For most of my career, being ‘professional’ at work was the ultimate compliment – historically describing someone who works hard for long hours, dresses smartly, and can handle any situation without getting emotional.
The charity sector may, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the individual organisation, reject some of these more corporate ideas; but there are usually still expectations, governed by the working culture, of what is and isn’t acceptable in the workplace.
That’s why, when I started working at the McPin Foundation, the organisation’s emphasis on the value of lived experience made me feel a bit like a hermit crab awkwardly wriggling into a bigger shell – freer, but also working out how it fits me.
It quickly became evident, though, that this approach is not only better for my wellbeing, it’s better for my work – which is why I’m now a convert for using lived experience to bring more introspection to internal comms.
What is lived experience?
You may have heard the term ‘lived experience’ in connection to mental health issues, and, yes, McPin is a mental health research charity – but it covers much more.
Lived experience comes in almost unlimited forms and applies to any sector. At its broadest, it describes the knowledge and skills developed through everyday living.
This could be anything from experiences based around gender, race, parenting or caring, disability, mental health issues, place (such as living in a particular neighbourhood or going to a particular school), and lots more.
We all have a unique mix of lived experiences, and this can help us bring depth and nuance to the work we do.
How can harnessing lived experience help comms teams?
Using our experiences may seem obvious to comms professionals, especially those working in the charity sector. Of course, we think about our audience and what we want them to ‘think, feel and do’; of course, we want to communicate with them in a relatable, empathetic way.
But, in a world where Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), surveys and temperature checking are becoming increasingly important (which they absolutely should be), we risk losing introspection as a key ingredient within our work.
Using our lived experience as a jumping-off point can help us reflect and create more connected teams. Sometimes it’s important to pause and consider if we are asking the right questions in the right way. Our lived experiences are unique and can help uncover better, more inclusive ways of working.
For example, if you’re a parent or carer, your lived experience might help you develop new ways of connecting with team members using different devices or working on the move. If you have lived experience of poverty or struggling with finances, it could inspire you to convey complex messages around financial issues in a way that doesn’t raise alarm.
Even in areas where you don’t have direct lived experience, it becomes much easier to contemplate the possibility of other people’s once you begin actively drawing on your own.
Bringing lived experience to the workplace
McPin recently turned ten, so the team – along with some of the lived experience experts we work with – produced a suite of ‘10 for 10’ resources, which we’re releasing throughout the year.
Here are four things from our ‘Lived experience in the workplace’ resource you might find useful:
1. Introspective and reflective management: Managers have an incredibly important role to play in encouraging lived experience in their comms teams to help them thrive – as well as using it themselves. This might include things like expanding their definitions of what flexibility and understanding look like, supporting people with what – if anything – they want to disclose, and looking at strengths-based approaches to working with people.
In a recent blog, McPin’s Head of Research and Involvement Tanya Mackay said:
“Lived experience leadership is critical to epistemic justice [justice related to knowledge and the sharing of it] but, like any other leadership role, the most important part of the job is supporting your teams and organisation to grow and develop. It requires reflection on your own biases and experiences and how these might be driving your decisions and approaches…
“Reflection is more than just having a think about something, you need to spend time considering why you did something, what informed that decision/approach, what was the result or impact, and what you could change to improve (or when things go well what would you do again!).”
2. Learning new skills (and reframing existing ones): Using lived experience in your work will mean skills like self-awareness and boundary-setting become even more important and may be used in different ways. You might also need to learn some new ones – for example, at McPin, we learn how to do reflective practice, where we reflect on our experience or knowledge of a topic through a critical lens. We have a monthly session open to all team members, and it really helps us interrogate why we think the way we do and have a safe space to discuss our thoughts.
3. Anticipate challenges: This work can be uncomfortable at times and throw up new types of challenges. Things like imposter syndrome are common, as is people feeling an emotional cost associated with the work – potentially even re-living trauma.
4. Put support in place: Once you’ve pre-empted possible challenges and scheduled regular check-ins to cover any new ones, ensure there are resources to help people work through them. Reflective practice has already been mentioned, but there’s also things like training specifically around lived experience work, external mentoring, and just making time for people to explore and get comfortable working in this way.
Ultimately, using your lived experience at work – and encouraging your team to do the same – can be a challenge at a time when resources are universally stretched. However, if it means a stronger, happier team which produces richer, more engaging and sensitive work, then it’s both worth it and essential.
Creating healthy workplace cultures
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that you can’t be everything to everyone, and it’s OK to get it wrong sometimes. At McPin, we’re still learning too, and there’s no exhaustive or prescriptive list.
What we can do is start reflecting on how we use our own experiences to shape our work, and why this might be an opportunity to add something extra to our comms.
What’s vital – no matter our role or sector – is that we start going beyond our assumptions and a one-size-fits-all mindset.
Read more about lived experience and communications with these suggested reads:
- Adeela Warley for Third Sector – A commitment to lived experience must be more than a communications endeavour.
- CharityComms podcast: Talking lived experiences and being your true self with Collette Philip
- How people with lived experience can help shape your charity’s comms
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