CSR: A lesson learned by listening


Very interesting phenomenon happened the last time I went to the Compton Day Care Centre for my CSR Assignment in Listening.

I arrived to greet my service users, and met with the usual happy response, but there was someone else in their midst! Another volunteer was there, in his early 60s, seeking reminiscences from the service users, and he was there to get them to talk about what they had done in the past.

With my nose slightly put out of joint, I settled down to watch what would happen. I had been in that same situation some weeks before, and it would be interesting to see the service users’ reaction.

The difference this time was that all the service users were forced to pay attention to this man, whereas I spoke to only those who were interested. He started by telling them all about himself and then announcing what he wanted them to do.  Then he started firing questions at them to see if any would respond.

Of course the service users are polite and well mannered, so they answered his questions with as much enthusiasm that they could muster.  It appeared to him that they were waiting their turn to have their say, but actually some were silently and invisibly protesting (over the weeks I’ve learned to notice the signs). He tried to gear the subject about what happened during the War, directed towards the service users that were least interested in that subject, and ignoring the ones that would have given him some information if he had given them 1 to 1 attention.

He made another faux pas by offering to bring in pictures of the surrounding area to try and jog their memories, and by bringing in a set of old coinage so they could talk about that. He also made the mistake of telling them local information they didn’t know, whereas those of more mature years prefer to give advice and tell you their knowledge, to suitable appreciative responses.

Gradually the conversation dwindled, and he left. Immediately afterwards the service users announced how boring he had been, and wasn’t it terrible that he was coming back for a further five weeks! Blimey, what had they been saying about me after my first visit? It had taken me about 3 weeks to get accepted, but then I hadn’t forced any questions on them, had let them talk about any subject they wanted, and had given personal attention to those who had been quiet.

Then it struck me! The majority of these service users weren’t interested in the past, they preferred to explore the present and even the future. During the latter part of the morning there was a private conversation going on in the corner about a new nail bar that had opened locally, with questions for explanations about the services on offer – gels, extensions, even nail piercings – what on earth were those? Giggles were exchanged about crazy nail polish colour names, and jokes were passed about dolling themselves up for their fancy men!

What had I learned? You won’t get much voluntary information from your subject unless you adapt to their terms. Firing questions won’t necessarily bring the answers you want or expect, whereas investigatory questions that let the other respond to what they have in their heads, or relate to their immediate circumstances, will bring forth much better dividends. You have to bring yourself down to their level, empathise with their needs, be aware of their surroundings, and work with their responses accordingly. Barriers will be put up if they sense you’re probing too hard, or if there is nothing in it for them.

This is the difference between marketing and selling. Also, frequency in attendance, as in networking for business, will allow others to get to know, like and trust you, before they feel they can open up to their innermost thoughts and reveal the information you crave. It is most unlikely that someone will immediately react favourably to a stranger, so forcing inappropriate questions without a sort of ‘warm up’ over time will never produce satisfactory results.


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