News and Comment

Why building integrated communities requires having difficult conversations

Monday 4 February 2013

The combination of a revised UK Citizenship test, the ongoing debate about anticipated Romanian and Bulgarian immigration, and ONS census data around the languages spoken in the UK, has once again brought the issues of integration and immigration to the forefront of people’s minds.

Let’s be clear: Britain has one of the most diverse populations in the European Union, if not the world. But we are also an extremely well integrated and tolerant nation, with for instance; 92 percent of the “usual residents of England and Wales aged three years and over” speaking English as their main language, and two-thirds of people believing the welfare state should be continue to be open to those born abroad.

However as Eric Pickles said in his recent Integration in 2013 speech, there is still real need for communities to find better ways for to come together, including increasing the number of people who speak English, and breaking down barriers between people of different faiths.

That said however, overcoming these divisions, particularly in areas which have experienced high levels of friction between communities in recent years like Luton, Rochdale or Oldham, will be far from straightforward. And even before this process of integration can begin, there is often a need for dialogue to either correct misconceptions, or discuss certain grievances that may be prevalent.

High-profile and often controversial issues such as: the status of religious law and tribunals in a largely secular society; balancing the right to freedom of speech against the right to be protected from religious hatred; and the wearing of religious dress at work and in schools – have the potential to divide communities and may be difficult to overcome through standard engagement processes like community events or focus groups.

Good engagement starts by trying to gain a deeper understanding of people’s concerns, motivations and fears, even if some of theses fears seem unpalatable or misplaced. Unless this process leads to the unpacking of these issues and constructs a mutual understanding of what they mean and why they arise, solutions that can take the community forward will be hard to come by.

Although local authorities and their partners have a duty to build integrated communities, they often lack the resources and skills necessary to engage people on these difficult subjects. Often they also fear that engagement might make matters worse and provoke new tensions rather than resolving them. In divided communities, sensitive and considerate approaches to community engagement that address these divisions, build understanding and acceptance across communities, and find common solutions, offer the best chance of building more integrated communities in the future.

The following approaches and techniques can help guide a successful engagement process in which difficult issues need to be confronted:

  • Co-design of the engagement process: In order to successfully engage different communities, it is often valuable to design and deliver the engagement exercise jointly with the communities themselves, co-opting a group of local community activists to help design and facilitate discussions.
  • Deliberation: Deliberative methods, i.e. those that encourage participants to consider relevant information and discuss complex issues, (such as faith, hate and the role of statutory organisations in funding different community projects), are often successful in building understanding and challenging misconceptions.
  • Managing conflict and resolving differences: There are a range mediation and conflict resolution techniques that difficult conversations often require. These include: ensuring that there is clarity and agreement about the purpose and priorities of the conversation; that there is active listening and firm facilitation (so that all voices are heard and empathy is built between participants); and that time is taken to summarise and clarify views as they arise.