What do you know about…?

Recently I was on my way to a community research hui (meeting) with some colleagues and we got talking about how change happens for people, including for whānau (Māori families) and communities. In this particular instance our focus was on how public health people can influence and support people to change their lifestyles to include healthier eating and exercising habits.

I happened to mention that it continued to amaze me that when I went to learn about something or to receive some service the person in charge would not ask me what I already knew. Instead they would make some assumptions about me that were more often than not incorrect. This has happened to me in all sorts of contexts: learning a language, practising a craft, playing sport. These assumptions have meant that the support I’ve sought has often not been provided and I’ve become frustrated and bored.

My experience started a bigger conversation about the circumstances we’d all found ourselves in where people made assumptions about us, rather than asking us questions and finding out about the ‘real’ person. The people who’d make these assumptions included health practitioners and other service providers. This made me recall a comment from a person I’d interviewed for a health research project. They’d asked me, “Do you know what the best thing to ask a person with diabetes is?” When I answered “no”, they responded, “It’s ‘Tell me what you know about your diabetes’.”


Susan Reid from Workbase explained something similar at a health literacy hui I attended. She talked about how peculiar it would be to buy someone an item of clothing without knowing what’s already in their wardrobe. For me this isn’t just about knowing that someone needs a shirt because they don’t have one in their wardrobe, it’s about knowing what kind of shirt they want, what colours they like, what other items of clothing the shirt might be worn with, and even whether they wanted a shirt or would rather have some more trousers or a non-clothing item. The conversation about an additional item of clothing quickly comes back round to getting to know the ‘real’ person in order to provide them with something that might be both useful and wanted.

I’m not saying that we should all rush out and interrogate people about what’s in their wardrobes (even though I’ve been known to do this). Rather, the take-home message is about setting aside our assumptions when we encounter people. If we’ve got a skill or knowledge that we’d like to share with someone, or some help we’d like to be able to provide, then we need to find out about them and what their needs and aspirations are.

This is what occurs in collaborative assessments and planning. These are less about the person offering guidance and more about the individuals and their whānau who are receiving support. It is about finding out about their circumstances and their needs, as well as their aspirations and current priorities. When we know something about what’s going on for people we should not put our assumption hat back on to say what their priorities should be from our point of view. Rather it’s about what they feel they can tackle first, and the changes they feel capable of and know will stick.

Until we take on board these lessons the people we engage with on a day-to-day basis – be they our tamariki (children), our colleagues, or our clients – they’ll go away frustrated and bored and in more-or-less the same circumstances they started out in. So ask them, “What do you know about…?” or to please “Tell me about…”.

Contributed by Fiona Cram

Community Research


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