[This post is part of a series on 1-on-1 organizing conversations.]
There are many different kinds of 1-on-1 organizing conversations.
In the previous and first post in this series, I introduced the AEIOU (agitate-educate-inoculate-organize-uplift) framework and showed how to use it in the context of meeting up with a coworker for the first time who has a grievance that they may want to take action on. In many ways, that’s the most important kind of 1-on-1 because it’s where we first connect our social relationship with someone to a shared political project based on shared circumstances. I’ll call it the “initial coworker 1-on-1”.
When someone finishes an organizer training for the first time they learn how to do that kind of 1-on-1 but such trainings typically include little guidance about how to apply AEIOU and 1-on-1s in other ways. However, organizing involves an unlimited variety of circumstances and as the primary tool of relating deeply to people (and thus of organizing) we need to be able to respond with an unlimited variety of 1-on-1s to meet our needs as organizers. I submit that AEIOU still applies in part or in whole to most of these kinds of 1-on-1s but you do have to be keenly aware of the needs of the moment to know how to use AEIOU in a wide range of situations.
In this post I’m gonna go through some of the other main kinds of 1-on-1s and briefly touch on how AEIOU applies to each one. Certainly the survey provided here will be lacking many details but I hope it provides some tools for thinking creatively about each 1-on-1 you have and how to make the most of them. Furthermore, I think each of the 1-on-1 types described below apply to circumstances that are common enough that experienced organizers make use of all of them on a regular basis.
The Relationship Building 1-on-1
There are many different kinds of situations where it’s just good to meet up with a coworker for the first time and just talk about work and/or life without needing to intentionally try to go through AEIOU (this is the only time you don’t need to remember how to do it!). For example, if your workplace doesn’t feel like it’s boiling over you may have more time to get to know people, and conversely you might need more time to get to know people better before they feel comfortable sharing their grievances. Some people are just more private in general, and getting to know them more before trying to organize with them might be a necessary step (which is often ignored unfortunately).
The strategies for this kind of 1-on-1 are nothing unique to organizing per se. Ask how they came to be where they are (at this job, or in this neighborhood, etc…), what they look forward to in life, what they like to talk about, and find out what you have in common with them.
A common experience of people new to organizing is that they feel stuck and not sure where or how to start. Getting to know your coworkers by meeting up with them is never a bad place to start, is low-pressure and not super-complicated, and can lay the groundwork for later AEIOU conversations. Oftentimes, once you actually get to know your coworkers the next steps in organizing start to become clear.
Another way to build relationships with people before trying to organize with them is to socialize with them in group settings, like going out to dinner with coworkers after a shift (I discuss this as a helpful prelude to organizing here). Another more involved approach of this kind was taken by one of my organizer friends who would invite small groups of different coworkers to her house for dinner on a regular basis as a way to get to know people. Those relationships were later absolutely essential in winning a union recognition campaign and then a contract campaign in a workplace context where unionism wasn’t initially seen as appealing to people.
Of course, if a relationship building 1-on-1 veers towards talking about problems at work, that can be a perfect opportunity to jump into the standard AEIOU framework. Getting to know coworkers is something overly-eager and narrow-minded organizers sometimes neglect as they try to push an agenda on those around them and then inevitably fail as others feel used or devalued. But when done with sincerity and genuine interest in your coworkers as people, getting to know them is the most rewarding part as well as essential to radical change.
The Contract Campaign 1-on-1 (or where demands are already established)
Sometimes when you’re organizing there is already a clearly established set of demands. This is often the case in a union contract campaign that already has a list of demands. Or even if you’re taking action outside of a contract campaign maybe you’re with a group of coworkers who have already articulated a main grievance, formulated a demand around it, and are reaching out to other coworkers to get them on board.
In such cases, the educate part of the conversation with someone looks different than in the initial coworker 1-on-1.
Taking a contract campaign example first, veteran organizer Jane McAlevey talks about these extensively in her webinars and writings and I’ll summarize some of her points here. In agitate you still ask them about what they would change at work. Hopefully, the union you’re with has done a good job researching grievances in the workplace, getting widespread feedback from workers, and has skillfully captured it in a solid set of contract demands. Then when the person you’re talking with lists the grievances they have, the contract will likely address those grievances. As the organizer, your job in educate then is to show what the existing demands are and ask if those would help address their problems at work. You can then lay out what the contract campaign looks like and talk about ways they can get involved. McAlevey is great about using phrases that reinforce that their grievances are their coworkers’ grievances too and that the only way to solve those grievances is to come together with your coworkers to stand up for what you deserve.
If in this kind of 1-on-1 someone identifies a grievance of theirs that isn’t addressed in the current contract demands, you have a couple ways to pivot after you validate their grievance. First, you can say that that’s an important issue and that you should come to our next meeting so we can talk about how to include it in our contract demands. If that’s not possible in the current contract fight, you can talk about how that grievance could be included in the next contract. Lastly, perhaps there’s space to just organize the rank-and-file at the workplace to take action on that demand outside of the scope of the contract campaign.
In the second case, where the demand is already chosen but you’re not in a contract campaign-like situation, perhaps you’re approaching the rest of your coworkers about taking action around a demand that’s already been decided. Of course, you ideally want to include as many people who are affected by an issue in the initial formulation of a demand, but that’s not always possible, so sometimes you have to go to people to get buy-in from them without their having already helped form the demand.
As an example, think of a group of workers at a retail store chain who are pissed off about the lack of health insurance, so they organize all the workers at their store to walk out. But maybe they know they would have a lot more power if they reached out to workers at other store locations to join them. In such cases, you likely already have your demand and you just want to persuade workers at other sites to buy in and join the action.
The agitate step in this situation can lead with “how does the lack of health care affect you?” One of the big rules in the agitate section is to NOT assume that everyone has the same grievances, so you have to prepare for different kinds of responses someone will give to this question. Of course, if they do identify the lack of health insurance as a grievance for them personally, then you proceed as usual to questions about how that affects them before moving onto educate.
But maybe some workers at the other store locations don’t care about the lack of health care personally because they get healthcare through a spouse’s plan. It should be obvious that the wrong thing to do here is to tell people that actually the lack of health insurance is their grievance because that’s just not true. Instead, some follow-up questions might redirect to, “what would happen if you were no longer to be on your spouse’s plan?” or “how do you think the lack of insurance affects your coworkers?” and see if they care about any of these angles enough to get involved and take action.
If they still don’t care about the issue, maybe you’re just out of luck in that moment for that particular issue. You can go back and agitate around issues in general to see if they want to get involved in some other organizing, or you can try to find someone else to talk with them who they respect. In any case, you can’t win over everyone, and sometimes you just gotta let it go and move onto the next person.
Organizational Onboarding 1-on-1
Another common use of the 1-on-1 is when someone is joining an organization and you want to talk with them to bring them on board and help find ways for them to participate. AEIOU can look very different than in the standard initial coworker 1-on-1, but there are also some strong similarities. Obviously how AEIOU gets applied will also vary widely depending on the kind of organization you have, and below I draw a generic approach.
Any organization that accepts new members needs a good way to bring them in. I’m thinking here more of cases where someone actively reaches out to the org to get involved, which contrasts with the initial coworker 1-on-1 where you are the one reaching out to them to get them involved with organizing. But just because someone reaches out to your org doesn’t mean that they will get involved or that you should take them for granted. People only truly commit to something if they have feelings about an issue (agitate), have ideas about what to do about it (educate), and have an opportunity to execute those ideas (organize).
As with any 1-on-1, doing introductions and getting to know them is a good place to start. Transitioning into agitate, a good starting question is, “If you could change 3 things about society [or your neighborhood or workplace or whatever it is your org does] what would they be?” In follow-up questions, try to help them zero in on specific things and not just vague generalities. Zeroing in on those parts of their responses that are related to your organization can help set up the transition to educate, but before that you still want to do the standard part of agitate where you explore how that issue affects them.
Naturally, people will feel most involved if the issue that an organization is tackling affects them directly, which is what much of the AEIOU process in the initial coworker example is all about. Still, many people want to get involved with issues that often don’t directly or immediately affect them and they can still be important parts of the orgs and movements that address that issue. In that case, ask follow-up questions about why they care about that issue. For example, maybe they had friends growing up who faced violence from the prison system, and so even though they themselves aren’t directly impacted by the prisons in the present, they still have a personal narrative that shows why they have a stake in the issue. If someone has trouble articulating why they care about an issue personally or what stake they have in it, it’s ok to stay in this part of the conversation as long as it is helpful. If after a few more questions they still don’t have a clear idea, that’s fine, and maybe they’ll discover what the reasons are later or they’ll find some new reasons through organizing.
The educate part of the conversation is, like the contract campaign 1-on-1 example given above, where you talk about what your organization is doing to address the problem while finding ways to ask them questions to allow them to think through the strategy your organization is taking. “Why do you think we don’t just put all of our effort into lobbying the city council on this issue?”
In inoculate you’re not preparing for the backlash of the boss as in the initial coworker 1-on-1, but you just want to find ways to prepare them for any negative things they might hear about the org or any problems they might encounter. “Some people say that not building the new prison will lead to over-crowding at the existing prisons and will inhibit our justice system from being able to properly address crime. How do you think we should respond to those criticisms?”
The organize step is about finding a way to plug them into the work of the organization. This step is usually only successful if they get plugged into the work in the context of a budding relationship with the organizer or other members of the org. Sometimes the person doing the onboarding 1-on-1 will be that person’s contact going forward and will put effort into maintaining that relationship, or the onboarder will know other people in the org who they can hand this person off to along with some notes on what they’re interested in. An effective organization will have structures in place to best facilitate this as well as accommodate people coming in with a range of capacities, skills, and backgrounds.
Relationship Maintaining 1-on-1
Maintenance 1-on-1s are my favorite 1-on-1s! As an introverted person, having 1-on-1s with people who I don’t know as well can be a little nerve-wracking and typical group meetings with many people can be exhausting. But the maintenance 1-on-1s are conversations with people you’ve been organizing with for some time and who you don’t have to worry about finding appropriate way to plug them in. These kinds of 1-on-1s give me all kinds of joy and fuzzy warm feelings. They have two parts: 1) staying in positive and trusting relationship with someone you’ve been organizing with, as well as 2) finding opportunities in that relationship for opening up more reflection on and ideas for advancing the organizing you’re engaged in.
On the first part about maintaining the relationship, the importance of valuing your relationships with other organizers can not be over-emphasized. Organizing can be intense and bring out a lot of emotions and the best way to navigate all of that is to have solid relationships holding your organization together. When I’m involved in an org long-term I try to not let more than a year go by without having a 1-on-1 with someone who I organize with, and prioritize those 1-on-1s more or less depending on how closely I work with someone.
When someone’s around an org for a long time it’s especially important that their involvement maintains meaning for them and that they feel valued and challenged but not pressured. These maintenance 1-on-1s are where you check in on people in a deeper way than in the small interactions you might have with them at meetings.
If you’re around movements long enough, you’ll see people who on the outside look like they are totally bought in to an org but then leave abruptly and unexpectedly. This might be because they’re deeper needs weren’t being respected or met in a way that showed itself on the surface. The maintenance 1-on-1s are where this essential checking in can happen, and allows people to express doubts or fears that they otherwise hide from others. People who have been around a while often feel like they can’t step back or that it’s up to them to keep everything together, but if they’re having problems with capacity or burnout, sometimes the best thing a fellow organizer can do is give them the green light to take some time away or drop out of a subcommittee. If the relationships are deep and trusting, giving people the space they need is of the utmost importance and gives them the best chance for coming back when they’re ready.
The second part of the maintenance 1-on-1 is about organizing, reflection, and AEIOU. When two organizers meet-up for a 1-on-1 like this, it’s only natural that they are looking for ways to advance their organizing by thinking critically together and looking for openings. “Do you think we should try xyz?” “Do you think we should have done abc differently?”
When I’m doing a maintenance 1-on-1 with another long-time organizer, I like to look for branches and forks in the conversation where we might be able to veer off and get into AEIOU to explore strategy and politics. If through dialog some idea comes up that I want to push for, I’ll use that to start AEIOU. For example: Agitate: “What do you think are the effects on our group of not being able to overcome our geographical isolation in the city?” Educate: “Well, what do you think would happen if we focused more on the east side as a way to expand our reach and bridge our neighborhood committees?” Inoculate: “Sure, some people might say we’re spreading ourselves too thin, but do you think the pros would outweigh the cons?” Organize: “I think this is worth trying too. If we each reach out to our co-chairs, we could get an idea of the potential interest in this and check in again with each other next Tuesday. What do you think?”
In the course of your work week you might find yourself in any number of situations where you’re just hanging out with a coworker. For example, maybe you both take your breaks at a cafe across the street, maybe you carpool with a coworker, maybe part of your work with another coworker allows time for chit-chat, maybe there’s time for small talk after the monthly staff meeting, etc…
Usually such occasions are just to chill out with people, but sometimes coworkers bring up grievances in these situations, and as an organizer you can put your AEIOU-hat on. The ideal is to do AEIOU outside of work where you have more time, but sometimes that’s not possible and squeezing mini-AEIOU conversations into small talk can sometimes be a good way to keep the politics of the workplace alive as long as you’re careful to not let the wrong person overhear you.
I personally find ample opportunities for these kinds of 1-on-1s throughout the week, but it’s worth recognizing what’s different about this kind of 1-on-1 from the prototypical initial coworker 1-on-1. First of all, don’t force anything. When people are at work, they often have lots of things on their mind, and you don’t want to be “that” person who’s always trying to jam union conversations into every dang spare moment. These convos happen most naturally when someone else starts venting and you can use it as an opportunity to ask them about it. Second, don’t expect anyone to make to any major revelations in these kinds of 1-on-1s. These are NOT a replacement for the deeper 1-on-1s you can have with coworkers off the job.
With those qualifications noted, the accumulation of these mini-1-on-1s can have notable effects on how people understand dynamics at the workplace and can prime people for deeper 1-on-1s and direct action.
Veteran Member 1-on-1
Sometimes there’s a certain project or strategy you’re trying to launch within your group, and the best way to build support for that is not to just drop it on everyone for the first time in a big meeting of people in the midst of many other agenda items. Rather, the best way to build support for a project is to reach out to long-time members of the group to ask for their feedback and support, and then bring it up in a big meeting for wider democratic discussion and voting only after you’ve workshopped the idea by including the ideas of other respected members and gotten their support. I call this the “veteran member 1-on-1”.
Even though such veteran organizers will be entirely aware of what a 1-on-1 is and of AEIOU (or some equivalent framework), that’s still the best approach to use with them. The best way for me to explain this is as someone who another organizer might come to to seek my feedback and support. If someone comes to me with an idea they have for the organization that they think is important, I want them to have thought through the idea and how to present it. In fact, that’s exactly what AEIOU is about. I want them to agitate me about the problem that their idea addresses because I want to understand the effects on people of this problem and its emotional dimension. I want them to do educate on me because I want them to walk me through how their idea addresses this need. Then I want them to address the counter-arguments, which is what inoculate is about. If after all of that, I agree with them that it’s a good idea, I want them to suggest some ways I might be able to support their idea in the organize step. If any of these components are missing, the person will have left out some important part of the picture that might undermine their case. But when AEIOU is done well, it’s like a good story where all the characters are developed and all the scenes push the narrative tension forward. More than just a simple story that is told from one person to another, it is also a conversation where two people can build it together. That’s AEIOU at its best and adapted to the very common situation of someone having an idea to push within an organization.
When I first become aware in a conversation that someone is using AEIOU on me, my first instinct is to pull back and not want to be manipulated. But as in all organizing, if the person talking with you has a trusting relationship with you, you’ll know that manipulation is not their intention and that they are respectfully trying to persuade you and seek your feedback and support on something that they think is in both of your interests. The second instinct I have from being AEIOU’ed is to give them the space and time to give it their best shot. You and them both know what’s best for the org, and maybe their idea is the right one.
I’m sure there are more kinds of 1-on-1s that I’m unaware of that could be included here, and of the ones I’ve described above I’ve only skimmed the surface.
Organizing is not some mere thing that just anyone can do without intention or practice. It’s a range of movements that a person can use with which to dance. There are many different kinds of dance moves and kinds of dance, and intention and practice makes one better at any of them. AEIOU and the 1-on-1 are among the core moves that any organizer uses, either clumsily or nimbly whether they are aware of it or not. I’ve found that the more ways I learn to use AEIOU and adapt it to different purposes, the better organizer I become.