How to listen to people telling stories of poverty

Real Benefits StreetAs our Real Benefits Street project continues, our Communications Manager Liam Purcell calls for more empathy and less judgement.

Through Church Action on Poverty’s work to make true stories of poverty heard more widely, I’ve become familiar with some of the typical ways people respond to hearing those stories. I think it reveals some worrying things.

I’m not talking here about the terrible myths and stereotypes which stigmatise people on low incomes – the kind of things we set up Real Benefits Street to counter. (See here for some examples of the kind of hateful reaction that would fall into this category.)

My concern here is more for the instinctive reactions I see from people who are otherwise very sympathetic – even amongst Church Action on Poverty’s own supporters. People may be fully committed to tackling poverty in principle, but when faced with a story honestly shared by somebody who is experiencing poverty, their immediate reaction is still too often to judge rather than just to listen and learn.

“I’m not earning much more than that, and I get by OK.”

“Why does she need a car?” (Or a computer, or a mobile phone, or a TV, or a pet…)

“When I was young, we went without all kinds of things and didn’t say we were poor.”

“He shouldn’t be smoking or drinking.”

There are simple answers to the vast majority of these criticisms (and you can find most of them here if you want) – but I can’t help feeling that it’s a waste of time and energy for us to be answering them and busting the same myths all the time. In many cases, the answers are actually quite obvious, as soon as you take a moment to empathise and put yourself in somebody else’s shoes.

So why do people so often react in this way? I think that often, it’s a defence mechanism. It’s very uncomfortable to see another human being exposing themselves by honestly talking about difficult experiences they’ve had. It’s also uncomfortable to be faced with the reality that we live in an unfair society – and that perhaps, we ourselves are doing well at the expense of those who are less well off than we are. Our instinctive reaction is often to find an explanation that’s less personally uncomfortable for us – a story that distracts us from the problems, and doesn’t pin any blame on us, or challenge us to do something about an unjust situation.

So, as our Real Benefits Street experts continue to share their stories every day, I have some challenges for all of us who are watching and listening:

  • Be aware that these people are doing something brave and difficult. It’s not easy, in an unequal society, to stand up in public and talk about being poor.
  • Try to put yourself in their shoes. You can’t fully judge an experience, or know how you would react to it, unless you’ve been through it yourself.
  • Do you have the right to pass judgement on somebody’s lifestyle? For example, if they didn’t happen to be on a low income, would you ever feel you had the right to tell a stranger whether to smoke or drink?
  • Before you pass judgement on any aspect of their story, ask yourself: by reacting like this, am I letting myself off the hook? Am I focusing on one detail while ignoring other aspects of the story? Is it a way of avoiding my own responsibility for tackling injustice and poverty?
  • Take time to reflect. In particular, remember that thousands or millions more people may be having similar experiences to the one you’ve just heard about. Does that change your reaction?

If we’re to build a Good Society with a narrower gap between rich and poor, we must always start from a place of solidarity and empathy – not judgement.

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