The Art of Listening

Asset Coach, Andrew Durman, looks at the importance and privilege of listening to the people we work with, the challenges of the traditional system and how his role as a Coach can help to break the negative cycle a person may find themselves in.

As I draw near to the end of another week of having many amazing conversations with inspiring individuals. I reflect on the mind blowing stories I have had the privilege to hear over the past 10 years working in this sector. A favourite from this week has to be hearing about someone’s past adventures travelling in New Orleans. Simply listening to him talk of his experiences and the feelings that he not only felt at the time, but was also re-living through the telling of his story to me, was amazing for him and me.

The opportunity to be able to hear these kinds of stories is one we regularly have to create ourselves. The people we work we are often surprised that we even want to hear them, especially when they have been caught up in the system for a prolonged period of time. Being given the freedom to have these conversations in my role as a coach, makes me count myself lucky that I am no longer caught up in the traditional system.

Looking at the traditional system

The current deficit, needs, label and diagnosis led system does not leave much room for these discussions. When a person in being assessed for eligibility to access the system, a number of questions will be asked. These questions will be on substance misuse, offending, behaviour or mental health difficulties, suicide attempts, history of arson and their previous housing history. This then leads to working with a keyworker or project worker, who will take this information to draw up a support plan and risk assessment, with the idea that at one stage (probably pre-scripted to 6 to 18months) this person will move on and live independently. Weekly meetings will be held for this person, reviewing how they are doing, and inadvertently reinforcing all the problems they have going on and what they have been through previously.

Looking beyond the surface

The traditional system demands this information to be shared to allow a person to qualify for the support they are told that they need. Yet this does not even scratch the surface of who this person is, what they have achieved, what they are interested in and where they would like to go. When working with people just on the surface and dealing with the symptoms of what is happening to them, you will never really see the real person. It is only once you get past all of this, that you will see the individual being hidden behind that label, deficit description, or referral form. The big question is, how do you do that as a coach?

Giving back the power, removing the labels and listening to the person

We have to earn trust and respect, we have to get the belief from that individual that we have their best interests to heart, and that we are here to have a positive impact on their lives. We have to ask different questions and have different conversations. It is simple, we ask people, instead of telling them and expecting that person to conform. We expect them to succeed rather than expecting them to fail. We see the talent and assets and we focus on them.

Accepting that there is a problem

You can’t ignore that there isn’t a problem in the current system, we see and hear about it on a daily basis as coaches. The system currently allows and encourages the use of labels, keeping people segregated from society and doesn’t identify the person, only their presumed deficits – so what can we do?

A question I often ask myself, is this how I would want to be treated? If the answer is no, then why would I expect others to settle for being treated this way?

Prior to joining Mayday these conversations that delved beyond the surface kept me motivated and passionate during my journey through the murky system waters, however they always occurred outside of the Key-work setting and beyond the file of paperwork attached to the person. Now these conversations lead the way and are always the starting point when I meet with a new person as a coach.

Starting the conversation and breaking the cycle

Once you get to the point where a person trusts you as a coach and starts to talk about themselves as an individual rather than a list of problems the real progress can start, development, aspirations and achievements can begin to be imagined and made.

I often find that due to the traditional system focusing on deficits and labels, the people I work with often define themselves by them and become institutionalised within the system. It brings me back to the same conclusion every time – we shouldn’t just be working towards breaking the cycle of homelessness, we should be breaking the cycle of the system.

Real life heroes

As a part of my reflection I continually assess my ability to have these conversations with the people I work with, and whether I deserve to still be doing what I do. Yet when I try and think of another job or sector to follow, I know I will be giving up the privilege of meeting the remarkable individuals I work with. They are real life heroes, yet they are portrayed as helpless, down and out, poor, disadvantaged, and written off.

Do you know someone who has jumped into a river to save someone’s life, regardless of their own? I do.

Do you know someone who left their family home, recognising that the relationship with their partner was not healthy, so that her children could continue to have somewhere warm, safe and stable to live? I do.

Do you know someone who has had no positive role models in their life and everyone they looked up to and trusted abused them, yet still became a positive role model for two children, which are not even his? I do.

Do you know someone who has experienced 20 years of hardship and difficulty, only to forego the opportunity of a way out because there was someone younger in the queue? I do.

Do you know someone who has sat in the French Quarter in New Orleans listening to jazz watching the world go by? I do and I wish it was me.

Will I ever stop meeting heroes? No.

Listening, the real art of the PTS

It is only when you ask and listen to someone’s story that you can help someone find the answers to what is going on in their lives. What and where they want to go, what they want their futures to look like and ultimately what barriers are stopping them getting there.

This is what I am able to do now, freely without the expectation of the system audits and questions. These are the stories being heard at Mayday Trust and with the partners who are delivering and reflecting on PTS and real strength based approaches. This is why it is working, this is why people are voluntarily allowing us to support them and this is why people are able to break free from the cycle of the system.

How was your day luv?

Mayday Asset Coach, Erone Knight-Simpson looks at what it means to be a coach and reflects on her first month in the role.

A seemingly innocent question you would think, but as an Asset Coach for Mayday Trust there can be quite a lengthy explanation, that can take your listener on a magical journey in understanding what it means to be a part of the Mayday Trust team.

Let’s start at the beginning. Hi, I’m an Asset Coach for Mayday Trust, something I’m proud to be, not the preverbal dread one may associate with an introduction at an AA meeting. That title encompasses so much more than a job role, it is meant as a way of life, as a movement.

What you see is what you get with Mayday Trust, we are a small organisation that packs a big punch. We are trying to change institutionalisation surrounding homelessness, which has been around for decades – this is no easy feat. From Oxford to Northampton and now Westminster, one of the top three most expensive boroughs to buy a property in London. Most people would not expect homelessness to be a problem here, but it is, and a complex one.

I work out of a building which has a covenant on it, used specifically for those who are experiencing homelessness and transitioning through difficult times, times we could all find ourselves in, after all as the media says – ‘we are all only three pay cheques away from being homeless.’

We look at the individuals we work with as people, not homeless, not clients, not service users, but people we work with. Individuals who may have owned homes, paid mortgages, been married, have children and families, worked in finance, have bachelors and master’s degrees, people just like you and I. Days can be challenging, they can also be rewarding each day is different and brings its own unique experiences.

So let’s get back to how my day was…

Picture this, a month into my new role with Mayday Trust and I find myself putting together an Ikea sofa with my colleague, a sofa which still looks great by the way, loved by all and still standing strong. Obviously not your usual start to the day, but how did it end? Watching Tottenham vs Newport at Wembley Stadium.

Why you might ask, because we can and we do.

We look to people’s strengths and enhance their assets not their deficits, I’m not going to talk to someone transitioning through a difficult time about the fact that they drink 6 cans of cider a day, unless they want to, but I will attend a football game with them in sub-zero temperatures, to help them leave their flat, help them to feel less isolated, and be engaged in doing something that they really enjoy, socialising with other football fans – a great experience and one which will only lead to more opportunities for that person in the future and ultimately assist them to work towards their own goals and ambitions.

A Tale of Two Funders

Pat McArdle, CEO of Mayday Trust, looks at the impact of two very different funding approaches and asks if we are really able to deliver a truly person led approach in the current climate?

Maria had been a street drinker for many years so, at first, she found it strange to talk about her interests. But her Coach discovered that art was something that she had enjoyed in the past. Her Coach said she had never known much about art before so Maria decided to teach her, hoping they could visit some galleries together.

Maria loved sharing her knowledge and instead of feeling out of control, she felt useful and enjoyed looking at art books, visiting galleries and encouraging her Coach, whose interest in the topic was growing with Maria’s enthusiasm.

Maria’s Coach encouraged her to use all of this learning and attend a series of talks and discussions. Maria was nervous about going so had a few drinks on the way to steady her nerves. Going to an event like this was a big step but it was worth it – she met new people and it helped her to start to thinking differently about herself.

As a result of her interest in art, Maria reduced her drinking, made contact with her family and started to look to the future.

What happens next is a tale of two funders. It illustrates that if relational approaches are to succeed they need to be given wider respect and greater value by the current system.

Funder One:

The first funder was interested in Mayday’s new approach to getting people out of homeless services and decided to come to meet Maria and her Coach. A pleasant hour was spent chatting in a coffee shop. The funder then met the Coaching Team to get under the skin of what purposeful, meaningful yet ‘normal’ chats achieve and debate how power dynamics impact on truly person centered work. ‘The minute you introduce a form the dynamic changes’ says one of the group. Mayday’s Personal Transitions Service (PTS) was explained and the funder promised to keep in touch.

Funder one made a clear commitment to fund innovation, a proof of concept, which meant the funding came as a core grant with no outputs but outcomes based on a theory of change. Our belief was that if we implement a relational approach, the by product will be people moving out of homelessness and not coming back. People start to feel ‘normal’ again after years of jumping through hoops, and becoming institutionalised. People will start to gain some hope through trusted connections and finally taking control of their own lives ultimately proving that when given the chance, people were doing it for themselves.

The approach with the funder was equally relational, built on conversations and trust. For the organisation this meant less time spent on producing reports or in meetings discussing how to meet funder requirements. Instead there was a willingness to be open and honest, share the successes, failures and learning rather than box ticking and spinning a good story. The experience showed how the production of meaningless data has become an art form in the sector, and how focusing on real world discussions resulted in greater social impact.

For the Coach Team it was motivational. The funder was interested in and valued their grassroots experience, warts and all, and this was unusual.

But the biggest impact was on Maria. There were no restrictions on the time she spent with her Coach as it was led by her. There were no more weekly key working as she was in control. This was her first relationship where she didn’t have to talk about her drinking. What Maria and her Coach talked about when they met was up to her. She was allowed to relax and even have fun. Maria was a person, not a client or service user. She began to gain confidence from this and for the first time in a long time, she could take control and make life better for herself.

Funder Two

The second funder was a statutory funder and Mayday had won a contract to deliver services within a homeless pathway. Despite sustaining her accommodation and reducing her drinking, Maria was still viewed by the pathway as having ‘complex needs’. As a result Maria wasn’t allowed to move on and take control of her life.

Funder two had a prescribed programme meaning that people could only stay in their accommodation for a certain period of time after which they had to move along the set pathway. The contract had an element of payment by results, which was related to moving people on. As part of the pathway Maria was offered to progress to the next step, which she would have to do to achieve independence.

However, the offer made to Maria was conditional; she would have to attend a drug and alcohol agency at a place she had previously attended and where she had failed to give up drinking on more than one occasion. Maria saw this as a backward step and, with Mayday’s support, she refused to move. It was hard to find private rented accommodation and while Maria coped positively with the day to day struggles of living with other street drinkers, Mayday lost out financially on their payment by results contract.

The staff felt under pressure due to the requirements of the contract. No matter how ‘person led’ Mayday was as an organisation, the fear of a failing contract combined with the demands of the job, were too much and staff turnover increased. The learning was obvious; this was the cost of entering into such a contract.

We didn’t understand how other organisations were meeting the requirements of the rigid contract but the reality was that they weren’t. People were talking about ‘being creative’. One example of this creativity was a person being evicted after the payment by result period was up, despite the fact that he had nowhere to go. It had become a ‘contract/service led’ game.

As the Senior Management Team we had the responsibility of building staff’s hopes and expectations of being person led. We could see the frustrations the constraints of the contract caused and shared this with staff. But the worst part of this experience was visiting the house where Maria remained and seeing that we had failed to build on the hope that we had ignited within her. We failed to deliver on a secure, safe place she could call home and extend her network of positive connections away from the street.

Despite Mayday failing to meet the target to move Maria on, the relationship with the funder was positive and Mayday, as always, was open and honest. However, the intentions of these discussions from the funder perspective were clear; discussions were about actions to meet the requirements of the contract and not how the contract could change to ensure a person led service.

The Challenge

The task ahead of us is how to embed and scale appropriate relational based commissioning. We have many thoughts on how to make this happen without needing more time or resources. But the first thing we need is for all of us to have the will and desire. We need to stop the game playing and call it out for what it is. None of us are currently able to be truly person centered, to empower people, or deliver strength based work. It’s just not possible within a deficit based and contract/data led system.

So let’s call this spade a spade; the problem of ending homelessness isn’t those people categorised with having ‘complex needs’ but the systemic institutionalisation of people who become homeless within a failing system.

Maria is ready to move to a home and enjoy her life, but the barriers created by the system aren’t allowing her to get there.

Let’s take those barriers down.

We’re working to help fix a broken System

Mayday Trust CEO, Pat McArdle, looks back at where Mayday Trust began, how the Personal Transitions Service developed into what it is today – the good, the bad and the ugly.

Pre-diabetic; does not eat a healthy diet; has little family contact but would like more; does not drink a lot as can be argumentative; stated has never used drugs and has no issue with budgets.

This would never have been the way that I would have thought of introducing myself a couple of years ago. But more and more this is becoming my norm. It’s all part of my attempt to convince the homeless and supported housing sector to sit up and reflect on how issue led we have become and how we are letting the system we have in place lead decisions, not the people these decisions will affect. So I introduce myself like this to illustrate that sitting with a total stranger who is asking questions about a person’s needs and risks has only managed to, at best, re-traumatise or, at worst, institutionalise a decade or more of ‘homeless people’.

It turns out that people experiencing homelessness are able to disclose their most personal information at the drop of a hat.

I would like to have said that Mayday recognised these things and decided that we needed to change our approach to tackling homelessness. The honest answer is that, in reality, austerity was the initial driver. But soon enough, our mission became the purpose.

Being bold in the face of austerity

In 2011 Mayday was a medium size supported housing provider, trying to tackle homelessness. We watched larger housing associations lose contracts in one area and pick them up in another. Our dilemma was that there were people dangling at that end of those contracts. Our research showed that 70% of people who were categorised as ‘non-priority homeless’ were unlikely to get any sort of support as the result of austerity and the change in government thinking.

At that point Mayday was 100% state funded with a turnover of £3m. The sector experience was that the state provided for those most vulnerable; there was a moral obligation to do so and the scale of the problems were too large for communities and civil society to cope with. But it was clear that things were changing and the future experience would be different. I remember a meeting with a MP from Bedford who challenged me when I said Mayday was a voluntary sector organisation, ‘how could that be when all our money came from the Local Authority?’

Listening to the people we are trying to help

So in 2011 we predicted that this was not a rainy day situation; this was climate change. I was taken on to look at a merger and acquisition options as the Board of Directors knew that, even as a medium sized charity, we were too small to survive. We came close to a merger but before we took that final step we decided to review what we did. We started talking to people experiencing homelessness, both on the street and those living with Mayday – properly talking and listening to them.

We simply asked people what they thought of homeless services and what impact these services had on their lives.

We spoke with several hundred people and collated over 100 accounts in a series of blogs, which we printed in a booklet called Wisdom from the Street. We didn’t ask what people needed or why they had become homeless. We simply asked what they thought of homeless services and what impact these services had on their lives. Little did we know the impact that these blogs would have on Mayday’s future vision and direction.

Changing direction based on what’s needed and what works

Contained in Wisdom from the Street is a very powerful account of what people had to say. Two things that came through very clearly:

  1. Current systems and processes are not working for people who become homeless. The humanity and individuality of a person’s situation is lost. The experience of the system reinforces helplessness, hopelessness and exclusion from community for people experiencing homelessness.
  2. The outcomes aren’t good enough. Too many people are either trapped in the system or move on only to return with a feeling of another failure under their belt.

This feedback started Mayday on a very different journey. We made the pivotal decision then not to survive for survival’s sake and not to campaign to keep a system going that was clearly broken.

We set about researching ‘what works’, looking for evidenced based work that we could develop in response to what people were telling us. We developed a new, personalised, and what we call ‘strength based’ way of working. For us at Mayday, strength based describes a system of support that allows the person to have control over their own life and find their own resources to help them get back into their community.

So before we faced any austerity cuts we got all the staff together and we presented our new vision and direction. We told staff the reason we were changing – we were very open and honest. We gave everyone the option to buy into a new way of working or to take their redundancy. We didn’t want staff to be redeployed into what was fast becoming a collaborative of social activists from what they had known – a very structured organisation – unless they had bought in to the concept. We lost 50% of the staff at that time but within 4 weeks we had re-recruited and set about what we now understand to be co-production: working with people living with us and staff to develop a radically different response to tackling homelessness.

We were very fortunate that our Northamptonshire commissioner came on board and varied our contract so that we were able to do what we needed to do. We threw out pretty much all of our previous policies and processes. We learnt hard lessons but the results were staggering.

People we worked with started to move on positively and many of those who had been homeless for years were getting involved and starting to thrive in their local community

The new model focuses on 3 key interventions:

  1. One-to-one coaching, which focuses on people’s strengths and allowing them to take control.
  2. Building positive networks outside the housing and homelessness sector, as many people told us they has been alienated from ‘normal’ society.
  3. Brokering individual opportunities, as people experiencing homeless are not a homogeneous group so need personal escape plans from homelessness.

Overall we knew we needed to shift the power from the services and the system, to the person.

Taking a new approach with better results

Now our approach is to meet with people briefly, tell them what we are about and give them the option if they want to get involved. We don’t talk to people about their ‘issues’ but begin with conversations that are just about getting to know the person. So we meet people wherever they want to meet us and talk about whatever they want to talk about.

We meet people wherever they want to meet and talk about whatever they want to talk about.

In a short space of time we have seen so many examples of significant individual outcomes. Dave, for example, agreed to meet up with a Coach for a coffee and to talk about remote controlled cars. There was no ‘fixing’ Dave’s issues, no focusing on his weaknesses. The Coach didn’t talk about his drug use or that he was living in a tent. We never said he had to attend sessions with a Coach. We let Dave have the choice and control and his Coach worked to empower Dave to get in contact with his passion, who he was, what he wanted.

Dave applied for a personal budget and got a car kit. That Christmas he went home to his family who he hadn’t seen in 12 years. Within 8 months he had accessed his own flat where he has lived for the last 2 years. More recently, through his attendance at a car rally, he met someone at BMW who encouraged him to apply for a position there. He is now working for in his dream job. Over time Dave realised what was possible and he made it happen.

Here’s how we did it

The experience of delivering the new personalised work was transformative and not just for the staff delivering on the frontline. The model necessitated change at every level within the organisation; how we selected and recruited staff, our financial reporting, the Board of Trustees, our appetite for risk, our language – it was cultural, structural and total system change.

The model necessitated change at every level within the organisation.

So we slowly got braver and decided to move away from just chasing statutory contracts. By this point these contracts had become about delivering more for less; a race to the bottom on price as local authorities tried to respond to austerity. We began to seek investment into our new way of working and we were fortunate to attract investment for a proof of concept project in Oxfordshire.

When we started delivering the proof of concept, we discovered that the model not only required our internal transformation but that our approach wasn’t fitting in with how other organisations were working. We were starting to disrupt the norm. We were trying to deliver a person-led service within an issues focused and needs led system.

So in collaboration with Homeless Link, we held two national conferences in London and Manchester. These were to promote Wisdom from the Street and to share the lessons that we had learnt from co-producing and delivering a personalised, strength based model.

And how we’re making the changes stick

In October 2015, Mayday’s Board of Trustees made the decision to focus the future vision and direction of the Trust on two strategic goals:

  1. Deliver the new model of work developed by Mayday named the Personal Transition Service (PTS): being the first personalised and asset/strength based approach tackling homelessness, developed at the grass roots; and aiming to become a catalyst for change by empowering individuals experiencing homelessness to take control of their lives and environment.
  2. Use the learning from the Wisdom from the Street to influence nationally the need for system change and the need to transform services to embed personalised and asset based approaches.

This meant that 2016 became a very tough year for us. By focusing solely on delivering the PTS we had to withdraw from contracts and services that we had delivered for many years. We did the best we could for the people and staff in those areas but it was a very difficult time. There is no doubt that this process had a huge human cost. Mayday reduced in size from 70 to 45 staff and turnover of £4m to £2.2m.

We had no great ambition to become a large national provider so in 2016 we developed Innovation Partnerships to deliver the PTS wider and with the aim of affecting system change. These partnerships were with likeminded people who were as passionate as Mayday about creating the paradigm shift that needed to happen.

We found other people who were frustrated with the system, who weren’t afraid to speak up or to transform their organisation from top to bottom. The relationship we share is strong because we have come together through a common goal and set of values rather than just a willingness to survive. By doing this Mayday halved in size in the first year but with our partners we intend to double our impact.

Change will come from listening to people, getting to know people’s context, and always knowing that we are all different.

There are many organisations saying that they have been doing similar work. Indeed many new great initiatives evolved from many disciplines, such as Housing First, PIE (Psychologically Informed Environments) and Trauma Informed Care. So gradually a movement for change is building.

What Mayday believes, and will continue to inject into the discussions, is that the solution to homelessness will fundamentally not come from psychiatry, sociology, psychology, the housing sector – although all the focus and thinking in these areas is invaluable. Instead, change will come from listening to people, reflecting, getting to know people’s context, understanding and always knowing that we are all different. So let’s keep it person-led, not system-led.

About the author

Pat McArdle is a passionate advocate for systemic change within the UK housing and homelessness sector. Pat has over 30 years of experience in the U.K. and Ireland, working with organisations such as the Foyer Federation, Cork Simon Community and YWCA England and Wales. As CEO of Mayday Trust, Pat has led the transformation of the organisation from a traditional supported housing provider, to a leader of Personalised, Transitional and Strength Based practice and a national influencer for systemic change.

Mayday Trust, with 8 Innovation Partner organisations, has developed the first accreditation for asset based approaches and a University accredited strength based qualification for frontline staff.


A Cup of Positivi-TEA

Jody Sill, an Asset Coach at Personal Transitions Service Innovation Partner, Nomad Opening Doors in Sheffield, explores the importance of meeting in places of purpose and re-balancing the power dynamics.

As somebody who has in the past been told that eating and drinking in front of people is unprofessional, I was relieved as an Asset Coach to be able to throw this instruction straight out of the window!

You see, there’s something very different about conversing over a hot drink in a café, compared with having a conversation in a hectic office surrounded by other people. Trying to have a realistic chat about a person’s dreams and aspirations is somewhat difficult, when they are in a place that doesn’t really allow for it; such as in a shared food hall, where conversations such as this may be interrupted or shut down by others listening in.

I suppose what I am saying here is that it’s our responsibility as Asset Coaches to revolutionise, not only the conversations we have with people, but how and where we have these conversations. I believe a cup of tea is a wonderful way to begin.

Earl Grey tea with the spoon left in, six sugar cubes, a small drop of milk or a simple black coffee, no sugar. Everybody is different and has different tastes, and this is such an important thing to remember as an Asset Coach

By meeting people for a hot drink, they physically walk away from a place that might be negative, unwelcoming and restrictive on personal growth. Instead, they walk into a café like anybody else would, order a drink like anybody else would and the ball starts rolling from there. By taking people away from their accommodation, we aren’t necessarily taking people away from their problems; the idea is that we are taking people back into their community to have real world conversations.

The beauty of going out for a hot drink with somebody is that it gives them a wealth of choice. Which café would they prefer to visit? What drink would they like? Where are they most comfortable sitting? These are all tiny questions that can tell us so much about a person. One person I worked with didn’t want to visit a café when I asked her for the first time as she hated sitting still – so we used to meet on the swings at a local playground and have our sessions there. You could say a cup of tea was just not her cup of tea, and that was fine – flexibility and a knowledge of the local area soon remedied this.

Something I feel that is important about going for a hot drink is that it reduces the power imbalance that can often be seen in between traditional support services and the people who use them. It’s just two people going for a drink in a local café – no lanyard, no huge wad of paper forms and no way for the public to identify anything other than two people having a good natter.

Between the first sip of that drink to the last, it’s possible that a person may have had a thought or made a decision that will positively influence their life forever.

It’s natural when a friend or family member is having a bad day to offer them something to drink as a way of reaching out. In my opinion, this offer should extend to the people we work with. It’s incredible how much people open up once they feel comfortable.

A meeting place such as a cosy café, teamed with a familiar beverage just oozes comfort. But as I mentioned before, this may not be everybody’s ideal meeting, place so be sure to ask those questions and find out what the person’s needs are and what you can do to meet them.

It’s not uncommon for people who use the Personal Transitions Service for the first time to be hesitant and a little unsure of our approach; starting a conversation that is focused on aspirations and dreams can be hard to do. My solution? Suggest getting a hot drink together; it’s a universal language that people can share.

Funnily enough, I spilled my cup of tea once on the first session with somebody I’d just met. It was certainly one way to unintentionally break the ice and ever since, we joke about who should hold the cups as we walk to the table. It was something so small, but it bonded us.

In another scenario someone I worked with liked her hot drink to be made in a specific fashion, otherwise she wouldn’t drink it. After meeting up after a 3-month gap, I remembered how she took her drink without needing to ask – a minor detail that meant a lot to her. She told me that this broke down her initial worry of us having to get to know each other again and we were able to pick up where we left off.

That offer of a Chai Latte without having to be reminded genuinely shows that you’ve listened to somebody, and that you care.

The next time you meet up with that person who has been hard to get hold of, or you meet somebody new, think about where you’re meeting them and if they’re comfortable there. Not sure? Asking ‘Would you like to meet up and go for a hot chocolate together or would you like to meet somewhere else?’ gives somebody a choice, and choice is fundamentally at the heart of what we do as Asset Coaches.

Expecting the best, rather than fearing the worst

Asset Coach, Andrew Durman reflects on the Personal Transitions Service. Looking at the significance of a positive approach towards the individuals that coaches are lucky enough to work alongside and the importance of releasing control

Reflections on the Personal Transitions Service as an Asset Coach for Mayday Trust

A recent conversation with someone I work alongside reinforced the importance of making a personal choice to approach our work in a strength based and solutions focused way. This I believe, has a direct impact on how we work alongside people, and how they respond to us as Asset Coaches.

It is an approach I totally agree with, although one I often have to remind myself of, challenge and reflect on. One of the hardest things can be watching someone make their own decisions, when in truth we may have done something differently ourselves. But trusting that the choice made, is right for the individual at the time is very important.

It is not our place as Asset Coaches to know what is best for an individual, instead we influence and coach them in their decision making and control, with the hope that the decisions they do make will have a positive impact on their lives.

I was reminded of this very clearly with the individual I was working with, as not long ago I lost contact with him for 3 weeks. During our last meet up he had been very frustrated and feeling like he was on a knife edge due to his own challenges, as well as his uncertain, unsettled and unsafe living conditions.

He felt that going back to prison would alleviate him of this and that it was a place that was safe. Unfortunately this is something we hear quite often.

We explored alternatives and dug deeper into the reasoning behind those emotions, although I was left with the feeling that it could go either way.

However, I recently received an email from his probation worker, as he had requested that I was sent a new contact number for him and that he was looking forward to getting back in touch with me. He had changed his living conditions and location, making a difficult but crucial decision, resulting in a positive effect on his life. He had also secured a job, which he was due to start the following week. This was brilliant, as during that 3 week period I could not help feeling worried for him.

I had to fight that ‘fixing’ feeling and have faith that he would be okay. It turned out he was, and not just okay, he was thriving!

He is a very inspirational individual, as are many of the people I get to meet as a Coach. I would much rather expect the best from someone and be wrong, than expect the worst from someone and be right. This individual knew that I had 100% faith in him and through this he could build faith within himself.

Would he choose to meet me and allow me the privilege of being involved in his life, if he didn’t think that I had faith in him? No.

Does he talk of frustrations with other agencies expecting him to fail and re-offend? Yes. I don’t believe we can be effective in our coaching unless we are allowed and have permission from the person we’re working with to believe in them.

A clear sign of this permission within Mayday Trust and the PTS, is that individuals have a choice in whether they want to work with an Asset Coach and how they would like that coaching relationship to work, and importantly, there is no consequence of ‘not engaging’. The people we work alongside are far too often underestimated, especially by the ‘professionals’ working with them. A person can see right through us if we do not truly believe in them.

I believe as Asset Coaches, or in fact any professional working with people going through difficult periods in their lives, it helps to ask ourselves a few questions. Questions I reflect upon regularly.

Do I feel more satisfied when someone achieves something that I have not had much input in, or do I want to be involved in every step of that decision?
Do I genuinely believe that the person I am working alongside has the ability to be successful and happy?
Do I genuinely want the best for the individual and expect the best of them (this will show through in our work and there is no way to hide it)?
Am I happy to take a step back and allow the control and power to remain with the individual, even if I have doubts and fear the consequences?
Is it that doubt and fear that dictates whether I step in to fix the situation for that individual?
Is what I have done today allowed/empowered that individual, or have I taken control (despite it feeling like the right thing to do and with the best intentions in the world)?

One of the most important reasons why I love working as an Asset Coach with Mayday is the constant self-reflection, on ourselves and the PTS model. There is no room to get complacent, it constantly evaluates whether we are providing the right and best service possible.

I do not believe this should ever stop and does not only provide great service, but maintains our model and longevity within the sector. This ensures that Mayday moves with the times and that we are adaptable to whatever comes our way. This also means that we can continue working towards and influence system change.

This philosophy runs deep within Mayday Trust and the individuals delivering PTS, I am very fortunate to be able to count myself alongside them.


Is it really just a hobby?

Asset Coach, Richard Boylan looks at the importance of something that is often seen as ‘just a hobby’ or ‘just an interest’ and how focusing on a person’s talents and interests can have life changing consequences.

Asset focused, strength based.. What does it all mean?

Mayday Trust and the Personal Transition Service is certainly gathering momentum and changing how people view the system. Strength based, asset focused, thriving not just surviving – but what does that all mean? How can focusing on someone’s talent, passion or hobby really change their lives? I can’t speak for others, but I can certainly tell you how it changed mine…

Surviving, but definitely not thriving

A few years after leaving school I started to reach the stage where I wasn’t really doing a great deal with my spare time. For someone who had been quite sporty at school, I felt as though I had lost some of my sporty physique and should really get back into shape, I had after all reached the grand old age of 19!

I went and tried out a few gyms, but they weren’t for me and I found myself becoming bored after a couple of weeks. On one afternoon, after yet another uninspiring gym session, I bumped into my dad who said he was off to a local Karate club, it sounded interesting so I agreed to join him on his next visit.

So, the following week I turned up in my psychedelic jogging bottoms and mullet, as was the fashion at the time – psychedelic jogging bottoms that is, not the mullet!

Being accepted and building connections

Straight away I felt relaxed, the other students there were friendly, as was the instructor and after the hour session they invited me to join them for a drink, which I eagerly accepted!

After leaving at the end of the night, I knew I would be returning the following week. This is how it went for the next couple of years. I trained hard 2 to 3 times a week, worked my way through the grades and gained new friends. It was at this stage that a couple of things happened.

Build on strengths, grow positive relationships and the rest will follow

I had another group of friends that I had known since leaving school and over the years we had started to travel down a path that wasn’t going to end well. Looking back, we were all young men and didn’t know who we were supposed to be, or our place in the world. We reached that ‘coming of age’ stage that young men do and felt that, in our own way we were failing. We had no self-esteem or self-worth and as a result we started to go off the rails.
But I had changed, I had grown as a person and gained some self-esteem and confidence. Some of this was down to the martial arts training, but mostly it was the new friends I had made. They were funny and supportive and genuinely liked me for who I was, this was new for me.

This acceptance allowed me to come out of my shell and I really liked the person that appeared! So, I made the decision to leave my old group of friends behind and over the next couple of months I saw them less and less, until I no longer saw them at all.

Time to thrive

The second thing that happened was my Karate instructor asked me if I wanted to teach some of the lower grades during the lessons. This was something that a couple of other students had done. I had never envisioned that I could teach, I didn’t have enough confidence, so I turned him down.

Twice more he asked if I fancied having a go at teaching and twice more I declined. It was then that he took me to the side and told me that he had watched me train over the last few years and felt it would be a good next step for me. He felt I would be good at it.

This was something completely new for me, I was around 21 years of age, living at home and working as a delivery driver, the thought of standing in front of a group of people and teaching was not something that I had ever imagined doing. But teach I did, my first lesson was a bit of a disaster and didn’t go well, so I sulked for a week or so. But I eventually got back on the horse and had another go, which went a lot better! Teaching then became a regular occurrence for me.

Gaining responsibilities and confidence

Another couple of years passed and I had now gained my black belt and was teaching at my instructor’s club on a regular basis. It was during this time that my instructor had to go away, the timing wasn’t great as it was just before the students next grading, but it was a family emergency. He left the club in my hands, let me make the decisions on who I felt was ready to grade and who wasn’t. This was a huge responsibility and marked a high level of trust as the club was his livelihood, it was a hobby for me but a living for him. Fortunately, it all turned out well!
It was after this grading that I realised I was good at teaching and wanted to run a club of my own, so that’s what I did. I joined forces with another student and together we opened our own martial arts club and ran it successfully for 8 years, even training black belts of our own.

So much more than a hobby

Those years teaching were some of the best of my life and I learned a great deal about myself and what I was capable of. I had also changed careers a few times throughout these years, each job change was a move onto something that was more challenging and rewarding.

So, what is in a hobby? Or an interest? Or a talent? Mine literally changed me as a person and changed my life, without it I would certainly not be working as an Asset Coach for Mayday Trust, in a career I love, giving the people I work with the same opportunities I was so lucky to have had.

Without exploring and developing my hobbies I honestly don’t think that I would be living the rewarding life that I currently do.

We are 6 relationship breakdowns away from homelessness

Mayday Trust Asset Manager, Sarah Hughes, explores the reasons behind homelessness, the importance of positive relationships and if we really are all 6 weeks away from homelessness

It was in a newspaper so it must be true, right?

I read an article in the Guardian once entitled ‘You are two pay packets from the streets, they say. Well, it’s true’. It recounted stories of middle class individuals who lost their jobs and then their homes and relationships (1). It is a rhetoric I have heard many times which is either based on pay packets or weeks; 6 weeks, two pay packets. Its purpose is to remind us that we are all the same and homelessness is not a part of our identity, but a set of events that cause us to fall and go through tough times. This sentiment I can whole heartedly agree with, but my concern is how it is framed. Whilst losing a job can start a snowball effect of negative change, it is not telling us the whole picture.

The importance of relationships

When I hear these statements, I often think what I would do if I lost my job suddenly. Working in the voluntary sector, it is not unrealistic to think this might happen. I live in an expensive area and rent costs are high, so maintaining my home would certainly be a challenge, but I am confident I would not become homeless. Firstly I live with a supportive partner who would not only financially support me through this transition, but also emotionally. If in the worst case scenario that broke down, I have a loving family who would not hesitate in giving me a helping hand if I asked them to. I also have an array of supportive friends who I know care enough to lend a bit of money or even put me up if the absolute worst happened. In order to become street homeless, I would have to sabotage all of those relationships.

My safety net is not my job or my house, it is the people in my life. People who are willing to step in and offer me support when I need it. I am in no doubt that it would be tough, but I know I have strong connections with others who would carry me through tough times until I am back on my feet and self-sufficient again. I also know they would believe in me and give me the strength to keep moving forward.

Simplifying the problem, doesn’t fix the problem

I read another article which discussed a similar theme of the ‘middle class’ becoming homeless. It talks about an individual who has graduated with honours but found himself homeless after a negative set of events happened following his wife dying. He states:

‘I lost my wife, but I also lost myself – every ambition, every hope and dream, every enjoyment and passion, every possibility of happiness, and in short, everything that defined me as a person. If it happens that a person is stripped absolutely bare, becomes a stranger even to themselves, who can say what they are or are not capable of doing, and of becoming? The moral superiority of those who look down on drug addicts and homeless people, or presume to know what is best for them, hangs by a thread.’ (2)

I think the important element here is that he lost his wife, and then he lost himself. It wasn’t that he lost his job or house, which did happen, but it was the loss of his wife which changed the course of his life. By framing homelessness as losing a job or house, it simplifies this issue.

This is dangerous because it leads people to think there is an easy solution. Whilst for some there may be, this does not fit all. Having worked in homelessness services for 3 years, in my experience no one becomes homeless just because they lost their job; they became homeless because they lost their last relationship.

The power of building positive relationships should not be ignored

In order to recover from homelessness, people need relationships which can act as buffers and safety nets for the future. They also need relationships to build happy lives which are full of the joy we are lucky enough to have. It would be ridiculous to suggest that a job and a home are not important, because they absolutely are, but we must not forget the true cause of homelessness which is the loss of each other.

(1) LAST ACCESSED 27/12/2017

(2) LAST ACCESSED 27/12/2017

To Teach or Not to Teach

Asset coach, Richard Boylan, explores differences between teaching and coaching by drawing on his own experiences on the athletics field.

For me, my school years were not the greatest time of my life, or the easiest. I was never going to be the next Albert Einstein or Vera Rubin, and I don’t think my parents ever worried about making space on top of the TV for my graduation photo!

The one thing I was good at during my school years was sport, specifically athletics and I was fortunate enough to represent my school on a number of occasions, although I didn’t see it this way at the time! The downside to being on the athletics team meant that I had to give up some of my lunch breaks throughout the week for additional training. It was during these lunch time training sessions that I became aware of the difference between teaching and coaching.

Treating people as people

I remember being addressed as ‘Richard’ for the first time, rather than the preferred habit that PE teachers had of calling you by your Surname! There was focus on me as a person and what I was good at, where my strength’s lay and what assets I had. I was tall with long legs so they taught me how to run faster by increasing my stride length. I was fast over the hurdles, but they taught me to be faster by showing me how to utilize my trailing leg better. I was quick over 400m, but they helped me be better by having me break the sprint down into stages, rather than just run flat out from start to finish.

It was the first time that I was talked to rather than talked at. This wasn’t a session where they were teaching 20-30 people at a time, it was designed and set up for me, to help me build on my strengths and develop them further.

No judgement

On one occasion I remember swearing in frustration whilst attempting to beat the school long jump record, I messed up my approach and ended up running straight through the sand. Any other time this would have resulted in a telling off like no other and more than likely detention, but on this occasion they cracked a joke and then let it go, why? Because they recognized the effort that was being put in and the circumstances, they also knew me and how out of character it was. They didn’t judge me.

Investing time to build assets

Another time I remember struggling to get the technique right whilst using the shot put, I couldn’t get my arms and hips to work together to generate better speed and power. After watching me for around 20 minutes, the PE teacher strolled out into the middle of the field, further than I had thrown it so far, spread his arms above his head and shouted at me to put the shot over his head……it went over his head on the first throw!

As I look back on those times I reflect on the time and effort they put into helping a shy and self-conscious kid develop and build on his abilities……they gave up their lunch breaks to do it. When they said run I ran, when they said jump I jumped (literally!), but they knew me, knew what I was capable of and saw that I could be more, even when I didn’t. They would have had conversations that I was unaware of, spent time developing training schedules designed around me, pushing me to be better.

Helping to build confidence that lasts a lifetime

30+ years on and I still remember those training sessions, how they spoke to me and treated me. As an Asset Coach for Mayday Trust I draw heavily on those days, how they thought out of the box when encouraging me, but most importantly how being coached rather than taught made me feel like I was invincible!

Ditching the Lanyard

Mayday Asset Coach, Andrew Durman, explores how it feels to go from knowing something isn’t right with the system to ditching the lanyard and working in a genuine person centred way through the Personal Transitions Service.


Into the light

I count myself fortunate as I have recently been brought into the light as an Asset Coach for Mayday Trust in Northamptonshire. Prior to this I have spent the majority of my work alongside people experiencing homelessness as a project worker or similar non-descriptive job title in traditional hostels/supported accommodation units. This year I hit 10 years in this line of work which brought me to a crossroad which was unfortunately forcing me down a road I was not wanting to go and the only other way to avoid it was to change career completely. This brought me to feeling a sense of sadness as it was not a decision I wanted to make, but had to. The decision was that I wanted to continue my love for working alongside real people going through real difficulties and challenges within their lives, however the trouble was that I could no longer sustain working in the current system for supporting these individuals. Thankfully an opportunity came for me to join Mayday. Hence the fortunate position I now find myself in now.

Person centred, or just at the centre of the hoop you have to jump through?

In the months I have been a PTS Asset coach I have realised the reason for the feeling that something wasn’t right whilst working in the traditional hostel environment. These feeling was, that although those services believed they had right intentions to start with, something had got lost along the way. That something was the individual that the services had been created to support. For example, tag lines like ‘breaking the cycle of homelessness’ when in fact the service was part of that cycle of homelessness. Values like ‘person centred approach’, but only as long as you agreed to conform and be under the control of a service. You may have been at the centre, but the circle around you was not one that was personalised to the individual. It was in fact the centre of a hoop that you had to jump through in order to get a bed/room.

We are working with people so I never understood why, if that person is experiencing homelessness, we have a system with a specific ‘homeless way’ of working with that person. When that is the case you are not working with the person, you are in fact working with ‘the homeless’. If I go to the GP for support, I go in there with no labels and no other information other than I have something I need support with. That specific something is dealt with. I am a person and that is what I want help with at this time.

Working with individuals to break the cycle of homelessness yet seeing people return time and time again to the service did not seem right. Something was not working and the question would always be what is this individual going to do differently for this to be able to work, for us to allow that person to have access to the service (that does not sound empowering and person centred at all). This was the greatest contradiction and something I struggled with. It is so obvious, but sadly only if you can see it, and maybe you cannot see it because you are not looking! The question should be what can we do differently, in order to be able to support this individual ‘break the cycle of homelessness’?

The answer is to change the system!

I am very proud to be a part of Mayday Trust that are doing this right now. Where once I was meeting people in an office in a scheme, I am now meeting in coffee shops, pubs, pool clubs, games workshops, the park, the gym, anywhere other than the accommodation that are temporarily living in. Anywhere other than an office. There is no pressure to meet and no consequences to not meeting yet individuals choose to come. We are not having meaningless conversations for the sake of ‘key-working’ where the person is held at ransom as if they do not attend they are non-engaging and issued with warning letters threatening eviction.

We are having real conversations about life in the exact same way that I do with my wife and mates and if the outcome of that conversation is reassurance, hope, confidence, a clearer direction on where to go/what to do, happiness, self-belief, empowerment, freedom and control then that’s outcome achieved. How do you record that in the current system? Where is the room for that among details on substance misuse, offending, mental health, budgeting, healthy cooking etc?

Focus on the positives and the negatives disappear

The funny thing is the more those conversations on those subjects happen, the more information gets recorded. A shift in focus and having conversations like the ones I am currently having and you will find that less needs recording (because those issues are having less of an impact on that person’s life). A focus on the negative will always lead to the negatives. But focus on the positives and the negatives will disappear. Sounds simple and that is because it is. We are not just looking for a plaster to cover up the difficulty (to manage the difficulty) we are getting to the root of it which brings on longevity in life & happiness. It is the symptoms that the current system supports and not the root cause of the current situation someone is in. And it is very rare that the answer to the root cause comes from focusing on the symptoms.

Ditch the lanyard

There are no labels attached in the places we meet, no judgement, or power imbalance, no lanyard. No one knows who we are, as far as they know we are just two humans having a conversation. The feelings that I get from this I find very hard to describe. So imagine the empowerment and feeling that the individual has. Not only does the system institutionalise the individuals it is there to support, but also the professionals working within it. The freedom and empowerment I feel now as a coach is powerful. I cannot imagine returning to work in a traditional supported accommodation service and will never do again. As the impact I can now have working with others is incomparable. That impact is that the power/control/choice is completely in the hands of the person. True empowerment, true person centred and not just a tag line in a mission statement or list of service values.

The most effective conversations I had whilst working in traditional services for homeless individuals was when bumping into someone in the corridor or around a pool table, not during ‘keywork’ meetings. Now all the meetings and conversations I have are effective and in ‘Places of Purpose’.

Not only that but I work for an organisation, with PTS partners and a team full of inspirational and like-minded people.

I feel very lucky and I am indeed empowered in the same way that finally the people I am working alongside are empowered.