John O'Brien Visits Chorley, 16th February 2007 


Chorley and South Ribble Learning Disability Partnership Board

Asking Listening

 How could this person show up in everyday life as a contributing person and a valued friend?

 Where is this person most himself?

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*Are we asking the right questions in our Person Centred Planning?
*Are we listening and hearing the answers?
*Are we acting on what we learn when we listen?
*Are we learning from our actions?

These were some of the themes addressed when John O'Brien spoke in Chorley, at an event organised by the Chorley and South Ribble Learning Disability Partnership Board.

John O Brien Speaking at The Woodlands Conference Centre In Chorley

50 people came to listen and reflect with John, at an event which was organised at very short notice.

The day was organised around the themes of:


These are themes that occur and recur whenever people who care about a person really try to listen to them, and to implement change that will enable that person to live a better life.

They were therefore very appropriate themes for John to speak to, and for the people at the meeting to consider. They are issues that each of us has to grapple with as we try to ask the really great questions in Person Centred Planning.  

Asking questions and truly listening to people who traditionally have been ignored invites all kinds of difficulties.

How do we listen? How do we learn? Are we and our organisations ready to hear what people have to say about their lives? Are we prepared to take the neccessary actions, and face the conflicts that will inevitably arise?
Yet only by being prepared to ask such questions, and by finding the endurance to see the consequences of asking such questions through to the end, can we begin to see the positive change in people's lives we seek.

 The people at the meeting were a very diverse group, brought together by their commitment to strive for person-centred approaches with people with learning disabilities in Chorley and south Ribble. They included people with learning disabilities, family members and people who provide services, representing a range of different services across our area.

John spoke brilliantly, using poetry, mythology and children's stories (including 'The Orange Splodge') to underline his deepest points, and backing them up with real life examples of people who have used Person Centred Planning to change their lives for the better.


John began by explaining that Person Centred Planning is not an answer, it is not a 'magic wand' that will automatically find solutions to everything; instead it is a way people can generate answers. It is a way to find problems that are worth solving.

He told us that PCP asks us "what are the questions that are really worth finding the answers to? - What questions are most powerful in lining up what people need for a good life?"

John explained that instead of seeking out and listening to the differences used to justify segregating and controlling people, we need to begin by listening for capacity. There is nothing wrong with listening diagnostically - looking for problems that we can 'cure', but if that is all that we are listening to, we have missed the point and possibility in people's lives.

When we ask people very basic questions like "where do I want to live" and "who do I want to live with", it raises questions about the very nature of our services, answers can be difficult depending on the kind of organisation that is supporting you. Answers create conflicts, and we can end up not wanting to hear the answer - we can send out the message to the person that we can't handle the answer, and they can end up sparing us the discomfort of giving us answers we cannot handle.


 John defined leadership as "helping people make progress on the difficult problems that come up when making vision real". Leadership comes from doing this, not from position in an organisation. Anybody who finds ways to do this is showing leadership; PCP is a way of letting more leadership loose. It is about not 'playing it safe' and saying "that's impossible".

John quoted his friend Judith Snow who said:

 "A great question refuses to be answered, so it keeps leading us into deeper connections with each other and into deeper thinking"

John argued that better connection usually comes before deeper thinking, our relationships with each other are crucial to hearing what is being said, and in helping it be put into action, it is when you know that you have friends and that you have got people on your side that you are more prepared to break new ground. 

PCP is not magic, said John, we do not say "take these steps and bang! the answer comes out the other end", instead we use peoples' leadership to support people to imagine a better future and organise the work of moving toward it. 

Some of the things we have learned so far in  our experience of person centred work with people:

*Not to give up

*Don't make assumptions; sometimes we think we know the answers before we've even started

*Some of the things people want are really simple to achieve

*People have got important ambitions for the future

*Little things matter

*Enlist the help of others

*Honesty within the relationship

*Checking back is really important

*Understanding HOW somebody tells you something is the starting point.


John pointed out that planning that listens to the person, and that really puts them in charge of their own life is likely to lead to conflict. In many ways, he said, conflict is actually a sign of progress, it shows that we are making plans that challenge 'the way things are done around here'. Good planning is about crossing boundaries and shifting power.

Another source of conflict that John identified is that it can be such hard work to achieve things that should be so easy. People who ask for ordinary everyday things that everyone else takes for granted in their lives, find that there are so many obstacles to achieving them. It isn't that the destination is beyond reach, it's just that we've got so much to undo in order to get there.

The way services were originally designed doesn't reflect the values of people being able to make choices about their own lives. John O'Brien suggested that there are no 'bad people', it is just that people see things differently. By taking a 'capacity view' that focusses on people's gifts and abilities, rather than a deficiency view that focusses solely on people's negative characteristics, PCP makes positive change in their lives seem realisable.

We are seeking a situation where more and more people have more friends outside the boundaries of services.

John compared changing the way people are supported, and making changes in their lives to "trying to rebuild the airplane while it's still flying". No wonder there is conflict!

In group work we considered the differences between positive conflict and negative conflict, and ways that have a good chance of changing negative conflict into positive conflict.

Some of us found it difficult to think of conflict as postive, with negative conflict, you can feel on your own, afterwards with positive conflict, you can feel stronger and more together.

Conflict can be a signal that you are in an unequal power relationship, this can make you feel angry and it can motivate you to go on and do something.

Expressing what is unsaid can help people see and talk about something that they felt silenced about.

A positive conflict can lead to greater respect for each others point of view and experience.

Creativity can come out of conflict.

Ways that improve our chances of coming through a conflict with a better plan and more commitment to it:

*Decide what you do agree on and work with those positives

* Set up ground rules to respect each other, understand that it is not personal, 'leave it in the room'

*Think about what the other guy wants. Think 'how can I give him what he wants without giving up on what I want?

*Anticipate where the conflict is likely to be, decide that the person is not neccessarily my enemy, but think 'what does it look like from this person's point of view?

*Admit when you are wrong or when you have made a mistake

*Look beyond the system

*Aim for a place where we could imaging 'what if we could...'
'Have a neutral person present where we can't think clearly because of the emotions involved

*Try to be calm, and realise when your own emotions are stopping you listening

*Think about what is further than that process of conflict


We thought about the biggest sources of anger, discouragement and impatience that person centred work exposes us to.

Here are a few:
*Lack of staff

*Limited resources

*Fear of taking risks

*Fear of litigation

*Fear of consequences to ourselves makes us focus on protecting ourselves

*Fear of failure

*Fear of success - that success raises expectations we might not be able to meet

*That it takes so much energy to do those things that are normal, average and everyday

*It's infuriating that those things aren't just there for people

*Why isnt there a smoother path?

Finally we thought about what we can count on to renew us and sustain us on the long journey to better lives for everyone.

John spoke about the everyday battle that people face in building lives that they control, for example the activist who has a sticker on her wheelchair that says:
 'To boldly go where everybody else has already been'.

To continue in our path, we need to find what nourishes and centres us, and gives us energy.

What People Said About The Day:

"An inspirational day - reinvigorating. It has re-focused and motivated me"

"Everyone was given the opportunity to participate"

"I have learned that conflict can be positive"

"Meaningful poems and person stories"

"Especially useful was the 'conflict' session"

"Great mix of participants"

"I am delighted I was able to come"

"He spoke very well and the day was good"

"Talking about the hard parts of PCP, not just the polished new bits of what people think about when PCP comes to mind!"

"Encouraging - people I met and examples given"

"Very thought provoking"

"John said things in a clear positive way"

"I like the way John involves the whole of the room when speaking"

"It has enabled me to think about PCP in depth and has highlighted important considerations that are required when using PCP"

"Brilliant, inspired me to take action instead of waiting for everything to be in place"

"Excellent group work"

"Thankyou for giving the opportunity to listen to such an inspirational man"

"Realisation: Oh my! Got loads of work to do!!!"

Click Here to access some of John O'Brien's writings.

Were you at the day? Let us know what you thought of it, and how you have put your learning into action by clicking here.

 "I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about, besides homework"

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