“Listen to understand”: stories and insights from ‘For the Love of Community Engagement’

Practice Lead Dan Popping reviews and interviews Becky Hirst about her book, For the Love of Community Engagement.

I got very excited when I heard that Becky Hirst was writing a book on community engagement. Becky Hirst is an outstanding engagement practitioner and is well known for her integrity, authenticity, and commitment.  I can attest to this, as Becky and I have been working in the same ‘engagement circles’ for many years now as we are both based in Adelaide, South Australia.

Over the years, Becky and I have collaborated on many projects either as co-creators, part of a team, or as a client/consultant. I know Becky shares the same level of commitment and dedication to the field of community engagement that I do, so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy of her book. 

When the book arrived, I was pleased to see it contained more of her wonderful stories and that they were woven with threads of lessons learned and tips on best practice community engagement. I was also hoping the stories would be gritty as well as talking about the great projects and Becky’s wonderful achievements and well-deserved awards. I was really hoping there would be some ‘war stories’ and Becky would tell us about the things that can go wrong or could have been done better. And to be totally honest, I was secretly hoping I would be able to recognize and connect to at least a local Adelaide story.

I was not disappointed!

For the love of Community engagement

For the Love of Community Engagement is a priority read for those working in the Community Engagement Sector, whether you are just starting your career or already have a wealth of experience. Becky’s stories and her easy-to-read narrative take us on an honest journey through her career, highlighting numerous projects that she has worked on, and sharing both the failures and successes.

But the book is more than just a collection of stories. It gives readers an opportunity to reflect and consider their own civic engagement responsibilities and elicits a strong call to action by including several poignant conversation starters at the end of each chapter. As Becky says herself,

“I hope that by sharing some of my experiences, lessons, and insights, we can begin a conversation about how to reimagine community engagement.”

One of the common themes in the book is the importance of understanding who your community is. Becky makes several references to things like “taking the time to witness and respect peoples’ individual circumstances and viewpoints,” and has even titled one of her chapters, “Go where the people are.” It is a great reminder that community engagement is centered around people, and therefore, people should be at the center of your engagement. Further to this, Becky shares a story about an early time in her career where she realized “she had to leave her expert self at home” and that her project needed “non-judgemental Becky.” I found this such an interesting point, because it reminded me how easy it can be to forget about our own bias and judgments when working in community.  “Listen to understand” is probably my favorite quote in the book.

The chapter titled ‘Consider digital first’ highlights the ever-changing landscape of community engagement. As Becky recalls throughout her book, community engagement practices, tools and methodology have changed significantly over the last two decades. Core to her stories, however, is the fact that Becky continues to advocate for considered and well-planned engagement processes and choosing tools that best suit the needs of your community. I could not agree more with Becky as she summarises this sentiment with her comment, “online community engagement must be front of mind, carefully planned from the outset, and not treated as an afterthought.”

There are a lot of great stories, lessons learned and reflections in the book that readers will easily be able to relate to. After reading the book I still had a few questions for the author, so I played the ‘Adelaide friendship card’ and invited Becky to meet me so I could dig a little deeper into a few of the chapters that I enjoyed or was challenged by.

As usual, Becky was full of energy and enthusiasm as we sat down to chat. 

The book is narrated with many small vignettes and stories, so my first question to Becky was “What is your favorite story in the book and why?”

Becky says that the chapter on “Listen deeply” contains “one of her favorite stories as it holds deep emotional connection and was one of her biggest ‘ah ha’ moments.” As it turns out, it is also her parents’ favorite chapter as well. Without giving away too much, Becky recalls a project where she was engaging with indigenous communities. She was politely asked “Becky. You need to listen to me now. Are you listening?”. Whilst this may seem quite direct, and may have agitated any other facilitator, Becky was able to receive and act on this sage advice. As the book explains, the Aboriginal word “Dadirri” means ‘inner deep listening’, and this story is an excellent reminder of the important role of listening. Becky was very direct when she looked me in the eye and said,

“I learned that lesson quickly and I quickly shut up.”

There was, however, one particular part of the book that I was challenged by where Becky suggests that we are in the middle of a “have your say pandemic.” When I asked her more about this, we discussed how the language implies a top-down, organization-centric engagement approach. It sets the tone that communities can ‘have their say’ but organizations will be making the final decision. After some more coffee and good conversation, I can see her point more clearly. And in true Becky style, her book offers some simple and effective solutions to change this approach. I know I am going to start today and begin replacing this phrase with words that are more inclusive, imply dialogue, and engenders trust and reciprocation.

There is another story in the book where Becky writes about a role where she had to develop a new community engagement model for a local council. I was intrigued when she spoke about contacting people in her community who “had the most interest in Council activities”. When I asked her about this approach, she said it really challenged the Council and senior staff as these people are often seen as the opposition or just too difficult to handle. We spoke about those who are always at the Customer desk or on the phone to complain about something.  I was pleased to hear that rather than treating them like the opposition, Becky reached out to them to engage. She went into their homes, met them for coffee, and listened to them. She spent a lot of time asking them about their experiences, what frustrated them and how things could change. Becky says that “treating people like individuals and listening to understand is the key skill when working with passionate community members. People like this should be seen as an asset to engage, rather than a person to ignore.” 

There is much to like about this book including the take-away messages and thought-provoking stories that will only make me a better engagement professional. Becky Hirst has once again shown us why she is a leading engagement practitioner and a respected and sought-after consultant in South Australia and beyond. 

The book, For the Love of Community Engagement, offers a unique insight into 20 years of practical experience and provides valuable lessons learned for anyone already working in, or just starting out in the community engagement sector. For me, the best takeaway was a simple idea about creating roles for “Keynote Listeners” at community events or in online forums. I think it is a great idea to define and include a role for key stakeholders (e.g. think Elected Members) and one which I plan to use in the future.

I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did.

Learn more about Becky Hirst, Community Engagement author, mentor, speaker, and consultant, and her book,  For the Love of Community Engagement, here.

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