Agitation and the 1-on-1

[This post is part of a series on 1-on-1 organizing conversations. Check out the intro post here to see how agitation is defined. The below post is an exploration of ideas based on that definition and framework.]


Agitation in organizing is the spark that creates the wildfire. Like in all parts of life, our emotions lead, our thoughts agree, and then our behavior follows. In part AEIOU is about channeling this natural progression of human action.

Finding the Issue

One mistake new and over-eager organizers sometimes make is that they treat the first part of agitate, in which you identify issues that affect your coworkers, like a game of twenty questions. “What do you think of the scheduling?” “I sure wish we got paid more around here, right?” “Do you get enough sick time?” “The GM sure is a pain isn’t he?”

Despite this appearing on the surface like a comprehensive way to survey someone’s feelings about possible issues, it actually comes off as repeatedly presuming something about them in a way that can shut down meaningful conversation. Furthermore, if they see your strategy for what it is, the person you’re talking with might feel like you’re not interested in actually listening to them.

The best way to “find the issue” isn’t to fixate on asking the perfect question but rather is to build relationships with coworkers. If the relationships are sincere and open, people will feel comfortable and naturally want to share what they’re going through, including how they feel about work. Of course, “building relationships” is often easier said than done, but that’s where our power really lies.

When someone does mention a grievance in the context of a developing workplace relationship you can create space to explore that grievance with them. Try to find ways to unearth the underlying effects that grievance is having. All too often, workers, myself included, get caught up in more abstract rationalizations for grievances, thinking that there’s no other way the workplace could be run. When we think like that we place the onus of the problem on ourselves and implicitly try to just suck it up and blunt our feelings about an issue. Rather, if we become curious about the many ways grievances impact us, only then can we come to an accurate representation of the problem. From there, we can start to relocate the source of the grievance from ourselves to the workplace policy or the boss or whatever feature of capitalism is making us feel bad or stressed at work.

Cycles of Emotion

Emotions of all kinds are the motivators of human action. When going through the agitate part of AEIOU, anger is often where we end up, but often there’s many other emotions we go through to get to that point. Let me explain.

I work with young kids for my job. My job goes well when I’m able to help meet kids’ needs and empower them to learn and grow. When my job goes well I often feel happy and the kids I work with do too. Almost all of us have some kind of reference point for what our job is supposed to look like when it’s going well (even if it’s never been realized, we often know intuitively how it should look). When our job goes well we feel a sense of competence, accomplishment, satisfaction, and togetherness.

When I’m not able to do my job because of short-staffing or lack of proper equipment, then my first reaction is one of frustration of trying but failing to do my job. This can turn into sadness as I watch kids struggle, disengage, and throw fits–sadness because I know they are deserving of love and support but due to the circumstances I am not able to provide them with what they deserve. When it’s clear that it’s not my own failing that is creating this situation but those with power over me and my industry who are not providing the necessary resources, I feel angry. It’s usually in my anger about some issue that I come to the conclusion, “This is bullshit and I’m not gonna take it anymore. I’m going to do something about it.” Anger, more than any of the other emotions, is the one that directs us to confront our circumstances and push for change. This is why the first part of AEIOU is called “agitate”. In some of our 1-on-1s people are able to on their own identify the problems that affect them and get angry about the way they are treated. This makes the agitate step more straightforward, but what do we do when people don’t seem to get upset at the problems around them?

As organizers who are building well-rounded relationships with our coworkers, we must not only hone in on anger. We all go through cycles of emotions, and each emotion is designed to orient us to our environments, through thought and action, in useful ways. While anger is often the emotion that finally pushes us to take action, we can’t get angry if we don’t also have other feelings about work. Anger is never felt in a vacuum and rather takes other emotions as reference points. In our 1-on-1s with coworkers it often helps to talk about what makes us happy or anxious on the job or how our job affects our home life in ways that make us happy or anxious. Anger is the distance between the job state that makes us happy and energized and the job state that makes us sad and defeated. Anger arises out of the recognition of this gap combined with the knowledge that it doesn’t have to be this way.

I become most motivated to change my environment when I become consciously aware of all of these dynamics, when I can palpably recall the joy I feel when I’m able to really help kids learn and can just as easily recall the sadness in those instances where kids I work with are educationally abandoned. That’s when the anger becomes real, immediate, and grasps for solutions (aka, leads to the next step in AEIOU called “educate”).

So if in 1-on-1s with coworkers you have a hard time identifying issues and the real effects of those issues, the solution is often not to exhaustively examine every aspect of work in order to find something that agitates them. A related and also flawed strategy that I’ve used when agitate isn’t going smoothly is that I get visibly angry about the issues myself hoping that when they see it it will make them angry too. But this is a mistake and almost never works and is what is responsible for the stereotype of the angry, rambling radical. If someone doesn’t feel angry about a situation, trying to make them feel angry by extension of your own anger is gonna come off as desperate and forced. One rule of thumb that union organizer Jane McAlevey uses is that you are never allowed to be more angry in a 1-on-1 than the person you’re talking with. People become sincerely angry about problems because of their own thought process about how work affects them not because they want to follow your example. When someone identifies what makes them angry about work, and they feel angry about it, it’s good to validate that anger and feel it with them, but never try to lead with your own emotions before they’ve had a chance to uncover their emotions for themselves.

Counter-intuitively then, when a coworker seems uninterested in workplace issues or talking about grievances, the best thing to discuss is makes them happy about their job. Once that is explored, it can be easier to dig into the other complexities and issues at work that can eventually lead to what people want their job to be like and how to make it happen.

To restate a point that we need to constantly remind ourselves of: don’t rush, especially when organizing conversations aren’t happening the way you expect them to. These fuller explorations of the situations at work and how we relate to them in emotionally complex ways take far more than a single 1-on-1 conversation.


Shock Is Not a Useful Tool for Agitating

There are many emotional reactions to injustice, and I think organizers will be most effective if they avoid using or soliciting shock as an agitational tool. This is a mistake I’ve made and come to think more deeply about with a fellow organizer of mine.

The essence of shock as a tool of agitation is about being jolted into indignation for the status quo not working as advertised. For example, “I can’t believe the boss just fired Jill! That’s not supposed to happen. She said that everyone would get a fair hearing and that no one would be fired for talking about the accident last week that made some workers sick.” The problem with shock is that it is framed around the way the status quo is supposed to work and has as its implicit aim the return to the status quo. This obscures deeper causes of workplace grievances and obviates the ability to think critically about these causes and what deeper solutions might be.

In the example of the boss firing Jill, using this kind of shock has the implied solution of either the current boss following the rules or finding a different boss to follow the rules. The idea of the boss following the rules is the status quo the workers have been told about, and shock is the disbelief that the boss did not follow the rules. This tends to frame the solution as an appeal to authority that the boss should follow the rules which displaces the more radical solution of building worker power to challenge the boss’s authority directly around grievances. In this way, shock is a liberal form of agitation in that it seeks a return to the normal they imagined existed without demanding more fundamental change.

Applying this analysis to a more prominent contemporary issue, the opposition to Trump by liberals is framed around shock. “He did what?” “I’m so shocked he would do that, presidents can’t do that!” This kind of shock leads directly to proposed solutions of a return to “normalcy” like that of Obama or Bush or one of the more “reasonable” or “smart” presidents.

Rather, the radical kind of agitation around Trump looks at the deeper causes of his actions and reveals how his actions are in fact not so much a deviation from the normal but just one expression of that normal. In this kind of agitation, the solution is not a return to “normal”, which itself was rife with racism and inequality and injustice, but to imagine and create deeper systemic change.

Returning to the workplace example, the goal is to avoid using or encouraging shock as an agitational tool. One way to make this mistake is a variant of the “my anger will wear off on you” type that I mentioned above. Acting really shocked as a way to agitate your coworkers will not get you where you want to go. But similarly, just spouting a more radical analysis that tells others what to think won’t work either, for example “This illustrates the power our boss has over us under capitalism. We have to use our leverage as workers to undermine the boss’s power and win concessions.”

As always, agitate should be about asking questions. “Why do you think they fired Jill?” “Why didn’t the boss stick to her word?” “Do you think what happened to Jill could happen to any of us?” Good agitate questions not only help highlight the effects of the grievance, but they reveal class relations that help people understand the self-interests of different actors in the workplace. At its best, this leads to an understanding that the only way to counter the boss’s unilateral authority to punish workers according to her own interests is for workers to come together through action and in a union to protect and advance their own interests.

I’m not saying that the organizer needs to maintain a cool, detached, unemotional demeanor, only that emotions other than shock can be used that lead to more productive analyses and actions. Expressing anger at the injustices of people being mistreated is different than expressing shock that someone broke the rules. As I said above, emotions are the motivators of behavior, and if we understand and control (not dampen) our emotions we can use them to best advance our goals.

In my organizing I think I’ve sometimes implicitly tried to appeal to the perceived liberal sentiments of coworkers by expressing or trying to solicit shock at things not going the way they’re supposed to. I think I’ve also hoped that this shock would impel people to action more quickly when in fact it has probably had the opposite effect because it obscured the dynamics behind the grievances. In retrospect I think this all has been a mistake and I’ve had to rethink how I approach agitation.

Levels of Agitation

Agitation is where “the why” for organizing comes from. Like so much of human behavior, our first step towards direct action comes from our feelings. When agitation has been done well, it provides the fuel to go the distance through the rest of AEIOU.

Like so many aspects of organizing, I’ve had to learn to not rush through things and this applies especially to agitation. I have a tendency to dash on to educate after having just explored some grievance at a very shallow level. Of course it depends on the person you’re organizing with, but most often I find that I run into problems later in AEIOU if agitate is not given a fuller treatment.

To illustrate this I’m going to pose the idea of levels of agitation using a personal example. I worked at a summer school right after college where I was given a class full of students with no training and was expected to essentially run an academic classroom. This wasn’t a fun-and-games type of summer school; it was a rich-parents-want-their-kids-to-be-really-smart-so-they-make-them-do-academic-work-all-day-during-the-summer type of summer school. I was woefully under-prepared and terribly overwhelmed. This was before I had any exposure to organizing ideas. It was obvious enough to me how miserable of a job this was, and most of the staff complained to each other about it at lunch.

The lunchroom complaints were just pure surface level, level-1 kinds of agitation. We complained about how much work we had to do and often directed frustration at the kids instead of at the school’s directors. “Why can’t they just sit still for one hour? That’s all I need, just one hour for them to get through some work.” “You can’t even afford to live in a closet in Los Angeles making on $10/hr.” This kind of collective venting is an important coping mechanism for getting through the day. This venting can be a good starting place from which to have a more intentional agitate conversation, but on its own venting does nothing to push workers towards action.

On a deeper level, it was becoming clearer to me with each passing week I was there how harmful this whole setup was for the kids and the psychological toll it was taking on me, where I was stressed out all the time and started to absolutely dread coming to work. I ended up quitting a month before the term was over because I just couldn’t make myself yell at kids anymore. This is a kind of 2nd-level agitation, where you’re able to articulate how the issue is actually affecting you and others in a personal and harmful way.

On a 3rd level of agitation, only years later did I become aware of how close to home this issue was for me. I was leading a section on agitation during an organizing training and used this example from my own work history as part of a role play where participants were acting as the organizer and I was acting as a coworker and they were practicing agitation on me. Over the course of the agitational conversation they asked me open-ended questions and I talked about how I hated yelling at kids, how when I was a kid I hated when my teachers yelled because it crushed the potential to act and think in open and creative ways. The participant said back to me, “It sounds like you’ve become what you always hated.” While all of those elements were always floating around in my experience and memories at that summer school, I never made that connection so explicitly, and when the training participant said back to me in a more organized way what I was already talking about, it clicked. Instead of possessing only a vague and only partly self-aware stew of feelings and circumstances, I now understood clearly what I felt and why.

The key part of this 3rd level of agitation is about relating core personal values to the way our job affects us. For me, my core values of creativity and the freedom to learn were violated in a deep way by my role as a teacher who yelled all day at that summer school. If someone had organized me all those years ago and helped me see then what I came to realize in this training, and if they had asked if I wanted to take action to solve the problem, I would have been fully bought in. Instead, 10 years later here I am with a renewed commitment to making the education system a better place because of this delayed revelation. The core values we hold we are not always conscious of, and certainly it’s never obvious how they relate to our complex lives at work. But when that relationship is made clear it is one of the most powerful motivators for anyone to do anything.

Of course, in your 1-on-1 conversations you shouldn’t expect to stimulate life-changing revelations every time. Getting to level-1 from nothing is sometimes a challenge, and usually getting from level-1 to level-2 is a difficult but enormous accomplishment in itself, and brings up all sorts of deeply felt emotions that people can draw from to stand up for themselves at work. In the context of more trusting relationships built with our coworkers over months and years we can mutually and gradually deepen our self-awareness and self-realization.


As the part of AEIOU that deals directly with the emotions of organizing, the “agitation” step can be an object of endless analysis and strategizing. As organizers we must be finely attuned to the way emotions interact in ourselves and others. Organizing at its best is about harnessing the power of our emotions to bring about a better world.

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