Who’s in the room?

A chalkboard that reads Welcome, please come in

A few weeks ago I finally got round to watching the Channel 4 drama, It’s a Sin. It depicts the lives of a group of friends living in London in the 1980s as the HIV/AIDS crisis developed and impacted them directly. As you might expect from a series written by Russell T Davies, it was an engaging and moving story, packed full of very human characters.

But one of the things that struck me most was when one of the characters, coming to the end of his life, says something along the lines of ‘people will only remember the awfulness of what happened to us, they won’t remember the fun and the joy we had’.

There are many things to take from the whole story and from this sentiment in particular. But since this is a blog about communication, I’m going to stick to writing about what we can learn from a comms perspective.

Viewed through another lens

For me, something like this is a perfect illustration of why we need to ensure that we include – and listen to – people with lived experience of any given situation. It is all too easy to look at a situation and, even with the best of intentions, apply our own interpretations.

The character in It’s A Sin was right. The narrative we have around the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 80s does tend to focus on the horror of what happened.

And we shouldn’t deny that aspect – it should be an important aspect of learning for health crises. But if that is the only lens we use, we do the people who were there at the time a great disservice. Their entire experience is not recognised or valued. They did also have a lot of fun.

To make sure you are being fully inclusive of all perspectives and experience, communicators need to ensure everyone is in the room. This may mean that colleagues with a range of lived experiences are physically present (which may mean online, of course). Or if this is not possible, it is up to us to represent the views of the people who are not there.

So what can we do?

Be explicit about making sure no-one is missed out.

Sometimes rooms are closed to different voices as a deliberate act. But other times omission is not meant maliciously, it is simply that no-one has stopped to consider ‘Is everyone here?’ or ‘Are the people in the room all like me?’

Either way, the end result is the same. Narrow decision-making and poorer quality outcomes.

As communicators we can take pause to consider who is involved and reflect any gaps back to our colleagues, so that they can be filled.

Be clear about purpose.

If you know what a conversation is for, it is much easier to identify who should be involved. It is worthwhile considering who may have been missed in the past and what the impact may have been on achieving previous outcomes.

If you have a clearly-articulated purpose that benefits your organisation, it is much harder for those with their own agenda to get away with dominating the conversation. As a communicator you can gently (or not so gently, as needs be) remind colleagues of what you are aiming for and how different voices can help achieve that.

Speak up.

Sometimes individuals with different experiences are not able to be in the room themselves. This may be due to practical barriers, such as a time difference, or emotional ones, such as a lack of confidence or concern for consequences.

Whatever the cause, it is important that we remind those who take part in the conversation that not everyone has the same experience as them. When we have taken the time to fully listen to those who are missing, we can accurately say what they would want to be said.

Knowing the right questions to ask is a key communication skill. Using these questions to prompt new thinking is a clear way we can add value.

Know when to get out of the way.

Communicators often talk about getting a seat at the table. But what if we’re just taking up space when we get there?

If we don’t have anything new to add, it may be that there is more value in giving our place to someone who has something different to say. This involves being honest, with ourselves and others. Putting aside ego and acting with integrity.

But the potential benefits to our colleagues, our organisations and our communications are immense.

Get in touch

Please let me know how you decide who’s in the room at your organisation and ensure everyone feels safe to contribute. I’d love to add ideas to my list of ways to encourage inclusion.

And if you’d like help in working out what you can do, let’s set up a call to explore how I can assist you.

Until next time
Sarah

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