a grey tower block in Birmingham

Talking to Tenants

As I developed a skill in delivering training, I was encouraged to read ‘The Games People Play’ (1964) by Eric Berne. This is one of the few books that I have returned to repeatedly and one of the few I have lent or given to people several times with the promise ‘it will change your life!’ It offers an amazing insight into human interactions and relationships. Berne suggests that all people are intrinsically ok and Instead of playing ‘zero sum’ games (with a clear winner), people prefer to play transactional games, from which both participants get some psychological validation. Berne explains that there are three ego states: the parent, the adult and child and highlights some classic games such as ‘Now I’ve Got You’ and ‘See What You Made Me Do’ that we play through our lives. It highlighted how much manipulation features in our daily lives, the importance of adult to adult communication and sparked an interest in human behaviour for me.

With this heightened awareness, I tried to change the rules of the interactions I had at work. As a Local Housing manager in Birmingham City Council, remembered the Tenancy Review Meetings were a ‘zero-sum’ highly powered parent/child game. As part of the litigation process, tenants had the option to meet a representative of their landlord (me) to discuss their case in person. I had the option to delay or even stop further escalation. I felt like an un-reconstructed Scrooge. Mean and grasping and totally selfish for having to judge people I desperately wanted to help. I agreed with Berne that everyone thinks for themselves, are responsible and grow and develop when encouraged.

a grey tower block in Birmingham
Osbourne Tower, Birmingham 2011

I decided I would change this game to a communication between two adults. I was limited to where and when I could hold the meeting, but would set the room up so that there was no power dynamic on display, I would read the papers before they came in and put them with my laptop out of sight on the seat next to me. I would offer a handshake (I believed this could tell you a lot about a person). Sometimes they were just out of prison – “Just trying to go straight for my kids Mr Brown” or were abused, bereaved or victims of abuse, lost their jobs or coming through a broken relationship. We would sit around the table as equals and agree a way for us to reduce the rent arrears.

But the reviews were still ineffective. Tenants would not turn up for appointments which they had requested and most of those who did went to court a few months later, their arrears increasing. I just could not understand why I was misreading my tenants. Berne cautions against changing the roles. But I didn’t think shifting from parent/child to adult/adult would cause any tensions. I felt I had been lied to and became frustrated – the tenants did not behave as I expected them to. Perhaps they were like naughty children who simply could not manage their own lives. Difficulties with a tenancy could be an indication of other problems, but without supporting information from other agencies, I had to base my judgement on the tenant’s Tenancy record and whatever they provided at our meeting. I decided that I just wasn’t in a position to help those who needed it. So, I just did what everyone expected. Asked a few questions, listened, and gave a stiff warning to ‘straighten up and fly right’ and the ‘responsibility’ of being a tenant.

I listened to Malcolm Gladwell on excellent Adam Buxton Podcast talking about his book ‘Talking to Strangers’ (2020) and how humans have real difficulties reading strangers. Malcolm Gladwell is an extraordinarily gifted pop-psychology writer. Unlike Eric Berne, he is not a scientist, nor does he claim to be. I wondered if he could offer an insight into the failure of my reviews.

Gladwell takes a different view on human interactions to the super-optimistic Berne. Gladwell believes that as humans, we default to truth. We want to believe what strangers tell us. We also expect strangers to be transparent in their gestures. It all gets complicated because some people do not follow accepted societal prompts to signal their true emotions, making them ‘mismatched’ and unreadable. Pathological liars also use these signals to evade scrutiny. Gladwell explains that meeting people only serves to create ‘noise’ in which a person’s true signal is lost.

Newspaper headline declares: Toad Arrested!
Mr Toad: Posh Noise Creator

My favourite example of someone who is adept at creating this ‘noise’ is Mr Toad in Wind in the Willows. Mr Toad has been behaving very badly and his friend Badger takes him aside for an overdue telling off. Throughout, Mr Toad can be heard howling with abject repentance, but when later asked to confirm his regret to his friends, he refuses. He explains ‘but in there Badger, I’d say anything!’ Although only able to think in the short-term, Mr Toad knows how to get out of the uncomfortable situation he is in now and will happily reprise his anguished regret before a judge in a few months’ time.

Thinking how difficult it is for us to identify liars in our own lives highlights the phenomena of modern politicians. There seems to be less independent thinking today, and they use this to their advantage. Gladwell explains how several senior British politicians fatally misread Adolf Hitler after spending considerable time with him. Hitler gave the right signals to ensure that his observers assumed his transparency and defaulted to truth when forming their judgements of him. There is a point at which we do see liars for what they really are, but they get to wreak havoc while we get there. That is what makes powerful liars so dangerous if they’re not exposed.

Of course, neither Mr Toad or Hitler had a council house in Birmingham, and they represent two extremes of behaviours, but both would have known the game and how to play it – and me. Within a few months, Mr Toad would be up to his old tricks, and under Hitler’s government I would probably be separated from my family and quietly murdered in an institution. I accept that it is very difficult to read strangers, but I didn’t believe most of my tenants were remotely like those two. Gladwell suggests that even with full support, upon meeting an individual, I would only have a slightly increased success rate of identifying a ‘good’ tenant than I would by blind chance. A computer algorithm that made judgements based on payment history would perform better. Was there something else happening?

Sylvia Plath

Gladwell believes there is a final cause for our misreading of strangers. Using the compelling examples of poet Sylvia Plath and policing tactics in America, he warns that by failing to account for the contextual factors that that ‘couple’ people to certain behaviours, we miss still more of the bigger picture. I think Eric Berne would have agreed and put it like this: There is a larger game with very clearly defined roles that the tenants were already playing, sometimes had been for generations.

POVERTY.

It was within this dysfunctional world of hardship that we played the Tenancy Review sub-game, that’s why I couldn’t make it work. This was 2010 and only the beginning of Austerity, the entire structure was already creaking. The benefits system was already difficult to navigate and even punitive for tenants with low or no income and set to increase with the implementation of Universal Credit. Many tenants lived in high-rise blocks or on estates in unpleasant conditions. The best properties had been snapped up by ‘right to buy’ in the eighties and never replaced. The tenancy review was just a formality on the journey to eviction for the poorest and everyone except me knew that.

The problem of rent arrears is so much bigger, whatever support council tenants needed, it wasn’t me lecturing them on the importance of maintaining their tenancy, it was and still is real change. The reversal of poverty through a massive increase of affordable housing, a supportive benefits system and properly funded public services. If tenants were freed from the constraints of poverty, rent arrears and many other problems would disappear.

Richard Brown

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