“Nobody ever asked me that before.”
I knew we were trying something different – meaningfully different – the moment one of our coaches shared those words. They came from someone they were working with, someone who was going through difficult times and who felt for the first time that they were being listened to.
Sometimes people don’t quite believe it when they start working with our coaches.
“I don’t have to engage?”
“I don’t have to work on my problems?”
“I don’t have to follow your plan?”
It can be difficult for people to hear this. After years or sometimes decades of having to fit into very prescriptive boxes, being told you have the freedom and space to work on what you want can be overwhelming. For people who have learned they cannot trust the system, it can feel confusing.
And yes, people push against it, test boundaries, or try to prove that we don’t really mean what we’re saying. That’s all part of it – another step towards positive change.
What is Asset Coaching?
Asset coaching in Platfform draws on the person-led, transitional, strengths-based (PTS) approach developed by Mayday Trust, a provider of homelessness services. This approach was adopted by Mayday after they listened to the people they work with, and were told that services were consistently re-traumatising and harming people.
People accessing these services said they weren’t listened to. They said that services focused only on a perception that something was wrong with them, and that they were never asked what they needed or wanted.
From these early conversations, PTS coaches were born. In Platfform, we are implementing some pilots of asset coaches, following the same approach, but within the mental health and supported housing sector, rather than just homelessness.
Making space for relationships
The central idea of the PTS, when taken back to basics, is that of relationships. Positive, healing relationships are a key component in creating, with people, a secure base to reconnect and rebuild their life in the way they want to build it.
Positive relationships have been talked about for a long time in housing and support. It’s not a new idea. However, with each year we see more often that our systems get in the way of building positive relationships.
We celebrate the people who manage to claw themselves out of our broken system, with its deficit-based services, and we lament the people that we’ve failed along the way. We try to find new ways of working, new models, new structures… anything to shatter the barriers we’ve built between “us” and “them”, between “good” and “bad”, between “damaged” and “whole”. Perhaps we adopt ACEs checklists, or a trauma-informed approach. However we do it, we are yet to genuinely move beyond stigmatisation and othering.
We are always so close to an answer, but we’ve never found the answer. And that’s because there isn’t one.
That’s harsh, and possibly difficult to read. But asset coaching isn’t the answer. Local area coordination isn’t the answer. Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE) aren’t the answer. Not on their own.
Relationships are the answer. How we build them, how we maintain them, how we repair them, how we end them, how we navigate them, and how we heal from them.
This is a significant cultural shift; it’s not about box ticking and creating new processes – it’s a way of being. Our tools can help us get there but they are only useful if they support us to build those relationships. Sometimes, these tools are only helpful in getting the system out of its own way, so that relationships can become the central focus of everything we do.
This is why we were so keen to pilot asset coaching. Not because it is a revolutionary “model” or because it’s an exciting “new” thing, but because we saw it as one way to break through process and reductionism to make space for relationships.
A learning process
Asset coaching is about building positive relationships with people who are likely to have had lots of negative experiences of them – so it’s important people set their own goals, at their own pace. We can sometimes guide when we’re asked to, and we can use our connections, knowledge and power to broker opportunities or even referrals. We can listen, we can be there with the person while they struggle, and we can nudge a little through encouragement and trust.
We don’t have support sessions, we have conversations. We avoid home visits and instead go for walks or coffee. We connect people to the world around them – if they want to connect!
Our whole focus is to eventually fade into the background, having facilitated someone to lead their own journey – with themselves, others, and/or their community.
Things still get in the way, though. To work in this way in our pilots, we’ve had to work very closely alongside, and build similar relationships with, our commissioners. They’ve learnt the importance and benefits of needing to get out of the way a bit and being flexible within their own structures, processes and expectations.
We’ve had to challenge our own processes and policies too. We’ve had to recognise where we’ve been doing things that just add bureaucracy, or that ‘do to’ people rather than ‘do with’, and that take away individual control and agency.
Yes, that has meant changes to risk assessment processes, lone working policies, non-engagement letters, referrals, and much more. And we’ve barely scratched the surface of the changes we would like to make.
But we’re learning to better connect, too, and just as we don’t rush the people we work with, we can’t rush ourselves either.
This is why asset coaching is very different; we are learning as much from our coaching as we hope those receiving coaching are. We are in this together. There is not us and them. We are holding a mirror up to our own organisational challenges, and we are trying to tackle those challenges as we go.
Are we being successful? Well, I often quote a useful saying: “what counts cannot always be counted, and what can be counted doesn’t always count.” But in terms of things we can measure in numbers, haven’t had a single eviction in our coaching cohort over the last 18 months, wellbeing scores are increasing and we are seeing lower levels of reported “need” in the people we work with.
Using this approach, we are also able to better meet the needs of people who require far more time to build trust and connection than the system generally allows. Typically, these people would be described as having made “no progress”. But this just means that it’s even more important not to write off or downplay the communication that has happened. Sometimes we’re seeing relationships where people maintain communication for months through nothing more than text messages – but for some people, that is the longest and most stable relationship they have had for a long time.
Through trust, clear boundaries, and honesty, we have seen people make huge progress, but in their own time and in their own way. And this is great, because this means we are being truthful and honest, which is key to role modelling healthy and secure relationships.
Our current and past connectedness is a better predictor of our wellness than our history of adversity. What we have been able to offer is genuine opportunities for connection.
So, when we were asked “I don’t have to engage?” we didn’t say, “no, but actually we still need to show some progress within six months, twelve months and twenty-four months…”
We just said “no.” And we really meant it.
Oliver Townsend is the Head of Partnerships and Practice at Platfform, and is the Wales lead for the New System Alliance.
This blog aims to capture the reasons why Platfform are piloting a new way of working, and poses some challenges for our sector and systems.
You can contact him over email here.