[This is the central post in a series on 1-on-1 conversations. Sign up for email notifications at the bottom of this page or follow me on Twitter to see follow-up posts on this topic.]
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 shared interests, and 3) move together 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 meet up with people outside of work. The best way to do this is in the context of a real relationship you’re building with someone. I’ll use 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.
Sometimes you’ll want to set up a 1-on-1 with a coworker in response to a grievance that they bring up and that you both want to discuss further. 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 create space for deeper conversations outside of work to avoid bosses overhearing it and to give sufficient time to the topics.
One thing I’ve become increasingly resolved on, through my own experience and through observing others, is the importance of building your relationships with coworkers usually before jumping into organizing conversations with them. There are times when going straight into organizing conversations is necessary, like when grievances are really intense or when coworkers agree on what to do about an urgent workplace problem. However, 90% of the time it is better to meet up with a coworker outside of work just get to know them first.
This has many benefits. First, newer organizers shouldn’t have to stress out about applying all of the conversation steps in the right way the first time you meet up to talk with someone, and thus you can build your comfort level and trust with someone more naturally. Second, coworkers are unlikely to engage you on a lot of these questions if they don’t know you very well, so spending time building the relationship is plainly more effective in the long-term anyway. While organizing trainings and manuals focus on the steps of organizing conversations, which are very important, it’s all too easy to want to rush toward some imagined political solution and forget that organizers and coworkers are human and that the best way to build any collective project is to first nurture the relationships upon which organizing is built.
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 and trainings. 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 in this post is in the context of a conversation you have with a coworker or neighbor in the process of your getting to know them. 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 more often than not it’s spread out over the course of multiple conversations and multiple 1-on-1s.
Before getting to 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 experiences and together moving towards practical solutions through collective 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. identifying the issues, and 2. bringing to the surface how they affects the workers.
Sometimes when you go into a 1-on-1 conversation with someone, they’ve told you before what their main grievance is, like in the scheduling example above, and in such cases you can go directly into exploring the effects of the problem.
Sometimes, however, someone seems agitated about something at work but you don’t know what it is, or you think you know but you’re actually mistaken. If you get into a 1-on-1 with someone and they haven’t talked about a grievance in such a way that’s made it clear, it’s often best to get to the agitation part of a conversation naturally during the course of just talking with them about work in general. This entails just asking questions like how long they’ve worked there, what’s changed over the years, how they got into this kind of work, what do they like about the job, etc…
If grievances don’t come up directly but you get the sense there’s something beneath the surface, you can try to be more direct: “If you could change one thing about your work, what would it be?” Of course, if they’re not in the mood to talk about specific problems at work, just being able to talk with a coworker about work in general can be a positive way to develop a relationship and open up communication with someone. Maybe at a later point when mutual trust is more established they will come find you when they need to talk about a problem.
But if they have identified a grievance, the next task is discover and process how that grievance is affecting them. Some people are very aware of the effects that work has on them and are very open about it. But the norm, in my experience, is that people are not so self-aware and forthcoming. This isn’t to say that that makes someone ignorant or diffident. 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.
This is the essential tension of this part of the conversation: 1) Under capitalism, most of us have jobs that negatively affect us in various 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 the true effect that our jobs have on 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: “And then what happened?” “Did you think this is what it would be like?” “How does this impact your ability to do your job?” “How does that make you feel?” “Am I right that I’m hearing you say [summarize back to them what they said]?”
As in all parts of AEIOU, active listening is 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 move on after hearing surface-level answers to the questions above. If scheduling is the problem, them saying “the scheduling sucks” is not a genuine expression of how that affects them. Exploring further 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 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.
While I think it’s very useful to be able to wear the “organizer hat” to be able to help others process their emotions about work, when you have good relationships with coworkers and are honest with each other about job issues it’s often them that will be agitating you. As organizers, we often want to do things carefully, but when the boss does something terrible it’ll often be your coworkers who come to you saying that enough is enough. They’ll be the ones pushing you through the agitate part of AEIOU and onto the next steps. As a good organizer with trusting relationships in the workplace, you don’t have to be the one dictating every step of the conversation, and rather, oftentimes you’ll be the one following your coworkers through agitate onto educate rather than leading them.
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 fix 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 to take action and win and sometimes you just come up with a rough sketch of ideas to start with. You might discover that the immediate grievance, like the lack of an affordable healthcare plan at a large company, is a bigger issue than you and the coworkers you’re talking with can tackle in the near future. New knowledge is never a bad thing, and being able to learn what the issues are and how they affect people will always help your organizing even if it doesn’t reveal an easy path to a victory. The point of organizing is not that you can fix everything from where you start out, but that in dialogue with your coworkers you can acquire a more comprehensive view of the problems you face collectively, of what can be won with the power you can assemble in the short-term, and of what it looks like to build worker power in the long-term so you can take on progressively larger struggles that make you and your coworkers’ lives better.
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 and potential gains 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 having them ask another 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?” “Who else should we talk to about this?” “Would you be willing to talk to Tom?” And so on.
In contrast, if you’re talking with a coworker in the midst of deep unrest at the workplace and you’re all about to take an action together after having extensive agitate-educate-inoculate conversations, the Organize question might be, “When we walk into the boss’s office tomorrow at 9:30am, would you be willing to be the one to present the petition?”
The uplift part of AEIOU is about following up with people about particular tasks and checking in with them in general. 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 after the 1-on-1. There’s a million possible reasons for this, including people getting cold feet if they dwell on the possible backlash or questioning their commitment after hearing negative feedback about organizing from friends or family.
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 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.
Beyond checking in with people about specific tasks, it’s crucial to build a culture where people are regularly checking in with each other in general. Best practices on this that I’ve learned and gathered from others include asking people “How do you feel about X?” to give them the space to share what they’re going through and show that you care about their feelings; sometimes adding the “no really” before “how do you feel” to give people the opening to be honest in case they want to be; having that person or two in your organizing circles you know you can go to about more sensitive things; giving people the space to say “no” to a task or to step back from things if they need to; staying in touch with people even if they don’t come around for a while. Of course, all of these methods only work when there’s a degree of trust to begin with, but each of these builds trust in turn.
How to Use AEIOU
AEIOU in its literal and linear form is most useful when a group of coworkers are all agitated together, are motivated to do something about it, and have a clear target and demand. Once when there was a major shared grievance at my workplace, I had many individual and group conversations with coworkers in my department over the course of a few days, we went through AEIOU almost exactly like how it’s presented above, we settled on an action plan, and carried it out. Then we won. I was surprised that AEIOU worked exactly as I had learned it.
However, in my few years of organizing at that workplace, opportunities for such an immediate, literal, and linear application of AEIOU had only arisen a couple of times. And while AEIOU was incredibly useful in those circumstances, it’s important to remember that what made it possible was the strong relationships my coworkers and I had built with each other over those years. When a grievance got hot and we all got upset, we trusted each other enough to talk through everything and take action together despite the risks.
For the 95% of the time at work when we’re not all unified around an obvious and singular grievance, I’ve found it helpful to take a more fluid approach with AEIOU. The top priority is always to be building healthy and multi-dimensional relationships with coworkers. When conversations naturally veer into issues about work, I weave in AEIOU to help ground and structure the conversation. But in less urgent circumstances, AEIOU is often applied in a more ad hoc fashion. I still find AEIOU incredibly useful, but instead of moving towards an action to be taken tomorrow, it’s much more like a months- or years-long process of discussing issues to gradually form deeper understandings with coworkers about how the workplace is structured, who has power in the workplace, and how that power can be exercised. This slowly nudges things towards and greases the gears for when a collective action does become practical and immediate.
That’s the gist of it, which is all you need to get started. In future posts on this topic I hope to dive into more depth, 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 done well over 100 1-on-1s myself, I know I have so much more to learn. As a trainer myself now, I’ve frequently had to re-think elements of 1-on-1s to better reflect the circumstances of my organizing. In processing organizing experiences with others, I’ve repeatedly re-written this post to better reflect the values and acquired wisdom of the community of organizers I’m a part of.
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 seasoned 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 care over the long haul, there’s no demand too ambitious or action too grand that can’t be built through 1-on-1 conversations.
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