Public and community housing – Guide for Providers: Listen, Ask, Respect

This presentation by Jen Rignold and Lorraine deVere provides useful advice for community housing practitioners in working with tenants. The Tenants' Union endorses this approach and thanks Jen and Lorraine for permission to reprint this advice.

Jen and Lorraine presented this talk in the session 'Delivering High Quality Management Services to Everyone' at the 2016 Affordable Housing Conference, 28-29 July 2016.


Listen, Ask, Respect

Hi, my name is Jen Rignold.

Lorraine and I would like to talk to you about our experiences with service providers.

We have known the good, the bad and the ugly. We have also known some exceptional ones.

We live in Airds Bradbury, which is one of the large social housing estates around Campbelltown. We are currently going through a redevelopment and the residents in our community work with the team for the best outcomes for residents and housing.

As residents we provide advice and experience and they listen to us. If I was to fault them it would be those higher up and the politicians who we feel make rules and regulations about us without knowing us, our circumstances or our needs.

Over time our residents have learnt very quickly to identify the agenda of a particular service provider.

For example:

  1. Someone who comes to us with the attitude ‘I have the degree, I know what’s wrong, I know how to fix it. Needless to say we don’t work with well them.
  2. Someone who comes to us and says they will help us do something for instance the biggest morning tea. But when they make their report, there is no mention of us and they have taken all the credit for themselves. Again we don’t work well with them.
  3. Someone who comes to us feeling they have a good life and need to help this group of poor people. That’s a very condescending attitude. Guess what, we don’t work well with them either.

They all need to pat themselves on their back for a job well done. And each of them forgot about us. We felt disrespected and ignored. There was an imbalance of power between these service providers and us. They got what they wanted and we were left in the same place - with nothing.

So what do we want in a service provider?

To start with there will be a trust issue. Because of our history with negative service providers we don’t trust anyone who says they want to help us. They have to earn our trust. They have to prove themselves. And unfortunately this can take a long time.

But a service provider can break down the barrier to get someone to engage with them.

Whether you are engaging one person or a group of people, you need to change the imbalance of power, or at least the perception of it. For me, if I feel you genuinely want to talk to me, I will be receptive to what you have to say.

Smile – a sincere smile. Not one that says ‘this is my job and I’d rather be somewhere else’. If I feel this then I will want to be somewhere else too. Neither of us will be present in the moment.

Come with an expectation that we can teach you something. We have a lot of experience and knowledge and if sharing it with you benefits both of us, then you will have a willing participant.

The exceptional service providers I have known have all followed a simple formula:

  1. They sat quietly and listened
  2. They asked what has been done/worked/not worked/etc
  3. Then they asked what we wanted or needed to achieve
  4. Then they worked in partnership with us.

And most important is the atmosphere you create. The more friendly you make it the easier it is for both of us to communicate. Provide a cuppa and bikkies. A chat over a cuppa is a lot friendlier and allows me to feel that you are treating me as an equal.

And think about doing a sausage sizzle. Particularly if you are working with families. This includes the kids and the parents feel you are dealing with the whole family.

Hi, my name is Lorraine deVere.

I have lived in social housing for about 25 years and have liaised with service providers in my community for about 15 of those years as an active participant in the redevelopment of my suburb.

I would like to talk to you today about what I think is the most important aspect of service providers working with tenants and that is respect.

Respect is a large umbrella; it means different things to different people

Respect for me is when someone speaks to me as an equal, not down to me or at me but as a fellow human being. To my mind if you do not speak to someone as an equal then you are not only demeaning that person but also yourself. When speaking with me please do not use business jargon or acronyms, you may know what you are talking about but I may not and to have to ask for clarification is not always a comfortable position to be in.

Respect is listening to me and what I have to say, simply because I live in social housing does not make what I am feeling or saying any less valid, or worthy of being heard, taken notice of or acted upon.

Respect is not coming into my community/home with any preconceived idea of what is needed to fix any problems we may or may not have, (please do not believe all the bad publicity you read).  Come with an open mind, consult with us, find out how we feel and how we would like our suburb to look, after all it is our home, where we live and we know it better than anyone.

An example of being disrespected as a social housing tenant was when my client service officer made the assumption that my home was filthy because rodents had gotten into my stove. What this person did not care to understand was that 1) I had been away for a week and 2) I had been in this house a very short time and the repairs to the kitchen had not been properly finished following a fire and damage by a previous tenant.

Knowing my rights I demanded an immediate inspection by this disrespectful client service officer and the team leader. This resulted in the client service officer being required to apologise to me immediately and was then sent for further training. Not all tenants know their rights, and I feel it is the responsibility of a service provider to not take advantage of this fact. This unfortunately happens all too often.

Respect is not coming to me and waving your degrees or intellectual prowess under my nose, I am as educated, intelligent, and literate as anybody else I just gained my knowledge from the school of hard knocks otherwise known as life. By saying this, it isn’t my intention to demean your credentials, as that would be disrespectful, I merely wish to point out that we are the same; we just came about our knowledge from different directions.

Respect needs to be earned; it does not come as part and parcel of anyone’s position or their age, it is a two-way street when given it is very often received in return.

I believe I show my respect by listening to people and in the case of service providers, understanding that they have constraints both financial and political and that not all of my dreams for my suburb will be fulfilled; that these can then be negotiated into something that we can all live with.

If we all work together with dignity and mutual respect, as partners the outcomes for us all will be positive.

An example of partnerships that work is our redevelopment team at Airds/Bradbury. We have worked together for many years and have consulted with, explained to and taught each other every step of the way, in all aspects of the redevelopment. As proof of this the redevelopment team won not just a National but also an International award for Public Participation.

Finally, I would like you, at some point to reflect on what, in your view, you consider respect to be and how being respected affects you. It is part of human nature to want to be acknowledged and respected. How wonderful it would be for this to always be the case. 

In summary:

  1. Actively listen – Listen with your heart and not just your ears.
  2. Acknowledge – Don’t ignore the effort that has already happened.
  3. Open mind – Come with an attitude that you can learn something
  4. Partnership – Nobody is an island. We need everyone’s skills and experience
  5. Mutual respect – This is where diversity of opinion and experience is valued.



You can also watch a video of public housing tenant Jen Rignold speaking about tenant-focussed principles for renewal in social housing...