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For Real Change, Conversations Not Debates

On the art of the “One-to-One” and the potency of small group organizing

No matter who wins a debate or ultimately the election, we know our nation and our communities will continue to face complex economic, ecological, political, and social challenges.

Our challenges are compounded by a culture of isolation and disconnection. The skills we need to build connection and empathy may not come as naturally as they once did. Mainstream culture encourages us to separate from each other—to be “independent” and “self-made”—despite a growing body of evidence that our brains are actually hard-wired for connection.

Community organizers in the field report that Americans revolve around an axis of “overwhelm” these days, as they struggle to access the services that they need, educate their children, maintain a middle class lifestyle, or merely survive. Why are volunteer hours for community service or membership organizations plummeting? Why do so many of us refuse to let their children play outside? Precinct walkers at election time rarely find anyone at home, and many who are refuse to answer the door. Why is it increasingly difficult to get a response from a voicemail, email, or even text message?

Given our challenges, we just can’t afford this level of disconnection. Isolated individuals cannot create real social change. It’s up to networked communities to do that.

That’s part of why people have been forming small groups like Resilience Circles and social action affinity groups around the country. These groups are a way to relearn skills of mutuality, consensus-building, story-sharing, and real listening. They form an essential piece of the architecture of social movements built on solidarity and relatedness.

But pulling together a small group can be a real challenge. People are likely to be puzzled at first if you invite them to join one. That’s where the art of conversation comes in.

Labor and community organizers have been using a practice called the “one-to-one” conversation for generations as a way to build networks, enhance relationships, and enlist people in their work. A one-to-one can be defined as a structured conversation where you authentically share your story with another person and listen to theirs. Based on your commonalities, you invite the person to work together. It’s a great way to invite someone to join your small group, or if you’re not trying to form a small group, it’s a great way to build relationships and learn more about your neighbors’ concerns.

"Small consciousness-raising groups... were the lynchpins of the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement."

We have found that if you begin a regular practice of inviting others to have deliberate, one-to-one conversations, you’ll find it rewarding. You’ll enhance your story-sharing and listening skills, and you’ll learn to focus more on your relationships than on specific outcomes. One-to-ones teach you a whole lot about how other people see the world, which can deepen our commitment to social change and make us wiser organizers.

The down side is that they can feel risky. No one likes to experience rejection, and unfortunately you aren’t likely to hear an enthusiastic “Yes, I’ll join you!” at the end of every conversation. It’s best to prepare for a range of responses. No matter how skilled you are as an organizer and conversationalist, some people will say “No” to your invitation. Some will say “Maybe” (which generally means “No”). Some will say “Yes,” but won’t show up. Some will say “Yes,” show up, and then drop out. Some will say “No” today, and “Yes” later. And luckily, some will say “Yes” and become valuable contributors.

We can’t get around doing this. We can’t build a strong movement without actually talking to people in person. This isn’t an ‘extra’ when it comes to organizing or social change. As Cesar Chavez reportedly said when asked by a student how he organizes, “He said, 'First, I talk to one person. Then I talk to another person.' 'No,' said the student, 'How do you organize?' Chavez answered, 'First I talk to one person. Then I talk to another person…'”

You get the point. Talking is organizing. So let’s get the conversation started.

How to Initiate a Conversation

You may be able to use this form of conversation spontaneously. Perhaps someone will off-handedly mention their frustration with potholes in the roads or their fears about their kids’ student debt load. You can take the opportunity to ask more questions and make your call to action (“I’m forming a neighborhood group, you should join me” or “I’m forming a group to talk about our economic concerns”).

If you’re serious about forming a small group, however, you will probably need to be more deliberate. An easy way to get started is to invite someone you already know to meet with you for about a half hour at a neutral public site, like a coffee shop or a park.

Our culture can be suspicious of open-ended agendas, and you don’t want people to think you’re starting an Amway business. So go ahead and be clear about what you want. For example, you could say, “I’m forming a small group for mutual support, and I’d like to have your input,” or “I’m concerned about [our schools] and want to hear your concerns too,” or “I think that a lot of people are struggling with economic stress alone, and I want to ask you what we might do to support each other and do fun stuff together.” If they want to talk then and there, be sure to set aside enough time for a focused conversation.

The important thing is to make a friendly, honest invitation that fits your own interests and values. Not everyone will say yes, but some will—and each new invitation builds your skills and confidence.

Small is Beautiful

Each time you build a new relationship, you are creating social change. As the PICO Principle says, “Small is beautiful.” The single biggest missing component of today’s social change movement is the small consciousness-raising group. Gatherings of this type were the lynchpins of the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement. They empowered people to learn new ways of speaking about their pain and doing something about it.

We can only hope that we haven’t yet created such a powerful culture of “overwhelm” that it’s too late to sit together and take support from one another’s counsel. No one makes social change alone.

For more information and resources to start a small group, visit www.localcircles.org.

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