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Asking the Right Question: "What Do You Need to Change Your Life?"


A Facebook friend shared an excellent link today to an article in The Economist on a new study about the most effective ways to serve the homeless:

Broadway tried a brave and novel approach: giving each homeless person hundreds of pounds to be spent as they wished. According to a new report on the project by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a think-tank, it worked—a success that might offer broader lessons for public-service reform and efficiency.

The charity targeted the longest-term rough sleepers in the City, who had been on the streets for between four and 45 years (no mean achievement when average life expectancy for the long-term homeless is 42). Instead of the usual offers of hostel places, they were simply asked what they needed to change their lives.

One asked for a new pair of trainers and a television; another for a caravan on a travellers’ site in Suffolk, which was duly bought for him. Of the 13 people who engaged with the scheme, 11 have moved off the streets. The outlay averaged £794 ($1,277) per person (on top of the project’s staff costs). None wanted their money spent on drink, drugs or bets. Several said they co-operated because they were offered control over their lives rather than being “bullied” into hostels. Howard Sinclair of Broadway explains: “We just said, ‘It’s your life and up to you to do what you want with it, but we are here to help if you want.’”

It occurs to me that asking people what they need to change their lives is a powerful question to be asked in many contexts.

It's powerful because it implies that people have the self-efficacy to know what they need. And by supporting that self-efficacy, we can help them feel a sense of control over their own lives, the first step in supporting change.

I wonder what would happen if we asked this question in other situations, such as at work or school? We often think we know what's good for others and spend a great deal of time providing it. But would we get better results if we asked people, "What do you need to change your life?"

What if we asked that question of ourselves?

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