Tools for Political Conversations in Organizing

[This post is part of a series on 1-on-1 organizing conversations.]

Political conversations are often the most difficult kind of conversations and those least likely to succeed. We naturally want other people to see things our way, but there’s no easy way to do this and trying really hard to make people see things our way usually has the opposite effect.

In a companion blog post I sketch out some important contextual considerations for thinking about political conversations, but here I aim to simply sketch out some observations on best practices and a general method of political dialogue. These ideas are best applied when people are in a position of relative equality, a relation of mutual respect, and a setting in which both people have the emotional energy to engage across lines of political disagreement. Some adaptation may be required to apply these principles across individual communication styles and different cultural patterns of communication, but I believe the same basic principles admit to wide application.

Tips on What NOT to Do

Defensiveness is the main reaction people have that keeps them closed off from considering new ideas. Here’s some common things that make people defensive:

  • Telling people they’re wrong.
  • Telling people what to think.
  • Using intensity of feeling or word choice or urgency to make them agree with you.
  • Trying to change someone’s opinion about everything all at once.
  • Expressing frustration or disappointment in someone for not agreeing with you.
  • Shaming or humiliating someone for their idea/position.

Some of these mistakes result from mixing up expression and strategy. Shaming someone often is a result of someone expressing their disgust at another person’s ideas and is not a strategy for persuasion even though people often use shaming in contexts where they are trying to persuade someone. There are some instances where shaming is an effective tactic for achieving other goals, but it is almost never an effective tactic of persuasion.

Other of these mistakes stem from impatience we have with people when they don’t see things the way we do. But if we remember that each person we’re talking with has a lifetime of experiences and beliefs built up that informs the way they see things, hopefully we can build up our stamina and recognize that single conversations will at best have a small effect on someone’s opinions. Being in sustained relationship with people and engaging them over many conversations provides the best chance of successfully introducing someone to a new way of seeing.

Tips on What TO Do

The strongest weapon against defensiveness is respect. If people feel that you respect them across disagreement, they’ll be much more open to considering new ideas. Many of the details articulated throughout this blog post are just particular strategies for maintaining respect while not avoiding tension and disagreement.

The simplest and most effective way to signal your respect to someone is to listen to them. The “70/30 rule”, which requires that you spend 70% of the time listening and asking questions and 30% of the time talking, applies as much in political conversations as any other kind of organizing conversation. Contrary to the common sense notion that the main part of persuading someone is just to say compelling things, that’s actually a relatively small part of effective political conversation. The best way to signal to someone that you don’t respect or care about them or their ideas is to just talk at them, no matter how compelling your ideas are, and so if we want to actually have a chance to change someone’s mind we have to talk less and listen more.

Making heavy use of “I” statements enables you to be confident in expressing your beliefs while also giving other people the space to think about theirs. There is a big difference between saying “these are the right ideas” and “these are my ideas”. The former implicitly starts out by telling others that they’re wrong while the latter invites the other person to elaborate their own ideas, preparing the ground for an exchange.

Choose your battles. I find that I rarely have the patience or mental capacity to have genuine and intentional conversations when I’m very stressed out from other things in life, exhausted after a tough day at work, or in social situations after a couple of drinks. If you want to advance your ideas, you’ll do better to engage political conversations when you have the energy to navigate them with care rather than taking every single opportunity that comes your way.

Also related to choosing your battles, there’s a widely held but mistaken notion that the main work of changing ideas in society is calling out every idea that’s bad in the moment. Calling out is absolutely necessary and essential in certain situations, including applying hostile pressure against hardened political foes, against bad faith actors, and as utilized by marginalized people in oppressive situations where other modes of engagement are cut off. However, for most people you disagree with, call-outs will tend to have the effect of spoiling relationships and decreasing the potential for ideological change. Rather, if your goal is to advance ideas of justice and liberation in your community or workplace or friendships, by far the most effective and most broadly applicable strategy is to build lasting and sincere relationships with the people around you while playing the long game of using intentional methods like those elaborated below.

The AAR Method

“Affirm, answer, redirect” is a 3-step process for engaging people in political discussion. I learned a version of it back in my college activist days, and have altered and augmented it here according to what I’ve seen as effective in my conversation experiences in the years since (and according to the innumerable times I’ve failed and reflected on why).

These steps are more loose guidelines than rigid blueprint, as obviously the complexity of human conversation doesn’t permit robot-like speech. But guidelines can make a big difference between just repeating the same mistakes or jumping around randomly in political conversation and intentionally pursuing conversational goals.

These three steps don’t apply to the conversation as a whole, but instead just in each response to someone when it’s your turn to talk.

Affirm

The starting point for this applying method is that you’re having a political discussion with someone and they make a claim that you disagree with. The affirm step involves validating the goodness of the person’s intentions and validating why what they said sounds reasonable. This is an essential first step to signaling your respect for the person and their ideas even as you prepare to disagree.

This step can usually be done in one or two sentences. Some good phrases to use here include:

  • “I hear you on….”
  • “On the one hand it makes sense that ….”
  • “I can see …”
  • “I can identify with …”

As an example to illustrate this method, let’s say I work in a school and on my lunch break with my coworker Jim the conversation veers towards the topic of police officers employed by school districts. Jim talks about this for a while and then says, “This year there’s been so many more student fights. I wish we had a school officer like some other schools have.” I could respond, “Yea, safety is really important at school, and I can see how police officers make some people feel safer.”

Answer

The answer step involves reframing the issue, telling a story, and making your point.

To start the reframe, some possible phrases to use include:

  • “I’m not so sure …”
  • “In my experience …”
  • “Another way I’ve seen this talked about is …”

Then proceed to change the focus of the issue from the thing the other person thinks is central to the thing you think is central. 

Follow this up with a story that happened to you personally or that you heard about that illustrates what the crux of the issue really is. Here are some ideas on what kinds of stories to tell:

  • Tell the story of the events that lead you to change your mind on an issue.
  • Choose a story as directly related to the issue and the circumstances as possible.
  • Avoid stories taken from history or with lots of extra details that get in the way and that lend themselves to unhelpful interpretations. Keep your story simple and straight to the point.
  • Avoid telling stories that focus too heavily on abstraction or statistics detached from the immediate human impact and individual experience.

Lastly, summarize your point as simply and succinctly as possible so that it’s less likely to get missed or misinterpreted.

With Jim, I could say, “I’m not so sure police officers would really help with fights though, as they tend to show up after the fight is over and don’t really have the skills or training to intervene in a safe way when they do happen to come onto the scene during a fight. The fight I saw happen at the cafeteria last month was between two kids who have been in conflict for weeks and it finally boiled over. If we actually had another school counselor whose job it was to really know the kids, to intervene early on, and to teach healthy conflict resolution skills, I think that would make school safer than having a police officer.”

There’s a hundred different ways this issue could be reframed and many different angles from which to tackle it, but in knowing the person you’re talking to you hopefully have an idea of which one or two points to focus on that would appeal to their interests and values while challenging their beliefs.

Redirect

After you make your point you want to redirect the conversation back to the other person using a question. If the question deals only with ideas separated from social context, it’s easier for people to fall back on old scripts and ingrained ways of thinking. Rather, find a way to pose the redirect question in terms of their own situation and experience. When people are prompted to think through their own reality in a new way it can help break them out of the habit of relying on political assumptions inherited from popular media representations or family upbringing. Also, while you made your point just before asking the redirect question, you want the question to be open-ended and not merely an extension of your point. 

Some possible phrasings for a redirect question include:

  • “What do you think it would be like if …?”
  • “What made them do that?”
  • “Have you ever …?”
  • “In my experience …. What was your experience?”

Some possible questions I could ask Jim are: “What about the fights is most stressful for you?” “What have you seen that’s caused the kids to get into some of the fights at school?” “Have there been any kinds of interventions at school that you think have helped prevent fights?”

The Whole Conversation

Even when people do feel like they’re being respected, the very fact of having their ideas challenged naturally leads to some level of resistance or defensiveness. This should be expected and we can work through it by continuing to show respect and not escalating the tone or the language being used in the conversation.

The entire AAR example I gave with Jim consisted of a total of four sentences. In real life we’re rarely as succinct as we would like to be, but I think this emphasizes how you can do AAR really effectively without violating the 70/30 rule. Sometimes you’ll want to share longer stories to get at more nuanced points, but that can be done without taking over the conversation.

Political conversations can be short or go on for a long time, so you might be able to squeeze in a quick AAR or two over a water-cooler break or you might have literally dozens of opportunities to use AAR over the course of a more in-depth conversation. A common way for these longer talks to proceed is when people are thinking through an idea for the first time they’ll jump around to a bunch of different points as they might be operating in “brainstorm mode”. In those situations, it’s most effective to keep gently redirecting the conversation back to the main point or two that you think are the most important and looking at them from different angles, but you need to balance this with listening to them and not ignoring other concerns they bring up that are important to them. Obviously you won’t use AAR the same way each time, and with practice you’ll find many ways to adapt the basic steps of AAR to the subtle weaves and textures of real life dialogue. 

Even when AAR is skillfully applied, there’s many reasons you’re not going to make much progress during just one conversation. Much if not most of the reflection someone does on a topic on which they start to consider new ideas happens in the hours and days after a conversation takes place. It also takes people a long time to unlearn and rethink long-held beliefs, so try to have patience if you have to retrace the same stories and ideas that you covered previously with someone. Like the sulky teenager who appears not to be listening, many people pay closer attention than they let on.

Lastly, you want people to actually enjoy talking with you about political issues if your goal is to advance your ideas. When shown respect and given the opportunity to challenge their own beliefs and consider new ones, many people enjoy political conversation because they will see it as an opportunity to better understand the world and will seek out opportunities to continue conversing with you.

Political Conversations vs. Organizing Conversations

Political conversation falls under the larger banner of “political education” within social movements, and it’s useful to think about how political education relates to organizing. Political education is the spread and building up of political ideas and beliefs within communities generally and with members of an organization. Organizing is moving with people from a place of individual inaction to collective action to resolve collective grievances and win demands.

The 1-on-1 conversation is the central mode of engagement for both organizing and political education. Like the AAR method for political conversations, “organizing conversations” have their own structures and methods (I write in this post about AEIOU as one such method). Both political education and organizing are fundamentally about building social relationships with people rooted in human connection that are also political relationships rooted in people wanting what’s best for themselves and their communities. Political education and organizing rely on 1-on-1 conversations because they are the most effective way to build relationships with people.

Both political conversations and organizing conversations focus heavily on question-asking and story-telling because these are the best ways to build shared political understandings stemming from shared conditions of a workplace or neighborhood. Both AAR and AEIOU are forms of conversation where you try to explore and move with coworkers you are in relationship with.

Despite their many similarities, political and organizing conversations are different in important respects too. Whereas organizing conversations are about bringing coworkers together to problem-solve their grievances by taking direct action to win demands, political conversations are about rethinking political beliefs. Thus, organizing conversations have direct action as their more immediate goal whereas political conversations have new political understanding as their more immediate goal. Though when you zoom out a little both kinds of conversation have social change as their larger goal.

Emotions play different roles in organizing and political conversations. When people are agitated about a problem at work, uncovering the depth of the impact of that problem and getting people to relate to their feelings during an organizing conversation is an important component of them acquiring the motivation to take action to solve the problem. AEIOU can be very good for this. In contrast, political conversations, especially on charged issues, benefit from people not being in the heat of the moment so that they can reflect more calmly on their beliefs and think through carefully how to re-interpret their experiences. 

AAR and AEIOU constantly feed back into each other and go together to build bottom-up power. In the long-term, if you organize without doing political education workers will be easily satisfied or bought off with a few small concessions because they’ll see just the surface of problems and not see the underlying social structures as requiring change. If you do political education without organizing then coworkers may have a deeper understanding of political issues but will not have the skills to bring about their desired political changes. 

Or as military biographer William Francis Butler wrote in a different context, “The nation that will insist on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards.” As organizers, AAR and AEIOU are powerful tools for building strong communities of people who can think and act together to make our lives better and create a more just world.

Conclusion

The kind of skills described above are not the kind of things you’re gonna be able to read once through and then have mastery over. If you find the above framework appealing, it might be worth trying it out in a familiar setting, with someone you know well, someone who you have social and material things in common with, and on an issue you feel comfortable discussing. See how it goes and think about what you could do differently next time. As you get more comfortable with it, you’ll be able to apply the framework to more challenging circumstances.

I hope that my writing on political conversations doesn’t suggest that these skills are more precise than they really are. Despite all the specific tips and steps, I know this is more of an art than a science. What compels me to write about this is rather the lack of virtually any writing on this topic or any guidance for how to do it within a leftist organizing framework. I remain convinced that political conversation can be done well or poorly, and that in reflecting on my own experience there are definite patterns that have caused my conversations to succeed or fail. 

I’ve tried here to systematize these ideas enough to be useful but hopefully not so much that they restrain you from thinking creatively about your own conversations. With a little practice, these skills can supplement our organizing and strengthen our movements.

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