Using the MECC Approach to Tackle Social Isolation and Loneliness
By applying the principles of Making Every Contact Count (MECC), we can use the many interactions we all have to start a conversation that can enable us spot the signs of loneliness and help build more meaningful connections so people feel less isolated.
In any conversation, a person can feel heard, empathised with, and respected. In listening and recognising another human being you are helping to alleviate loneliness.
There are a few MECC style ‘conversation openers’ we can try when talking to people to raise and explore the topic of loneliness’. In the example below these ‘conversation openers’ have been dovetailed with a structure you can use from Gerard Egan’s ‘skilled helper’ model, this model has been used and integrated into many different professional domains.
Stage 1 - What is Happening? (Exploring)
The following are examples of conversational explorers questions that you can use to build upon the persons knowledge and strengths whilst offering support/help that is appropriate, personalised and actionable for them.
Remember, this is about taking opportunities that may come up in conversation and showing that you are interested in ‘what is happening’ to them right now.
Example conversational exploring questions:
- What do you like to do with your time?
- What hobbies or interests do you have?
- How often would you say you do your hobbies or social activities?
- How do you feel about how you spend your time?
- How would you describe your network of friends and family?
- Which friends or family members could you turn to for support if you needed it?
Top tips – Try and keep your ‘conversation starters’ open using questions that start with What, How, Where, When and Why etc.
Step 1: Facilitate the person to tell their story, to review their loneliness and what is happening now
Step 2: What is it the person is not seeing? Are there aspects of the problem that are not acknowledged, are there opportunities that are unidentified or unused?
Step 3: There may be multiple dimensions to a person’s loneliness (multiple aspects of the problem), and multiple opportunities to address them. Help the person to identify the ‘right’ part of the problem, and the right opportunities – what is it that will make a difference to them?
The initial conversation starters will help you to gain an understanding of the world around this person and what is they are experiencing and feeling. At this stage you are not looking to offer solutions, the most important part of this is listening to their story whilst asking permission to ask further questions.
Top tip – Reflecting back your understanding in order to demonstrate your interest in the persons story whilst establishing a full picture of what matters to them.
Top tip - We can encourage the person to tell their story, listening to them to allow them to review their loneliness and what is happening now.
Stage 2 - What solutions are there? (Scoping solutions)
There are many triggers for loneliness, some of which may be transient or temporary but are defined by a gap between the contacts we have and the contacts we desire.
When loneliness is more long-standing or chronic, the negative thoughts and feelings which are commonly experienced can become ingrained and affect how people behave – often making them withdraw further and avoid others. There are techniques that can help to interrupt the negative thinking and gain more control.
Within your conversations you can explain that thoughts, feelings and behaviours are linked. You can encourage people to reflect on their situation and try to identify negative thinking patterns. You can explain that changing the way you think can help to change how you feel.
For people with severe or complex loneliness, there are useful psychological techniques which can help when delivered by trained practitioners. If people have not used counselling or talking therapies before they may need support to seek help and explanation about what would be involved.
Step 1: Encourage the person to think about what would make a difference to how they feel. For example:
- identify one thing that makes them feel good at the moment that they want to keep doing
- help them imagine a different future and feel hopeful about change.
Step 2: Help the person select realistic goals that fit the problems and opportunities identified in Stage 1. The goals should be the individual’s (not the helper’s)
Step 3: Help the person identify the incentives in tackling their loneliness: what benefits will accrue for the person? Are there factors that make change necessary?
Example Conversational solutions questions
- How would you like things to be?
- What would you like to be doing differently, and how would you feel about that?
- What would make a difference to you?’
- Are there people who model what you would like to be doing/how you would like it to be?
- What needs to happen for (the change) to take place?
- What do you think stops you from making that change?
Top tip - Help people to understand their own circumstances and plan their own solutions. It is important that any goals come from the individual, be wary or making suggestions about what we think they should/could do!
Top tip - By asking ‘what matters to you?’ we can support people to find their own ways of address feelings of loneliness.
If through the conversations people share there are changes the person would like to make to increase their social contact, we can reassure people and help them take the first steps to reconnecting to the support they need.
Stage 3 - What do I do? - (Action)
Step 1: Help the person imagine a different future and feel hopeful about change.
Step 2: Help the person select realistic goals that fit the problems and opportunities
identified in Stage 1. The goals should be the individual’s (not the helper’s)
Step 3: Help the person to construct a plan that maps out where the person wants to get to
There are many aspects of this plan that people can action themselves, this for example could be taking small steps to contact an organisation linked to their hobbies/interests, phoning someone they have lost touch with or planning to meet someone for a coffee etc.
Example Conversational action questions
- How would you like things to be?
- What would you wish to be doing differently, and how would you feel about it?
- Are there people who model what you would like to be doing/how you would like to be?
Top tip – You can use this stage to discuss and strengthen goal setting connections, promote self-care and where appropriate to signpost people to sources of help and support
Top tip – Try and familiarise yourself with some of the services available if your area, many are run by voluntary organisations in the heart of our communities.