Uniting lived and learnt experience

By Peter Gilheany

Uniting lived and learnt experience

We are surrounded by enormous and complex challenges locally, nationally and globally. Progressive organisations need to throw everything at those challenges to make an impact, especially in their campaigning and communications. That is especially true when it comes to blending lived experience with the learnt experience of evidence, insights and expertise.

But many are not doing that, they’re attempting to engage and inspire with the handbrake on because they are not uniting these two different but interdependent approaches.

We think this is happening for three main reasons:

1. The rise of lived experience

There has been a significant shift in the last decade around representation and advocacy when communicating about progressive issues, from what you might call “about” communications to “with” communications. In research on the UK refugee and migrant sector published last year, 65% of NGOs and 74% of funders indicated that involving people with lived experience should be one of the top five priorities. Charities, foundations and progressive or campaigning businesses in the UK and beyond have been changing their approach. Foregrounding the experiences of those people and communities at the sharp end of the issues they are seeking to make progress on, those who are the most impacted and least heard. It’s paying dividends in terms of policy and practice but the picture is more mixed when it comes to communications.

The level of understanding and literacy around foregrounding lived experience in campaigning and communications, what it really means and what the reality of taking it seriously entails, is still too shallow and narrow in many progressive organisations. It can be seen as the latest trend, the thing you need to do to maintain or build credibility. Or, it is put on a pedestal as the only legitimate perspective on an issue. The desire for neatness in communications means lived experience is often still boxed in to fit a particular narrative or commodified, sometimes excluding or alienating the very people with that direct experience.

2. The undermining of truth and expertise

Many had hoped that digitisation and the increasing democratisation and access to data would lead to a new era of empiricism. To fact and evidence-informed communication, debate and campaigning. But it has led to the opposite, to the subjectification of truth, an increasingly vitriolic challenge to the very idea of objectivity or fact or evidence, with an associated increase in suspicion of expertise or learnt experience. Driven by the seemingly unstoppable increase in social media-fuelled mis-information, and about to ramp up further as AI really takes hold, it’s no wonder many people feel confused about what to believe and bewildered by the sheer amount of facts, figures and rebuttals they have to wade through on pretty much any topic. Truth has become slippery and a dividing line has opened up between factual representations of truth and the subjective experience of “my truth”, as well as the cherry-picking of evidence to match thinking and belief. This may be one of the factors contributing to the increasing prominence of conspiracy theories.

In response, many organisations have effectively decided to pick a side and fall into being reductive and exclusionary in some of their communications, viewing any dissent or evidence or expertise that challenges their stance as adversarial or illegitimate. It’s left them unwilling or unable to engage in nuance or debate, fearful of the reaction as much from those on “their” side of the argument as from those lined up in opposition to them.

There are vanishingly few issues that, on even the most cursory of examinations, aren’t  more complex and nuanced than the way they are often portrayed. Too often we see organisations mistake oversimplification for clarity or view the acknowledgement of complexity or uncertainty as weakness. What that can lead to is communications that simply reinforces the beliefs of those on one side of the polarised debate. Doing nothing to engage or convince the many stuck in the confused middle, let alone those on the other side, ultimately leading to stasis, apathy, cynicism and the erosion of trust.

3. Keeping your head down

When organisations are seeking to engage on progressive issues, it can be very hard to be heard above the tumult, to get a point across without being shouted at or shouted down. It is perhaps no wonder then that some organisations are having second thoughts about engaging externally and deciding that silence is the best policy. It’s happening so much in relation to climate action that it has a name – greenhushing. But you can’t make significant progress on an issue or inspire others to get involved if you won’t talk about it. Not least because self-censorship creates a vacuum that any number of bad faith merchants are only too happy to fill.

With all the challenges we face, now is not the time for timidity in campaigning and communications, or for setting the two most powerful tools for engagement we have access to, lived and learnt experience, in opposition to each other. We cannot truly use communications to maximise progress on all these difficult, complex issues without finding a way to unite these two forms of experience.

That’s why Forster is planning a series of events later this summer where we will bring together experts with frontline experience of communicating and campaigning around critical issues. Covering climate action, international development and social justice, and  examining ways progressive organisations can use these two tools together and make the sum greater than the parts.

If you like to discuss uniting lived and learnt experience within your organisation get in touch with peter@forster.co.uk

Uniting lived and learnt event series

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