone and inflection come into play while working in the day center. I gave intakes and surveys on a regular basis, and had awareness of my trouble with one particular question. I had noticed that my clients didn’t react well from this question and the question seemed intrusive. Since I had to ask it, I requested my co-workers to coach me through how they asked the question. It brought me to better understand the importance of my inflection and tone. In transparency and learning, my inflection and tone showed that a bias was present and it was felt by the clients I supported. It took work not only considering how I delivered the question, but also reflecting on and working through my bias.
Be authentic and empower through their story. When discomfort or difficult reflections come up in a feedback session, recognize that client’s challenges are not always fixable and “silver lining” someone’s story doesn’t really help long-term and can result in unintentional disempowerment. “Silver lining” is the tendency to look for a bright side or resolution to someone’s story. It can lead to not listening and at worst discrediting someone’s viewpoints and feelings. To be seen and heard can be potent while someone is in an uncomfortable mental space. Instead of a silver lining, leading with reflective questions and open-ended questions provides room for someone to make a new connection or viewpoint of their story. And when all else fails, just be human and authentic.
While working in the field with young women, we were caught in a rainstorm in bumper to bumper traffic. The conversation drifted to them sharing a difficult and trauma related story. It stunned me and I didn’t know what to say or do. Rather than trying to provide solutions or make them feel better, I admitted my truth. Turning to face them, I voiced clearly that I didn’t know what to say, but I heard them fully and was truly sorry they had to go through it. I can’t tell you exactly what happened next, however, I can say that this last practice I share with you of being authentic and human can be far more empowering and profound than anything else I’ve practiced.
To get honest and meaningful feedback, we need to build a certain level of trust with our clients. We must be aware of the space, use appropriate tone, and be authentic in order to create the conditions for quality feedback. These three practices have been helpful to me in my career working with people experiencing homelessness and young women, but I know that they can apply in other contexts, too. I hope that you find these things useful in your own feedback journey.
Genevieve Hargrove was an Open Gov Hub Community Catalyst for Summer 2020. Prior to that, Genevieve worked in varying capacities with those experiencing homelessness including in the field as a Strengths and Skills facilitator for young women, a Case Manager in a day center, and as a volunteer Street Outreach worker. Genevieve has a Bachelors of Science in Public Health concentrated in Community Health and a minor in Applied Spanish. Currently, Genevieve is working as a Consultant for a non-profit working in Street Outreach and a non-profit engaging youth in technology through Hackathons. She hopes to use her experiences in direct service to look at how systems thinking and innovative solutions can solve complex problems and provide greater impact and long-term change.