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Listen first!

The simple act of listening can give communities the confidence they need to take action

2022 Available in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese

A woman and a man from a local organisation stand and listen to an older lady in Kerala, India

The simple act of listening can give communities like this one in Kerala, India, the confidence they need to take action. Photo: Bobby Zachariah

Three Bolivian women smile and laugh together at a training workshop

From: Participatory communication – Footsteps 117

How to provide opportunities for people to share their ideas and influence change

I produce a podcast (an audio recording with interviews and discussion) called ‘How to build community’. Each month I interview someone who has been involved in a community project that has had a big impact. They tell me their story and share their wisdom. I have spoken with people all over the world, but one of my favourite interviews was with a social worker called Bobby Zachariah from Pune in India.

Door to door

Pune is home to both low-income communities and wealthy technology companies. Bobby explained that one of these technology companies ran a charity project to provide education and opportunities in one of the poorest areas of the city. The company had a big budget, a genuine desire to help and technical expertise. But because the community saw themselves as recipients rather than co-owners of the project, not many people were interested in getting involved.

The company turned to Bobby for help. ‘What should we do?’ they asked him. They had spent a lot of money over several years, and had very little to show for it. His advice came as a surprise. He suggested that instead of trying to solve the problems of the community for them, they should instead start going door to door in the neighbourhood, asking people, ‘How are you?’, and simply listening to them.

And this is what they did. Every weekend, a group from the company visited the community and engaged in conversations to find out about people’s lives and the things they cared about.


This simple act of listening began to change the community. The local people were used to feeling undervalued, but as they were listened to they began to develop the confidence to address their own challenges. 

This led to them taking part in a ‘dream-building’ exercise, during which they identified several objectives for their community including improvements in health, sanitation and education. 

They formed volunteer groups made up of young people, women and men, and they asked the local government to work on these objectives with them. And they turned to the technology company for funding and expertise to help make it happen. So the technology company went from being ignored, to playing a key role in facilitating exciting, community-led change.

Working together

Listening is an essential part of participatory communication, and it can lead to unexpected and remarkable outcomes. When communities, local organisations and policymakers listen to each other, misunderstandings are often resolved and people learn to work together in new ways.


Drawing pictures

Certain subjects can be difficult or embarrassing for people to talk about, such as open defecation or an argument between neighbours. But community members often know that these are important issues that need to be addressed.

One way to open up the conversation is to encourage people to draw simple pictures to illustrate their concerns. All the pictures can then be made available for everyone to look at, without anyone needing to know who drew which picture. 

It can be encouraging for groups to see that several people share the same concerns and the exercise can lead to excellent conversations. Depending on the context, it can be helpful for women, men and children to have separate discussions, at least initially. 

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