We are here to support, promote and develop voluntary and community action in Middlesbrough

When you think you know it all, you stop listening to understand!

One of the best parts of working at MVDA is getting to meet lots of great people passionate about making life better for Middlesbrough’s people. I love the ‘cuppa and a natter’ approach and how we get to some really deep issues in the context of a ‘thinking out loud’ discussion. I’m always inspired by what people are doing, often in some of the most challenging circumstances, and this really stirs up my curiosity to really understand what life is like on a day-to-day level for the organisations we work with and the people they support.

It is in this environment that many of Middlesbrough's VCOs are willing to share their challenges and frustrations. Last weeks’ meetings with some VCOs, doing amazing work with people with a range of vulnerabilities and complex needs, left me pondering the whole issue of knowledge, information, understanding and perspective. Who has it, how it is defined and who decides on the value of it in the context of ‘doing things differently’?

A recurring theme from my discussions with leaders, especially those that are responding to some very difficult issues, was around the feeling of not really being understood or valued as experts by those asking them what they think. This got me thinking about a team discussion we had had at MVDA following one of our ‘thought leadership’ team meetings and the great little doodle you see above that captures some of that discussion.

Acknowledging the power dynamics

We had been discussing the issue of social change leadership and how we (MVDA) could focus some work on better influencing social change, utilising the expertise, knowledge, understanding, information and perspective of Middlesbrough’s VCS. A recurring experience voiced during this discussion focused upon the many forums staff find themselves in where there is a real need to acknowledge the power dynamics within multi-agency forums, especially at a strategic level, where there are both public and voluntary sectors present.

Where there is a need to agree a multi-agency plan which is directed by statutory agencies, this power dynamic is most visible. In my experience, this is the time when I have most experienced the difficulty of a diverse range of people from different organisations trying to reach agreement without fully listening to understand the other.

If we are going to co-create real social change we need to value that we all bring our own expertise and we need each other to progress. We need to start by accepting that none of us ‘know it all’ and that progress is achieved when we better understand the other.

Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil in 2002 termed, the illusion of explanatory depth (IOED), stating, “Most people feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence, and depth than they really do.”  Graphic sourced from https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/2019/03/18/5-strategies-ace-exam/ 

Tracey Brittain


Senior Strategic Development Officer