An imaginary open letter: To those who would ‘engage’ us…

To those who would ‘engage’ us…

We are already engaged.

We may not be engaged with you, or in what you think we should be engaged with, but none the less we ARE engaged. The things that we are engaged with offer us what we are looking for, perhaps consciously, perhaps not. Our chosen ‘engagements’ give us some combination of love, power and money.

There is a fourth thing that some of us get from our preferred engagement, and that is freedom from pain. Freedom from the pain of hope denied. Freedom from the pain of optimism dashed. Freedom from the humiliation of yet another ‘failure’. This pursuit of freedom from pain is what you label ‘apathy’.

We may choose to engage with you, and your agendas, if you offer us what we want. Unless we see possibilities for this our engagement with you is likely to be short lived and will change nothing. It might be enough for you to tick the box called ‘community engagement’, but little more.  Love and fun might attract us for a while, but it is making us powerful that keeps us engaged.

Many of us who you find ‘hard to reach’ or ‘difficult to engage’ have ‘been engaged’ with people like you before. We have been sold false hope and have suffered the pain of having that hope dashed when you let us down, or when you run out of funding. Your reputations go before you. Sometimes even your promise of cash can’t persuade us to engage…we know that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

You might pay us to move our muscles, or answer your questions, but you cannot buy our hearts and minds.

If you want to encourage us to change what we engage with, then you need to understand us, understand what we are looking for, and understand where our engagement is likely to take us. It is this ‘where it leads’ that is often the hardest part of the story for us to explore. Some of us have learned to live for today and let tomorrow take care of itself. But, if you can really offer us something that provides us with a genuine shot at a better future….

Often your approach appears to us to stand on the premise that you have the right to engage us in what you believe to be good for us. You impose your sensibilities and priorities. Or you impose the policy objectives of those who pay your wages. You force us into a parent child relationship.

Imagine that a powerful outsider came and tried to persuade you to live your life differently. To give up some of the things that you enjoy. To ‘persuade’ you to work on a project of their design.  How would you respond? With enthusiastic compliance?

Perhaps instead of seeking to engage ‘us’ in your decision-making processes, or in co-creating your services, or in spending your budgets, you should instead seek to engage yourselves in our agendas, our decisions, our opportunities. You should put us as individuals and communities at the heart of your endeavours.

Before you seek to engage us in your agendas, perhaps you ought to spend a bit of time trying to engage yourselves in ours? Not by pushing your way in with your authority and your money.

But by winning an invitation. By being ‘helpful’.

So, the next time you sit down to write your engagement strategy, just think about what you might need to be like for us to invite you in.

8 Replies to “An imaginary open letter: To those who would ‘engage’ us…”

  1. Thank you for this Mike, I think it is really good and well expressed -may I just add the word ‘authentic’ or truly’ or ‘genuinely’ before the word ‘helpful’
    Patronisingly ‘helpful’ is an anathema , particularily when it cloaks, ‘agendas’ which have no correlation to ‘us’,just to tick boxes.
    Real authentic help and enthusiasm is a delight , as we see it and respond , like with like-please do not underestimate our wit and intelligence!

    1. Either we are helpful, or we are not. If you want to use a qualifier to identify ‘help that helps’ rather than ‘help that doesn’t help’ then please be my guest!

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

  2. “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'” Ronald Reagan
    Ann’s on to something in digging into how “help” is deployed. “Support” is another of these words. “Needs” as in “Special Educational Needs” is another. Perhaps it depends who is doing the deciding, what is and what is not?
    Like the great piece.

  3. How true – so often in my conversations I have been asked about how I would engage the workforce……… as if engagement were one way…….the same mistake is often made with communications strategies that focus on telling and not listening as an equally important element

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