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An exercise in listening

Updated: Jan 17, 2021

An exercise in listening as published on; a charity that has supported the social services workforce in Scotland since 2008

Carolyn M Holmes shares her experience of embracing ‘coproduction’; and being ‘all ears’ on The Iriss Co-production Project Planner In Action

I don’t remember the word ‘coproduction’ being mentioned over 30 years ago, when I trained to be a social worker. However I learned to knock on doors, to listen, to value personal stories, relationships, the unique individualism of us all, the role of community and a family in our lives, in whatever form that might be. Years away from practice, also known as the ‘frontline’, I have had the pleasure of being brought back from strategy and health education administration to the reality of coproduction, in my role as a Personalisation lead for an English Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG). It has been an absolute pleasure and an honour to be back sitting face to face with carers, patients, people with lived experience, as I am myself, to have real conversations about life as it is, not what we think or would like to think it is.

Playing a part in an NHS England and Improvement (NHSE/I) Personalisation Demonstrator site has brought me such humility, through my involvement with this fledgling strategic coproduction group. Relearning about listening, valuing others, and treating as equals should not be revelatory, but it this is my experience.

I was aware of a quiet revolution happening in our meeting rooms when no one is else was noticing. We benefitted from a skilled facilitator to take us through our memorable passionate moments to stop obsessing, to ‘park’ our thoughts, to get on with the discussion in hand and not be waylaid by our favourite topics. This might seem patronising, but it was really like honing a craft. Coproduction doesn’t happen by accident; it happens by design. It felt like a luxury at the beginning, but now it’s a necessity.

Having the permission, to get started with a group of fascinating, motivated individuals who are making the world a better place not just for them and theirs, but everyone else too has been liberating. These are ordinary people who are extraordinary activists, with their own cares and health concerns, repeatedly turning up on local regional and national stages, and for whom advocacy and action are part of their jampacked daily lives, not once a month for 4 hours in the group meeting.

These members speak from experience from living life it as it is, from ‘walking the talk’, from direct contact with people in desperate situations, which they recount, as clear as day. They are activists, creators of desperately needed new mental health provision, of music, poetry, quiet reflections, and the best questions you have ever heard.

How do I know this? I and my colleague have been part of the group for four hours a month for almost two years. We listened, debated, questioned, argued, sighed, laughed, teared up and held each other to account. Yes, it’s all very emotional … I hear you say. But now I find myself listening so intently to carers and people with lived experience. Is that what you do too? Then in turn we pass on many gems, the aha moments, to our colleagues at work, to keep the momentum going, to enable the change that is coproduction, so it is not filed away for when we are really ready for it, not lost in a pilot, or stalled due to an ever changing workforce, but flowing like a river through our organisation, our working and personal lives.

I have had an exceptionally good education, in a specialist subject, which was missing all those years ago. However, it is never too late; what a wonderful lesson in life I have had. So, please don’t be afraid if you hear the word ‘coproduction’; just jump straight in, all ears.

This article expresses the personal views of Carolyn, Personalisation Lead at Bedfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group. Carolyn is also a Care Services Route Panel member at the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education as well as author of the ‘Manage your language, How to get ahead in Health and Social Care’ book series.

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