In our new report, Exploring the New World, we identify how funders, commissioners and organisations working in complex environments are fundamentally rethinking the design and delivery of support. Not only does this require new mindsets, skills, relationships and processes, but also a new language that supports human, collaborative, strengths-based practice.

Lynn Mumford, Development Director at the Mayday Trust, explains how language has been central to forging a new relationship with the people they work with.

In 2011, prompted by austerity, but driven by mission, we took a long, hard and honest look at who we were as a regional housing-related support organisation. When we really listened to what people said (not just what we wanted to hear) we heard that the process once someone became homeless was humiliating, dehumanising and at worst, institutionalising. People were becoming trapped in homeless services. People were also staying homeless too long — the results just weren’t good enough. We captured what we heard in a blog series called Wisdom from the Street.

Read the blog series here

We couldn’t ignore this and decided to see if we could do something really different. Not just a new project or programme, but a fundamental shift in how we worked with people and how we behaved as an organisation. A way in which people could genuinely take back control, build on their strengths to find a new self-identity, find good networks and a purpose, by-pass the sausage machine of services and get on with their lives in the real world.

Over a period of 7 years, we scrapped our old deficit way of working and prototyped a radically new personalised and strength-based approach to homelessness and tough times, the Personal Transitions Service (PTS). What we didn’t realise at the start was that it would demand the complete organisational transformation to our systems, processes, people, culture… and language.

Language can have an enormous impact, not only on the culture of an organisation and the people that work there, but also on individuals working with us and how they feel about themselves.

We have helped our homeless clients to…’ is probably one of the phrases that I find the most difficult. It illustrates how language can inadvertently show a perceived ownership of people, categorise individuals into a homogenous group, strip people of their power and ability to help themselves, can create a feeling of people being ‘done to’ and develop a psychological divide between ‘us and them’. These seven words together can feed into and fuel the ineffective art of fixing, segregation and institutionalisation of people into the system.

I’ve also noticed recently how the language we as service providers use for ourselves when things don’t go right (such as ‘cherry picking’ and ‘gaming’) is associated with fun and innocence, whereas when people we work with don’t stick to the rules of the system we’ve created, we use words such as ‘disengagement’, ‘lack of trust’ and ‘manipulation’. If we replaced ‘cherry picking’ with ‘organisational manipulation’, we’d certainly be closer to the mark and may be more proactive in how we challenged the system that encouraged this type of response.

Practically, as we developed the PTS, language played a huge role in informing the new culture and manifested itself in a number of ways:

· PTS Practitioners: The PTS team that works alongside people are known as coaches or more commonly by their names. We consciously moved away from key worker, support worker, befriender or mentor toward something more real world that broke down the feeling of another expert in someone’s life.

· Language around our duty of care: This shifted away from needs, risks, vulnerable adults, and risk assessments to what is important to people and how they view keeping themselves safe.

· The language of engagement: Through using the word ‘engagement’, the onus is placed upon on the individual to proactively ‘engage’ with a service and non-engagement highlights a failure or lack of interest, rather than putting the onus on the organisation to provide something people want to work with. We scrapped our non-engagement policy and instead, opted for voluntary take up of the PTS. If people didn’t want it, it was up to us to find out how we could change for the better.

· Being ‘done to’: This is a very nuanced and constant challenge. We need to change the narrative from people ‘will’ and ‘should’ to a more collaborative language of ‘could, may, might’ — a language of personal choice where people use their autonomy to decide what happens to them.

For the impact of language to be recognised and changes to be meaningful, it needs to go beyond a list of words that are ‘in’ or ‘out’ and become part of the culture and fabric of the organisation, and the mindsets and behaviours of people within it. So instead of ‘we have helped our homeless clients to’, flipping the narrative to focus on someone’s strengths, omit the pity story and illustrate how individual agency can build motivation and instil a feeling of hope that the life people see for themselves is possible. We’re just passengers after all!

Read the report here

You can read more about the Mayday Trust on their website, and examples of their and other organisations ‘human, learning, systems’ approaches in Exploring the New World.