Communication is key to sustaining communities and creating a collective sense of purpose. The solution could be simpler than we think and small actions to participate more and embrace conversation will enrich both ourselves and the community.
4 Key Takeaways:
- We need patience for old school conversation.
- Communities need a sense of purpose.
- Listening is as important as talking.
- Small changes can have far reaching impacts.
About Eoin Kennedy:
Communicator, trainer, entrepreneur, digital marketer and founder of CongRegation.
Contacting Eoin Kennedy:
By Eoin Kennedy
As a child I have vivid memories of unprompted visits to my family home of relatives and friends. For each of these my mother had an uncanny ability to muster up a feast of sandwiches while my family and I got a chance to hear stories of the past, updates on family members and usual selection of tall tales. We also had one of the few phones when we grew up and calls were long, lengthy and concentrated with long updates and sense of connection.
This was brought back to me in sharp relief when my door bell rang I was genuinely confused about what the noise was, having heard it so infrequently. In the currently world of only scheduled visits I feel we have missed out on random encounters and more importantly a vital channel of communications. However with a quick flick of my phone I can get vivid updates on what friends, family member and the community are doing but its not the same. Social media is good at projecting, abeit controlled by a faceless algorithm, what people are doing but its does little to connect we with what they are feeling and driven by likes it tends to favour a false sense of positivity than a balanced portrayal of what is really going on in people’s lives.
My mother grew up in a rural area and retained many of those cultural values. She knew the importance of micro updates and face to face chats. I now live in a rural area but experience less and less of these.
So how does a community communicate with each other and how is it changing.
- Chats in store and post office.I frequently remember being frustrated with standing in a long queues as a neighbour updated the harassed staff with updates on what is happening. As shops naturally focus on efficiency there is less chance for informal sharing of stories. It still helps but the local book store, where the pace is slow, tends to offer a better opportunity for shared updates.
- This is a uniquely rural occasion where neighbours gather for a mass in a local person’s house and are offered a glimpse into each others lives and stores from the past. I have only experience this once and its rapid decline is matched by the decline of mass in general. Both unlikely to return.
- The age profile of mass goers clearly indicates how the transfer of knowledge from parish notes and chats outside the church is likely to go. Those who do attend tends to rush to their cars leaving elderly members to catch up with each other, shielding the young from stories.
- At the mart.From what I can gather the weekly mart sessions still offer famers the chance to share a tea/sandwich with commerce playing a secondary role to social interaction. However the part-time nature and absence of younger farmers entering the poorly paid profession means this will also decline as a mode of communications.
- When you look at the ‘Strengthening Rural Economies and Communities’ report by the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine and the Department of Rural and Community Development an emphasis is put on the library system. The report shows little in terms of how a community should communicate but is heavy on the supports and money spent. The local library system is incredible but aside from posters, flyers and the occasional event it is under utilised in what it could achieve in helping to enable the rich flow of information.
- Local community voluntary groups and Sporting groups. Every community has a vibrant selection of community groups from old age to Tidy Towns and these are a hive of people working together to improve and keep the community alive. As Dermot Casey points out in his excellent submissionparticipation in these activities is what counts. Merely by working together stories, introductions and genuinely caring are easily enabled. Sporting groups especially the GAA, with parents waiting idly by to watch their children learn new skills, connects people from different walks of life and transcend the barriers than new entrants into a community find hard to penetrate. The GAA, in particular in a move from a sporting organisation to its root in a cultural one, recognises this but it can tend to be a hard silo to break if children are not sporty. All these rely on volunteerism, something that is difficult in the era of both parents working and the daily grind.
- Yes funerals offer an unfortunate backdrop of community forcing people to reengage with each other. I had the unexpected task of helping to dig the grave for a deceased uncle in law. Although it may sound grisly it allowed me to meet neighbours, hear their stories and acted almost like an initiation ceremony to acceptance with neighbours I had never met. Stories that would have been lost as memories faded were shared and I got a glimpse into daily life. The small stories are what count the most. Love it or hate it religion, priests, ceremonies and structure based on tradition have a strong role in keeping communities together. Messages of love, respect and spirituality have been heavily rocked and challenged with a decades of abuse stories. The institution may never recover but in moments of emergency, despair and tragedy the can still offer hope and solace.
- School pick ups. Another great source but the 15 minutes of pick up time, pressures to get home to do homework and both parents working limit its potential for coherent conversation, mostly made up of top level ‘any sceal’ or ‘hows things’.
- Coffee chats. Cong has a very small population for the range of coffee shops and hostelries, mainly supported by the volume of transient tourist traffic. Since I moved here the season has expanded to 52 weeks from a summer focus. The benefit of this is neighbours come out more to meet for coffee and I look in envy at groups of mothers gathering for chats after walks in the forest and sharing stories.
- Community Centre. I have had the pleasure of assisting with the local community centre. Thanks to local efforts and government assistance we have an incredible resource, something that was enabled by genuinely civic minded individuals who, to paraphrase a common start up community statement, ‘ate glass’ to make it happen. Community days and groups act as a central locus for an amazing set of activities. As a group we struggle with the best way to communicate the activities. Websites, Social media from Facebook to messaging platforms like WhatsApp are a boom but they are more unidirectional (not exclusively so) and not everyone uses them consistently despite the numbers of smarts phones and accounts. Postering and flyers are also highly effective as we dash by in our cars but are wasteful and I recently discovered are contrary to some Tidy Town rules. Community centres themselves are difficult things to get right and rely on voluntary committees and strong executives and staff for their continued ability to thrive. Financial demands and active engagement by the community are hard things to balance. Merely having one is not enough to help drive sense of community and I am as guilty as the next person with not supporting consistently. Excuses abound from tiredness, work, pressures of a young family but they feel like ‘the dog ate my homework excuses’. All I know is that when I do actively engage I get out more than I put in and the collective contribution makes the community richer, stronger and more vibrant. I am pretty sure Maslow has a strong take on this.
- Just Dropping In.Although I see my uncle in law quite a bit we rarely have deep conversations despite living in close geographic proximity. However when I take the time to just drop in (as per the start of this submission), without the distractions of other people I not only get updates and insights on what is happening locally but also a rich, detailed and fascinating glimpse of what life looked like a generation ago. What appear as rambling conversations can produce golden nuggest and happen organically as we talk. These stories help me to peel back the layers of the onion of the complexity of community through stories. As a ‘blow in’ I don’t expect to ever reach the heart of what drives the community but each layer offer another new insight. Older people in the community are the dying source of this and I often feel we are in danger of repeating mistakes of the past by not listening enough to wisdom of the past – the elderly are the bastions of this wisdom.
- The Pub.No shortage of these in local communities and oiled by alcohol, music and chatter these maintain communication in addition to many other positive and negative attributes (excess being one of them). The local bar person probably has a better insight into what is going on in community than anyone else. Access to this channel of communication is naturally hindered by the ever stricter drink driving laws and I fear the era of self driving cars will arrive too late for many to be of use for older drinkers. My occasional trips to local bars are rewarded with a different view of neighbours I pass on the roads. My saluting from a speeding car does not compete against a sustained chat in a busy bar. For some this offers the only chance to talk.
- Although a phrase borrowed from the US, a community gathering to discuss what is happening in a local community is extremely important. They are also extremely rare and full of dangers. No community is not facing challenges and all have their share of built up frustration. Many fail on the first salvo of grievances and it takes a skilled chairperson to navigate them. Airing grievances should be welcomed and the ‘bursting of the boil’ can be needed to create a bed of understanding so a community can start to move forward on collective consensus based principles. Not an easy thing to do and I am in awe of those who can truly listen, emphasise and build. Frequently people just need to be heard. Which bring me to a point that Alastair Herbert will cover in his submission – the importance of listening. In an era of megaphoning and finding solutions, something men are very guilty of and women have a unique understanding of, listening is a skill that is in short supply. Listening without precondition is important for humans – we were born with two ears and one mouth after all. We all need to be heard and understood and sometimes it is enough. It also means that we are better at communicating. Businesses have now reverted back to better audience identification through Buyer Personas and Messaging Session so they can target better. As community members we should remind ourselves of this. How can we communicate if we don’t understand what is going on in someone else’s world. I often think that well intentioned government programmes may hear the wrong things or not probe deeply enough before activating complex structures. The short term thinking of parish politics and threat of losing one’s seat can sometimes create more problems than they solve.
- Mass Communication.Local radio and print despite threat of digital communications are still powerful mediums. The daily death notices is highly listened to but conversations with skilled interviewers fuels real world conversations. However it is broadcast and at best achieving knowledge sharing.
- Social Media.Primarily Facebook and WhatsApp for sharing updates. The ease of use makes them indispensable coupled with a central website. However the loudest voices tend to dominate (positively and negatively) and as public platforms people are careful about what they communicate. The rise of WhatApp favours curated lists of recipients and the volume of groups can make them very cluttered.
- All the others!
I am conscious as I write this of the corollary of what I am proposing. The ‘valley of squinting windows’ is a reminder to me that people knowing each others business is a double edged sword. There is a fine line between delicious gossip and caring updates on peoples lives. People have genuine concern for privacy and becoming the currency of idle chatter can be hurtful and destructive. It takes a strong person to reject, limit and challenge gossip. Not every in a community wishes to actively engage and communicate, preferring their own privacy.
I see story telling and communication as key enabler of sense of community. Business have also embraced this with many now moving to a sense of purpose model, something covered by Paul Passemards submission. Scholarly research into Sense of community points to the psychological sense of community encompasses feelings of belonging, identity, emotional connection, and well-being. Others point to Membership, Influence, Integration and Fulfillment of needs and Share Emotional Connection.
All very cerebal but again to my simple mind we are in danger of disconnecting with each other by not fulfilling human needs of listening and communicating.
This difficulty sense of community is not a startling revelation and is potentially in decline. Macra na Feirme in its “Know your Neighbour” campaign makes it more granular where it found that not being familiar with neighbours is more prevalent in urban communities, with almost one in six saying that they do not know their neighbours at all, versus just one in 20 of people in rural communities.
Most online article and searches on ‘Community and communication’ are focused on how to communicate with communities from the outside rather than communities talking to each other. They are viewed as a homogeneous things to be exploited somehow. I fear that as we try to scale communication with greater efficiency we lose sight of what it is. Communication is a sum of lots of different parts each building on the from chit chat to collective documentation. All elements in the chain are important we should not forget our basic human needs.
Conversation is art form and sometimes the transfer of knowledge is secondary. The process alone connects us. You also cannot rush it. To an impatient ear much conversation can appear wasteful and efficient, with a desire that the person would ‘get to the point’ sooner. The best conversations take place when there is mutually respect, understanding, empathy and most importantly trust. These take time and I sometimes think of it as a test and ritual – interest in earlier stages generally leads to more information. This is perfectly human, we need people to be interested/concerned with us and not just see us a channel to information. Although it can seem frustrating that it can takes so long to get the information we need, I feel we have lost our verbal/listening tastebuds and ability to savour the process. In the era of 140 character micro updates, which by nature of their brevity are highly efficient, we have devalued the ‘Art of the Chat’.
The challenge can seem great but I reflect on some of last parts of Geraldine O’Briens submission which recommends small iterative changes.
Do one small thing, talk to one new person, listen better and participate more.
All these take energy and a fundamental change in behaviour but lots of small changes can transform communities and in this we will all benefit.