The 1-on-1 organizing conversation is the heart of grassroots organizing. I’d go so far as to claim that if someone is trying to organize but is not using 1-on-1s, they probably are going to fail or at the very least will not be building towards success in the long-term. In my own personal estimation, it’s not even organizing if it doesn’t center 1-on-1s because 1-on-1s are where deep relationships form that are the foundation for building grassroots power.
How 1-on-1s are done differs somewhat across different organizing traditions and domains, but the core elements of 1-on-1s in each tradition are largely the same. Many of these techniques were developed in labor organizing but are just as commonly used today in community organizing as well.
As a basic definition, 1-on-1 organizing conversations are talks you have with someone to 1) build a relationship of trust, 2) identify common grievances and interests, and 3) move with them from a place of inaction to one of action.
Despite how important the skills of doing 1-on-1s are, this information exists mostly in the form of long trainings and in the heads of experienced organizers. This makes it inaccessible for many.
There’s no replacement for an in-person training where you get to practice these skills in roleplays and get immediate feedback. With that qualification, this series of posts are directed at two audiences interested in organizing: those for whom long, in-person trainings are inaccessible, and those who want to supplement and continue deepening their thinking on the topic. While anyone with brief exposure to this model can start using it to good effect, becoming proficient takes a lot of practice and mastering it is a life-long pursuit. This post presents a basic overview of the prototypical 1-on-1 organizing conversation, and I will go into further detail and related discussions in subsequent blog posts.
My first organizing campaign
Almost every version of the 1-on-1 framework is explained as a series of steps in a conversation. As a member of the United Students Against Sweatshops in college I learned a 9 step version:
2. Get their story
5. Pop the question
7. Set task
8. Get contact info
After I learned this I started seeing it everywhere. The day after I attended a training where I learned these steps a canvasser walked up to me on the street to try to get a donation for some cause, and they used this framework exactly as I had just learned about it. I felt as if I had gained a new super-power and was now able to decode the way political engagement was done.
I started using it myself in my conversations with other students on my campus as we built a campaign to remove sweatshop labor from university-branded clothing. It worked. Over the course of a few years myself and two others started out from scratch and built a group that had dozens of members, hosted educational events and disruptive actions with 100s people, and won our demands.
From the outside, this kind of campaign is perceived as consisting solely of large public events and direct actions. Those who run a campaign from beginning to end know that it’s all built upon solid relationships of people who care about the core issues, and that the most essential parts of those relationships are built through repeated 1-on-1 conversations.
Setting up a 1-on-1
To use 1-on-1 conversations successfully, you have to be able to get people to meet up with you. The best way to do this is in the context of a real relationship you’re building with someone. I’ll use a workplace organizing as the reference point for the remainder of this article, but most of the concepts apply straightforwardly to other organizing contexts as well.
A good organizer is always building relationships with people around them. They talk with people, listen to people, and try to build a culture of care and trust among workers in the workplace. While there are ultimately many different ways you can get to a 1-on-1 organizing conversation with someone, the guidelines below can be helpful.
In the context of an emerging relationship with a coworker, they may mention something about work that bothers them, for example that the scheduling is very chaotic and it makes planning time with their kids challenging. If some coworkers are more guarded, you may try to lead with being a little vulnerable yourself and occasionally mention things about work that bother you and how it affects you.
The point at which it is often most effective to ask a coworker to have a 1-on-1 conversation outside of work is that point when they mention a problem that bothers them and you feel like there’s enough mutual trust built up to make such an ask feel relatively normal. In response to the grievance they mention you can say something like, “The scheduling sounds like it really affects you. I’ve been hearing a lot of people talk about that lately, and it didn’t used to be like this. Would you want to talk more about it after our shift tomorrow at the cafe down the street?”
Being specific about the time and place increases the chances of people following through. While it’s worthwhile to build a culture of good communication among coworkers on the job, it’s also important to have these deeper conversations outside of work to avoid bosses overhearing it and to give sufficient time to the topics.
I later learned a shorter, 4-step organizing conversation model called AHUY, which stood for Anger, Hope, Union, You, which Labor Notes also uses in its popular Secrets of a Successful Organizer booklet. The steps that organizer and writer Jane McAlevey uses in her trainings are 1) introductions, 2) issues and agitation, 3) vision and education, 4) call the question, 5) inoculation, 6) work assignment.
In noting all these different frameworks, I hope to impress how universal these methods are to people who do grassroots organizing. The Industrial Workers of the World is an anti-capitalist labor union that I’ve spent many years with and their mnemonic, borrowed initially from other labor union trainings, is AEIOU for Agitate, Educate, Inoculate, Organize, Uplift. While I think all of the different frameworks offer essentially the same thing, I personally favor AEIOU because it’s easy to remember.
While AEIOU has a wide range of circumstances it can be applied to, my reference point here is in the context of a conversation you have with a coworker or neighbor early in the process of their getting involved. I call it the “initial coworker 1-on-1”. For ease of presentation, AEIOU is assumed here to take place in the course of a single conversation, but as often as not it’s a spread out conversation that happens over the course of multiple conversations and multiple 1-on-1s.
Before getting the main attraction, there’s one more crucial preliminary point: the 70/30 rule. In organizing conversations, you, the organizer, should be talking 30% of the time and listening and asking questions 70% of the time. The most common and yet damaging mistake organizers make is talking too much. It communicates to the person you’re talking with that your own thoughts are more important than their experiences, concerns, and ideas. Organizing isn’t about telling people what to do but rather about processing our collective experiences and together moving towards collective solutions through direct action. For our campaigns to be democratic, this process has to sincerely involve everyone’s contributions, which means organizers need to become good listeners.
Ok. Here we go.
The agitate step of the organizing conversation is made up of two parts: 1. finding the issues that affect someone, and 2. bringing to the surface how it affects them.
Sometimes when you go into a 1-on-1 conversation with someone, they’ve told you before what their main grievance is, and in such cases you can go directly into exploring the effects of the problem. Sometimes, however, you don’t know what someone’s issue is, or you think you know but you’re actually mistaken. There are many ways to ask someone what bothers them at work, but the most direct way I’ve found is to ask, “If you could change three things about your work, what would they be?” Their response to that will often give you a good idea of their grievances.
After you have an idea of what someone’s grievance is, the next task is to work with them to bring to the surface how that grievance is affecting the person. Some people are very aware of the effects that work has on them, and are very open about it. Most people, however, are not so self-aware. This isn’t to say that that makes someone stupid or arrogant. Speaking for myself, only through organizing, therapy, and deep conversations with close friends have I slowly become aware of some of the deeper tensions that animate my insecurities, frustration, and anger in the world. Through organizing I’ve become more aware of the effects of work on my emotional, economic, and social life.
So this is the essential tension of this part of the conversation: 1) Under capitalism, most of us have jobs that negatively affect us in serious ways. 2) Under capitalism, we have to keep going to work in order to keep getting paychecks to afford what we need. 3) Most workers cope with this tension in the short-term by consciously ignoring pain or subconsciously blunting our feelings about how we’re being affected so that we can continue doing our work. Plainly, no one is going to put any effort into solving their problems if they don’t give them proper consideration. So the first step to confronting this negative dynamic in the long-term is openly recognizing and explicitly identifying how harmful our workplaces can be to us. It is the organizer’s task in agitating to work towards this recognition with others.
Once an issue is identified in the conversation, the organizer can help stimulate conversation about the personal effects of that issue with open-ended questions. Some example questions include: “How does that make you feel?” “And then what happened?” “How does this impact your ability to do your job?”
As in all parts of AEIOU, active listening is especially crucial here. Let them speak for themselves, but find ways to provide them with more opportunities to do so and more angles from which to see the issues. You don’t want to be prying, but if they seem to be going with the flow of the conversation, try not to settle for surface-level answers to the questions above. If scheduling is the problem, don’t settle for them saying “the scheduling sucks” as a genuine expression of how that affects them. Going deeper is not for the organizers’ sake of knowing all the personal details, but for the sake of the person you’re speaking with to make the necessary connections between their inner lives and their work life. If someone refuses to engage any of these questions, respecting that is the only human thing to do. If your relationship with this person is built on trust and not on wanting to use them for your own narrow political goals, chances are that other opportunities will come up to ask about them a second time or for them to raise them.
On the other hand, sometimes these conversations can get real and people can get emotional and cry. As an organizer, it’s definitely not your job to shove people down an emotional staircase. However, an organizer can open a door and support them in their exploration of their situation and feelings. Validating their feelings and self-worth is important. This is all a delicate balance, of course, and you shouldn’t force yourself or someone else into a headspace that one or both of you can’t handle. As an organizer I’ve too often shied away from deeper conversations because of my fear that I won’t be able to hold space effectively for my or other people’s emotions. To overcome this I’ve had to encourage myself to be vulnerable and to know how to listen and give support during tough moments.
Once you feel like the real substance of the effects of an issue have been discovered, you never want to leave the conversation in such a drained state. You always want to be able to get to what can be done about the issue, which is what “educate” is all about. While the other parts of the conversation can be had in fragments or even out of order, it’s important to always follow up agitate with educate.
The educate part of AEIOU is about finding how collective action can solve the problem. Educate can be subdivided into three main questions.
First, “what would fix the problem?” Sometimes that’s all the organizer has to ask. If the problem is erratic and last-minute scheduling, maybe you discover through conversation that getting your schedule two weeks in advance would solve the problem.
Second, “who can give us what we want?” In the case of scheduling, maybe it’s the shift manager. Of course, the CEO could probably also fix the problem for you, but as a rule of thumb it’s easiest and most effective to target the lowest boss in the hierarchy who can reasonably give in to your demand.
Third, “what collective action can you take to force the boss to fix the problem?” With bad scheduling, perhaps the answer is to get all of your coworkers to go together to tell your supervisor that you all need two weeks notice. Perhaps the solution is that workers collectively start to refuse to work shifts that don’t work for their schedules because they weren’t given enough notice.
Sharing stories of other organizing efforts can be a powerful way to suggest ideas about collective action. In the scheduling example, if you know of any other examples where workers took action on a scheduling issue and won, you can share that as an example and follow it up with, “Do you think that would work here?” You don’t want stories to be pre-packaged action plans, but rather channels to think through what might be effective in your own context.
Sometimes in the educate step you are able to draw up together all the plans you need, and sometimes you just come up with a rough sketch of ideas to start with.
The boss reacts. The boss always reacts, which is why organizers need tools to anticipate and prepare for the boss’s counter-offensive in whatever form it takes.
In AEIOU, we talk about this in terms of inoculation, which is a medical term used to describe the way a person is given a mild version of a disease as a way to build up their body’s defenses, like a vaccine. To inoculate a coworker means talking with them about what the boss will do in response to the actions and organizing of the workers.
An easy way to start this part of the conversation is to ask, “What do you think the boss will do if we do what we just talked about?” Workers tend to have pretty good instincts about this, and will often come up with likely retaliations that the boss will attempt, including ‘small’ things like moving their shifts around or taking away perks to life-altering things like cutting hours or firing workers. Only the most reckless and irresponsible organizers proceed to take collective action without first having real conversations with their coworkers about risks and how to minimize them. But when inoculation is done correctly, workers can not only see through the boss’s schemes and propaganda but can become further emboldened with their knowledge that when workers are truly organized the boss’s power shrivels up.
Inoculate has two parts: 1) Anticipating and preparing for what the boss will do, and 2) addressing people’s fears. I’ve touched briefly on the first part and will postpone a fuller treatment to a stand-alone post, but the second part is no less crucial.
Most bosses rule through fear in one form or another. Sometimes that rule comes with a smile and a soft expectation of obedience, and sometimes that rule comes from an iron fist that resorts to force early and quick. People’s fears are often entirely rational and deeply rooted in their personal experience of their job. These fears need to be validated. Through patient discussion and time for processing, people can weigh the risks and benefits of asserting themselves through action.
Sometimes coworkers can talk through different actions or levels of participation that entail differing degrees of risk so that everyone can participate in a way that is both effective and reasonably safe. Sometimes when a coworker is dependent on wages to feed a family they may decide to stay on the sidelines for the present. That’s actually totally ok, and people will be much more willing to stay in relationship with you and possibly get involved later if they know you are willing to respect the things that they worry about. Sometimes when people go through AEIOU they conclude that their boss is the enemy and the dignity that comes with asserting worker power is more important than the material risks they face.
Organize is about finding ways for people to participate by taking on tasks that are right for them. How this part of the conversation unfolds depends on where a campaign is at or how involved someone is. If you’re talking to someone who is brand new to action and this is the first time you and your coworkers have talked about taking action at a workplace, the kind of tasks can be as simple as coming to a union meeting or asking a coworker what they think about the scheduling.
Like all parts of 1-on-1s, this part of the conversation is best done as a series of questions and exploring possibilities. “What do you think we’d have to do before we can successfully do [the thing talked about in the educate section]?” “Do you think other coworkers have problems with the scheduling too?” “Would you feel comfortable talking to Tim about this before the end of the week?” And so on.
The uplift part of AEIOU is about follow-through, particularly with talking through obstacles that coworkers may face to completing tasks. Even though you can have a great conversation with someone and go through AEIO without a hitch, sometimes people can see their motivation wane in the days following. There’s a million possible reasons for this, ranging from people getting cold feet or scared to people getting negative feedback from friends or family.
The task of the organizer is to talk through this with your coworkers. People not following through on the tasks they volunteered for is only natural given how complex our lives are and how hostile our society is to people actually standing up for themselves. While following up with a coworker about a task not done can feel uncomfortable and awkward, not following through is often worse because it can communicate to the person that you’re not thinking about them, that you lack confidence in them, or that you don’t think that the task they signed up for is important enough to warrant checking in on.
As always, organizers need to treat people’s concerns with care and try to get to the root of the problem by asking open-ended questions. Whatever the obstacle is, try to work with them to find a way around it. For example, if a worker says they didn’t complete the task of talking with their coworker you could respond with: “Yea, I know it’s a busy time of year. Would it be easier if we waited til the holiday break to try to talk to our coworkers when we might have more time?” Or: “I know talking with coworkers about these issues can be intimidating. Would it be helpful if I joined you in a conversation with Sally about this and we talked it through with her together?” But if they seem resistant or uncomfortable, backing off and respecting their boundaries is often the best thing you can do. As long as your relationship is built on trust and respect, you can return to the task at another time, talk about some other thing they may want to do to get involved, or just stay on good terms with them if they change their mind.
That’s the gist of it, which is all you need to get started. If after this you’re about to have your first 1-on-1, try to think through loosely how each part of AEIOU could go so you have a road map, but be ready to change course as unexpected things inevitably come up. Sometimes I write out an outline in a word document of a 1-on-1 I’m about to have as a way to ground myself and be prepared. You can also find an experienced organizer and try roleplaying through a conversation you might have with a coworker.
Be gentle with yourself as you start using these techniques. Like learning to ride a bike or bake cookies, things can feel shaky at first and you should expect to make mistakes. Even for skilled organizers very rarely does a coworker change their mind completely or dive into organizing after a single conversation, and it’s good to see each of your 1-on-1s as part of the long-game of gradually establishing trusting relationships that are the foundation for analysis of shared conditions and political action. With patience and persistence, there’s no demand too ambitious or action too powerful that can’t be built through 1-on-1 conversations.
In future posts on this topic I hope to dive into more depth on these topics, sharing particular things I’ve found challenging as well as obstacles that I’ve seen others run into. Even though I’ve been to, all told, more than a dozen trainings on 1-on-1s in my life and am now a trainer myself in these skills and even though I’ve done well over 100 1-on-1s myself, I still am constantly seeking out further readings, trainings, and opportunities to improve my skills because I know that I still have so much to learn.