Self-Acceptance in Organizing (Listening Series, Part 1)

[This series on listening is part of my larger series of posts on relationship-based organizing.]

Everything that is democratic, caring, and collaborative in human relationships is created through listening. Thus for the relationship-based organizing model that I advocate on this blog, listening is at the foundation of everything. 

And yet, good listening is not easy. Good listening can appear instinctual, unique to each personality, and situation-dependent, all of which make it hard to analyze and strategize about in a way that organizers might find helpful.

I entered adulthood as a bad listener. I wasn’t the kind of person who would talk too much so as to edge other people out of talking, and I listened plenty and asked people questions to evoke their thoughts. But for me the quality, not the quantity, of my listening was what was bad. I didn’t know good listening was a thing, so I just assumed that all listening was more-or-less the same. 

My first lesson in good listening was just noticing that some of my friends were good at listening to me. Being listened to made me feel seen and whole, and that was something I wanted to give back to my friends.

Getting into politics and organizing confronted me with new challenges that couldn’t be overcome except by learning how to listen better. For nearly every difficult part of organizing, from navigating disagreement within political organizations to needing to understand a coworker’s fears of joining an action to supporting a fellow organizer struggling with burnout, good listening has been an essential tool. Each time I think I’ve finally figured it out I have some experience–such as seeing someone demonstrate outstanding listening or having an interaction with someone where I regretted not listening better–where I discover I still have a lot further to go.

The listening ideas and skills discussed in this blog post series are applicable to conventional union organizing and healthy relationships in general. However, I’ve found these ideas to be particularly fruitful for organizing with those coworkers who appear stuck in some way when it comes to workplace grievances. It is with these more challenging scenarios in mind that I am motivated to write at some length about these ideas. Such scenarios come up quite frequently but are little discussed in organizing discourse.

This series on listening combines personal experience, ideas from counseling and therapy, and union organizing practices. This post focuses on how listening affects the social and psychological factors that empower workers to commit to making change, while subsequent posts discuss more concrete listening practices.

The Boss at Work and in Your Head

When the boss has control of the workplace, the boss has control over the network of relationships in the workplace. That means when the boss says people have to work harder or that a widespread grievance isn’t that bad, then people believe the boss. If a coworker tries to speak up against this, the boss’s influence among the workers will lead the other workers to ignore or shun the worker who speaks up. In this way, the boss is conditioning the social environment of the workplace so that workers do what is best for capital, which is to work harder and to follow orders.

The boss’s control isn’t just felt in the external relationships between those in the workplace, but workers often come to internalize this conditioning. They will make themselves work harder and will minimize any negative feelings they have about work and the boss in order to fit in and be seen as a “good” worker. This internal voice is often called the “boss in your head”, and when the boss in the workplace is in control, each worker has a powerful boss in their head.

Of course, not all bosses are mean and some do a good enough job coordinating work tasks and respecting people’s boundaries. The point of a class analysis is not to claim that all bosses are mean or that you have to hate your boss at a personal level to be a good radical unionist. The point of a class analysis is to make clear that no matter the personalities or work styles of your bosses or your coworkers, there are structural features of the capitalist workplace that create separate sets of interests for bosses and workers. How these interests are shaped or pursued in any particular workplace will be unique, but as long as capitalist relations hold, there will be strong pressures on bosses to maintain control and to get as much work out of their subordinates as they can.

The Caring Coworker at Work and in Your Head

Relationship-based organizing aims to unravel the boss’s power starting with the relationships themselves. As an organizer, your main task is to build worker power by building relationships with your coworkers that counteract the relationships the bosses have. 

The main tool you have for doing this is listening. Specific strategies for listening will be discussed in later posts in this series, but the basic idea is using listening as a way to support, validate, and encourage your coworkers to explore how they feel about work and what it would take to make things better.

When the relationships between coworkers start to become stronger than the relationships that the boss has in the workplace, then the balance of power begins to shift. When the boss tries to make everyone work harder, workers can trust each other to push back collectively. When the boss tries to instill fear and obedience, workers can have each others’ backs and decide for themselves what’s fair in the workplace.

What’s more, the healthy bonds between coworkers can start to unsettle the boss in your head and eventually replace it with the caring coworker in your head. When a coworker listens to and validates your feelings and needs, you begin to validate your own feelings and needs. Rather than work through your breaks or come into work sick, the caring coworker in your head says you deserve your breaks and can take the day off to recover from illness.

Relationship-based organizing thus aims at the total transformation of the social fabric and individual mindsets of the workplace. As the boss-in-your-head vs. caring-coworker-in-your-head illustrates, we tend to internalize those values that are the dominant ones in our environment. We learn to treat ourselves by seeing how others treat us.

Non-Relationship Organizing

Most popular methods of union organizing pay lip-service to the idea of building relationships with coworkers, but then turn around and try to pressure people into surface-level commitments without really listening to them. “If you say you want higher wages then you have to wear a union button and come to this rally.”

Even for those methodologies that sincerely emphasize listening, often the conversation is posed as something you do in build-up to a big action like a strike instead of something you do to put down deep relational roots in the workplace. The kind of organizing conversation rap-sheets that staff organizers use and that many union trainings advocate can be useful tools in certain circumstances, but that approach often neglects how to relate to coworkers in the day-to-day. (Elsewhere on this blog, I’ve taken conventional organizing techniques like the 1-on-1 conversation and tried to give them a more relational focus.)

Rather than encouraging organizers to themselves build dense networks of trusting relationships with their coworkers, many theories of “natural” or “social” leaders tell you to just win over the more popular coworkers who will then pull their followers along for this or that union action.

When working conditions are bad and opportunities for action present themselves, such superficial union methods can sometimes work in building worker unity towards action in the short-term. But that unity will often crumble in the aftermath of failed actions or half-won demands, when grievances are more local and personal, and when organizing runs into more determined resistance from the bosses. To really build lasting power in the workplace and in the labor movement, it will have to be based on the care, trust, and solidarity that organizers bring to their relationships with their coworkers.

Acceptance as the Basis of Change

The skeptics among the readers of this blog would be right to point out that just being friendly with your coworkers is hardly the secret ingredient or silver bullet to all your union organizing problems. How this is all supposed work can seem a bit unclear. How do healthy coworker relationships lead to militant union action and radical worker power?

Not all coworker relationships are the same. It’s specifically the care, trust, and solidarity that can be built into coworker relationships through good listening that gives relationships their political potency. But how do those things then help people find the desire, motivation, and courage to take action?

One of the most quoted phrases in clinical psychology is from Carl Rogers: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” 

When people learn that their problem doesn’t mean that they are inherently bad or wrong or broken, and rather it’s their past and present conditions that are the cause of the problem, then they can accept themselves for who they are. Self-acceptance enables people to recognize that they are worthy of respect and dignity and opens the door for them to make internal and external changes that achieve that respect and dignity.

The most effective way to help someone to accept themselves is for you to accept them too. People know that those around them accept them when they feel listened to in the context of real relationships. When someone listens to you, it communicates to you that they value you, that they are interested in your well-being, and that they see you as deserving of attention and support.

Rogers invokes the idea of acceptance enabling change for the case of an individual making some personal change in their life with the help of therapy. Relationship-based organizing takes this same logic of acceptance as the enabler of change and applies it to workplace change. 

Typically before a worker takes an active stance towards a problem at work, they will have to acknowledge that their stress around a grievance isn’t their own fault and that they don’t deserve that stress. Bosses will insinuate that such stress is a result of economic necessity (“we won’t keep this client if we don’t finish the project by midnight,” “there’s no more money in the budget”) or worker inadequacy (“the new people have to struggle through it, that’s just how it is,” “if you don’t like it, you can leave,” “maybe you’re not a good fit for this”). 

But when workers come together to talk and listen to each other about how the workplace really operates and to whose benefit, then they can connect how their similar experiences have resulted from shared conditions and how their negative feelings and self-perceptions at work aren’t their fault. They can accept who they are and that they are worthy of an emotionally healthy workplace environment. With self-acceptance, workers can come together to imagine a better workplace that is more in line with their needs.

Furthermore, when listening is used to encourage self-acceptance inside workers, that also builds trust between workers. Just as self-acceptance leads workers to be able to explore and state their needs, so does trust enable workers to come together to act collectively to get those needs met. When workers determine that change is needed in the workplace, trust enables workers to come together to take direct action against the status quo.

This might sound a bit simplistic or overly sentimental, but I think it just sounds that way because it cuts against the 2 major forces that try to instrumentalize and manipulate relationships at work: 1) the boss who tries to use relationships to get more effort and obedience out of workers, and 2) shallow union methods that try to piss everyone off and sweep everyone along for dramatic but superficial actions. Both of these forces stand in stark contrast to a relationship-based model of organizing that emphasizes deeper bonds of trust, care, and solidarity.


In reflecting on my own experience, my organizing has only gotten stronger and more successful as I’ve refocused more and more on the relationships I have with coworkers and fellow organizers. Maybe some people are so adept at interpersonal relations that they’re already expert listeners, but this has not come naturally for me and is something everyone can learn and get better at. These deeper relational ideas attract regrettably little attention within union organizing discourse.

A material interest in class power alone is not enough to effectively propel workers against capital. In actual workplaces, the material interests in monetary gains are inseparable from our social interests in healthy relationships. Making gains in one is often dependent on securing gains in the other. Those I trust will listen to me are the ones I want to be around for a long time, who I will march into battle with when the bugle sounds.

(Part 2 of this series discusses specific listening skills.)

2 thoughts on “Self-Acceptance in Organizing (Listening Series, Part 1)

  1. Such an important and well-crafted piece about RBO. I’ve never read better articles about organizing than on this blog. Bravo!

    William Miller has a short book, available in Kindle format called Listening Well: The Art of Empathetic Listening. It is 103 Kindle pages. Might be more digestible for folks just starting out on deep listening than the MI book. A great skill builder.

    I wanted to share an incident I had recently as a teaching tool for others. I used a swear word that I didn’t realize was degrading for others and luckily my organizer called me out on it. I was a Navy Sailor for many years and my language is salty at times, especially when I am emotional. The organizer reminded me that this language was unacceptable and why. It really bothered me that I’d been using this language for years and not realized its possible impact on others. I stewed about it all day and into the night. Listening straightened out my foul language, and its disastrous impact upon my organizing work, in a hurry. From here on I will NOT use foul language in my Union work.

    It is a tiny example, but what a big result from a gentle word between the senior organizer and the trainee (me). Language is massively powerful in a caring context. In Robert Cialdini’s Influence books about social influence he calls this the Big Little. Big impact from a tiny move in trying to influence other people to do things. High return on investment as the suits like to say.

    Liked by 1 person

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