Guest blog – “The Key of Understanding” by Kath Evans & John Walsh

‘Any fool can know. The point is to understand’ – Albert Einstein
A worker known to the authors used to visit every week what is called a ‘wet’ hostel. This was a hostel where men with alcohol dependence could stay and were allowed to drink. It sought to break the ‘You can stay here if you don’t drink’ rule that some establishments held. The worker would visit every week and sit with the men outside the hostel. He heard their stories, struggles and pain. He laughed with them and worked with them on whatever was important to them. One day one of the men turned to the worker and through sad eyes said, ‘You understand us…you really do.’ The worker was both touched and taken aback. He had learned enough about addiction to know he could never say he understood or knew all about it. Yet here a fellow human being suffering with addiction to alcohol was saying what he experienced was someone who understand him and the others.
Understanding is a powerful and beautiful gift. It has like other qualities different facets. There is just being there with the other. It is the power and practice of real presence. Being present and open to another. It calls to mind the philosopher Martin Buber who spoke of healing through meeting. Another aspect of this shiny diamond like quality is authentic listening where another feels heard and that his or her life is held gently in compassionate encounter. Then there is a respect and recognition that what stands or sits before us is not an issue, problem or even a service user or patient. It is a fellow human being with gifts, potential and possibility. And really that’s what is all about. Understanding is vision. It seeing through to the essence, to what really matters. In the film ‘Heavens Above’ Peter Sellers plays a vicar called John Smallwood. He gets sent by mistake to a ‘posh town’ and turns the place upside down by being kind. In one scene he takes a family in whom the council have evicted. Someone refers to them as a ‘worthless bunch’. John Smallwood looks at the person as if hit by something and says, ‘No human being is worthless’. That’s what understanding is. That’s what understanding does. It says none of us is worthless. We all have something special about us and to give.
In the NHS and other services there is a commitment to person centred care. For more information take a look at and This is to accept and respect people who use services as partners in their health care not passive recipients. There is also the work of co-production where those who use services can start to co-produce services with staff. One of the authors service is starting the first steps towards co-production in the next few months. There is also the NHS Values groups bringing together staff and those with lived experiences ( see twitter @NHSValuesGroup) . These are all signs and sources of new ways of working and co-creating best care and health. There is still a lot to do but understanding has always made the difference.The kind nurse holding the patients hand, the caring support worker connecting with mums and their babies on a neonatal unit, the pleasant receptionist listening and trying their very best to sort out the issue concerning the person before them. The Paediatric Consultant who French plaits a young patient’s hair in ITU as that’s the thing that matters most at that precise moment. The Organisational Development manager working with staff listening to their challenges and working to embed nurturing cultures and the Chief Executive who take time out to read stories to children in hospital, believing in the power of literacy and role modelling connection with staff. These people are just some of the 1.4million members of #teamNHS and Social Care. These are the soul and heart of our services working with staff listening to their pains and trying to move organisations to bring better cultures forward. These people are the soul and heart of our services. They are the ones who from their hearts bring out understanding and care. They are the deepest change agents because they connect with others and start to create circles of care and understanding. They role model person centred care. The famous psychologist Rollo May mentions how ‘Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing.’ These acts of kindness, understanding and sharing start to open those spaces where inclusion, true partnership and collaboration can flow as natural outcomes and practice. This is the vision. It is now written as policy, taught as practice and has so many trying to make it a reality. The authors are committed to taking this vision and practice forward despite the resistances, stress and frustrations. We do so because people like the man in the wet hostel deserve to be heard, respected, included and understood. We believe the future of the NHS and indeed our society hinges on getting this right. ‘Person centred care’ put simply, let’s all work with people on what’s important to them
Kath Evans
John Walsh
( Both authors will debate the issue of person centred care in London on July 2 2015 – the details are here – you are very welcome to attend – )
*The opinions expressed are the bloggers own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Health Innovation Summit.

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