Your brain on stories

Why are some stories are stickier than others? Much of the answer lies in our neurological wiring. Studies show that stories engaging the senses – sight, sound, smells, and touch – literally activate the same sensory regions of the brain in both listeners/readers and story-tellers.

brain-iStock_000004321955XSmallWhy are some stories ‘stickier’ than others?  I pondered the question while I sat at my desk, sipping the steaming hot Nicaraguan coffee we brought back from holiday a few weeks ago. My puppy’s fuzzy black head rested heavily on my bare foot, and I was getting ready for a conference call, when my colleague Nina forwarded this wonderful post about story-telling and the senses.  Serendipity!  When communications strategist and writer Nina Winham and I taught a session on communicating sustainability last year, I pushed our participants to tell stories that didn’t just have a ‘beginning, middle and an end’, but more importantly, activated the senses. “Describe the setting”, I urged; “the light, the temperature, the atmosphere. Who was there?  What did they look like? What were they doing?  How did it feel, to be there?  Were there any scents in the air? Sounds”?

According to an emerging body of research in the neurosciences, stories that activate the senses – sight, sound, smells, and touch – literally activate those same sensory regions of the brain in both listeners/readers and story-tellers.  That’s why, in advocacy communications, there’s such a vast difference between communicating the meaning of something (“our aging communities deserve  better access to health care”) versus leading with stories that paint pictures in the listener’s minds (“yesterday my 83 year old mother clutched her throbbing, broken right wrist for six hours as we waited for a doctor’s care in the jam-packed emergency room at St. Vince’s hospital…”).   Check out this powerful infographic that shows how specific regions of the brain ‘light up’ when presented with sensory-loaded story-telling. By activating the senses through our words, we are putting the listener in the picture – almost literally putting them in the center of their own story. When it comes to effective stories, whether it’s a quick aside or mention of just one sensory quality (“it was a sunny Spring morning”) or a more complex narrative, every sense counts.

Beyond the message box: Facilitating an “oppositional role-play”

Whether developing a “message box” or dealing with internal strategy debates, social change advocates sometimes have difficulty truly understanding the ‘other side’. There’s a fine line between a healthy diversity of views, and out-and-out, ego-based positioning. As facilitators, there are a number of techniques we can use to help loosen those deeply oppositional patterns. One of them is through role-playing. Here, I share a short case study of an ‘oppositional role-play’ I’ve used with a few groups to help go beyond entrenched viewpoints so that more meaningful listening and understanding – and sometimes surprising new solutions – can be achieved.

In last week’s post about developing a campaign message box, I described how often social change advocates have difficulty truly understanding the ‘other side’. Without that understanding, it is hard to effectively inoculate against or counter the arguments of opponents.  But even more importantly, being so stubbornly entrenched in our own positions makes it difficult to move forward toward lasting, shared solutions. And of course, sometimes the ‘other side’ is us: opposing points of view exist within healthy, smart teams. This is a very good thing – otherwise we risk the dull homogeneity and conformity of ‘groupthink’, and all the blind spots and lack of creativity it engenders.  But there is a fine line between a healthy diversity of views, and out-and-out, ego-based positioning.  As facilitators, there are a number of techniques we can use to help loosen those deeply oppositional patterns. One of them is through role-playing.

Earlier this Spring I was facilitating a planning retreat with a coalition of non-profit leaders embroiled in a difficult strategy debate. It was after lunch; people were sleepy, those hideous fluorescent lights were flickering ever so slightly, the arguments were repetitive, and a couple of people were starting to emotionally check out. At this point, the group was ‘looping’: repeating the same arguments and counter-arguments, talking at (versus with) one another and not really getting anywhere.

As I watched, it became clear that one particularly passionate member – let’s call him Jim – wasn’t really listening or responding to the other side in the debate. So I asked if he’d be willing to do a brief role-play – in reverse. In other words, I asked Jim to suspend his own position for a few minutes to role-play the perspectives and messages of his ‘opponents’ within the group. Another volunteer – who disagreed with him pretty vehemently – gamely stepped in to represent Jim’s real arguments. Immediately, the group perked up (was there just the faintest touch of Gladiator in the room?!).

At first, it was painful to watch. Jim had a strong self-image as being a great listener, open to new ideas and largely free from ego-attachment to his positions. In fact, many of us feel that way about ourselves; yet when it comes to issues we care passionately about, virtually all of us could use a little work and support in the ‘deep listening’ department.  Mere seconds into the role-play, it became apparent that Jim wasn’t really getting the opposing arguments at all, despite having heard many of them for weeks.  He was barely able to articulate them. Even when he did, he could barely do so without sneering!

“Come on, Jim”, I urged him, “make us believe!! Convince us! Say it like you really mean it!!”   He chuckled sheepishly,  took a deep breath, and tried again. After a while – egged on with some friendly heckling from the sidelines – he began to really fill the shoes of the other side – to really start embodying (and therefore understanding more deeply) a perspective that was very different from his own.

As soon as each side relinquished their stubborn grasp on entrenched positions, things got interesting. The tenor in the room changed noticeably – and a longstanding ‘energetic’ (and intellectual) log-jam finally broke.  At this point, egos were set aside so that each party was truly listening to the other.

The concept of ‘deep listening’ to resolve conflicts isn’t new. As author Steven Covey urges,  “seek first to understand, then to be understood”.  Only then is an authentic collaborative solution – or at the very least, a more thoughtful solution – truly possible. Role-plays offer a chance to really work this concept, forcing us to go beyond a surface understanding of very different positions so that we may fully embody and deeply understand them. At the very least, if we are still simply countering those positions, we will be far more convincing and effective. At the same time, deep understanding allows us to go beyond the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ framing of the message box to hold more complexity, and possibly discover new creative solutions to tired, rigid perspectives.

How Great Leaders Inspire Action: Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle”

Simon Sinek, author of the 2009 book “Start With Why”, describes the essential element of inspiring leadership in this meaty little TED Talk. He encapsulates beautifully the approach that Rockwood Leadership Institute and master leadership trainer Robert Gass have used for years in their approach to “inside-out” leadership, using the metaphor of what he calls the “Golden Circle”.

Simon Sinek, author of the 2009 book “Start With Why”, describes the essential element of inspiring leadership in this meaty little TED Talk.  He encapsulates beautifully the approach that Rockwood Leadership Institute and master leadership trainer Robert Gass have used for years in their approach to “inside-out” leadership, using the metaphor of what he calls the “Golden Circle”.

Imagine a dart board with three rings.  The outer ring represents the “what” of leadership and action. This is comfortable terrain for the vast majority of leaders, who are readily able to articulate what they do.  The middle rings speaks to “how”  – and indeed, a smaller subset of people are able to articulate how they accomplish what they do. But the key to transformative, powerful leadership, Sinek argues, lies in the smallest, center circle – which is all about “why” a leader does what s/he does – their deepest purpose. From Martin Luther King to Apple computers, Sinek asserts that great leaders are driven from this core place of purpose-driven leadership.

And these three rings, he says, correspond to the layers of the human brain. The outer layer of the brain, the neocortex or “homo sapiens brain”, is the latest development in our species’ evolution – it’s the fancy neurological wrapping that is responsible for language, the processing of facts and data, and rational thought.  The middle two sections of the brain are the limbic brain – the far more ancient components of our neurobiology. The limbic brain is responsible for feelings such as trust and loyalty, fear and desire. It is also  limbic brain is also responsible for all decision-making. It has no capacity for language. As Sinek (as well as Drew Weston and a host of others) articulates so well, when we communicate from the outside in – that is, starting from facts and analysis – we are not communicating to the place where people actually make decisions. But when we communicate – and lead – from the inside out, we are speaking directly to the parts of the human brain that control decision-making. The neo-cortex will then follow, rationalizing that behaviour.

Sinek also talks about the Theory of Social Innovation, including the elusive “tipping point”, beyond which a new idea or innovation attains enough momentum to continue moving through a community. (For a brief overview of this concept, see my 2007 post, “the trajectory of social change”).  Whether describing King as the leader of the Civil Rights movement or the Wright Brothers as leaders and creators of modern aviation, Sinek briefly maps out the kind of purpose-driven leadership that was essential to the eventual success of these great leaders.

Facilitation, tricky language and racial justice

What does it mean to be a white facilitator wanting to actively support racial justice, and what Martin Luther King described as “Beloved Community”?  And specifically, how might that intention be reflected in the subtle use of language when facilitating or training? Looking back on two recent experiences as a facilitator working with diverse social justice participants in the U.S., this question has me flummoxed. Let me share two stories (actually, two stories-within-stories).

Tale of the Bus-Stop Crack Addict
Last February I was in the hills of California co-facilitating a leadership training with an incredibly inspiring multi-racial group of participants. We were teaching a skill called ‘meshing’ to help leaders stay centered and resourceful in the face of aggression or hostility from others.  To illustrate, I described an early evening last summer in Vancouver, when my two boys and I were waiting at a bus stop in the downtown east side – one of the lowest-income neighbourhoods in Canada.  A young, powerfully-built man walked up and started hassling my teenaged step-son. The man was high, red-eyed, agitated and extremely aggressive, jerkily swinging his fists as though he were about to strike. Like many of our street homeless, he was probably mentally ill. I stepped up between them, actively ‘meshing’, grounding my energy and  started calmly talking with him while the boys watched nervously. By the time our bus arrived, he’d calmed right down. As we stepped aboard, he clutched my shoulder and said in an almost pleading voice, “I’m not such a bad guy you know.”

Later on, a Vanessa*, a brilliant young African-American participant, shared that while the story was a good illustration of meshing, it also reinforced the stereotype of black men as violent and drug-addicted.

I was startled. Not for one second did it occur to me to mention his race. And, as I’d recounted the tale, I saw the man’s white face, curly reddish hair and blue eyes ringed with red as vividly in my mind’s eye as if he’d been standing right in front of me. To the extent I thought of it at all, I implicitly assumed that everyone saw the same thing.

Was I being naïve? Obtuse? ‘Colour-blind’?  Well, in a way, yes.  I was unaware of what author Drew Weston describes as the unconscious ‘networks of associations’ the story may have triggered for the participants. In Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, a neighbourhood I’d worked on the edge of for 12 years, the vast majority of street homeless and drug-addicted people are white or aboriginal. As a Western Canadian, I simply have not been inundated with the kind of relentless media portrayal of black men as violent criminals that Americans are subjected to every day. As a result, I don’t automatically picture black men when I hear stories about street crime. I picture white men.

My take-away from Vanessa’s feedback? Don’t risk leaving my participants to ‘fill in the blanks’ with their own racial stereotypes or unconscious networks of associations. Recognize that, as another African-American woman  noted in a training this past weekend, “it’s always in the room. Race is always the first thing people notice.”  So name it – use a quick adverb: “white”, “black” (especially in Canada), “African-American”, “woman of colour”,  and so on. In the last few months, mindful of this lesson, I’ve started doing exactly this, usually as a quick aside in the process of sharing longer stories. As part of this effort, I try to interrupt the often unconscious assumption that ‘whiteness’ is normal (and everything else is exotic).

Tale of Two Hunky Candidates
But wait – is this always the way to go? Consider Story Number Two. This past weekend I was facilitating a fantastic group of multi-racial, progressive political and policy leaders in Philadelphia. At one point we were talking about the classic “message box” used in most political campaigns to clarify the central message and differentiate between two candidates. I was recounting an electoral race I’d been involved in where the two candidates were seen by the media as being virtually identical in several ways. “They both rode their bikes everywhere and advocated for sustainable transportation,” I explained. “They were both successful business leaders, middle-upper class, and both were athletic, environmentally progressive, white and good-looking.”

Afterward, Joan*, one of the participants asked if we could speak privately in a break. “Suzanne,” she said, “I’m curious. Why did you mention their race at all? And why did you describe them as ‘good-looking whites’?” There was a lot to unpack in those two simple questions, as we discovered.  First, from her perspective – and she was a white woman married to an African-American – it was klunky and unnecessary of me to mention that they were white at all. Secondly, she felt I was playing into racial bias by implying that white men were generally better-looking. Whoah! How did I imply that?  Who even thinks that? Again, I found myself blind to the automatic assumptions or networks of associations of at least some of my participants might have.

Once gain, I found myself back squarely in the “flummoxed” box.

After I’d explained the crack-addict story that had led me to start noting race, Joan suggested that next time I might consider separating adjectives like “white” and “good-looking” in time and space – maybe slip another adjective in between them – to ensure the people don’t fill-in-the-associations. It’s another idea I’ll add to my growing ‘language toolbox’ when it feels appropriate.

But is the ‘answer’ clear to me? Not at all. It’s an ongoing dance between being skillful on all the levels any facilitator has to track (agenda, timing, participation, group energy levels) while also being mindful of the subtleties of language and other dynamics connected to racism and privilege. There is often no “right” answer in how to frame issues or use language. But that’s the work, isn’t it? As a facilitator, my goal is to help provide the most supportive, safe space possible for participants to learn and collaborate.  As a woman committed to social justice, I see my job as being awake to the dynamics of power and privilege – to be an effective ally in the collective journey toward beloved community. And I am so damned lucky to be surrounded by generous participants like Vanessa and Joan, and so many of my fellow facilitators and trainers, as I stumble along that path.

(* not their real names)

Training the next generation of progressive political leaders

Training the next generation of progressive political leaders is the focus of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Progressive Leadership. Their particular focus is on under-represented candidates and leaders, including women, people of colour, and GBLTQ folks, in 5 key US states. I’m thrilled to be on the team of trainers for CPL’s upcoming training in Philadelphia this weekend (April 10-11, 2010), focusing on message development, story-telling, public speaking and mainstream media tools.

Training the next generation of progressive political leaders is the focus of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Progressive Leadership. Their particular focus is on under-represented candidates and leaders, including women, people of colour, and GBLTQ folks, in 5 key US states.  I’m thrilled to be on the team of trainers for CPL’s upcoming training in Philadelphia this weekend (April 10-11, 2010), focusing on message development, story-telling, public speaking and mainstream media tools.  This will be my first training with CPL, and the second of five intensive weekend retreats for their 54 participants, as part of a year-long fellowship for leaders in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, friends tell me, is “the quintessential American city” – diverse, blue-collar, crammed with classic diners and home to the Liberty Bell.  I haven’t seen much yet – the training starts tomorrow – but I CAN say Philly has fantastic restaurants, tons of snappy energy and the CPL team is really, really smart. It’s intoxicating to be hanging out with people who regularly refer to “message boxes” and “progressive narratives” in the same breath!

Leveraging white privilege for racial justice

The 11th Annual White Privilege conference is this week in Wisconsin April 7-10th: http://www.uccs.edu/~wpc/.

And I just came across this beautiful little article on white ally-ship, trauma and somatics (embodied, ‘whole-person’ approaches to change) from the Oakland-based Seminary of the Street: http://www.seminaryofthestreet.org/id28.html. She talks about the way racism causes trauma for each of us – people of colour and whites alike – and points to a path of integrated healing.

It’s good to be back!

I’ll continue to focus on themes of collaborative power and leadership, progressive politics, and social justice. I’ll also talk about tools related to facilitation, campaign planning, strategic planning, communications and media.

After a 3-year hiatus where I allowed myself to get sucked into the happy vortex of a busy consulting practice, I’m resurrecting this blog. No matter how hectic things feel, there’s nothing like the self-imposed pressure of reflecting and writing on a regular basis to help a person ‘sharpen the saw”.  I’ll continue to focus on themes of collaborative power and leadership, progressive politics, and social justice. I’ll also talk about tools related to facilitation, campaign planning, strategic planning, communications and media. Since my last posting, I’ve continued to expand my consulting practice, working for a wide range of coalitions, individual leaders and some fantastic not-for-profit clients across Canada and the US. I’m eager to share ideas, learn from peers and to connect to others in this weird little niche Stay tuned, and please share your own ideas and tools!

Mapping it out: Social change approaches

In earlier posts, I mulled over social change overall, the need and opportunity for describing shared visions for the change, and two overarching paths (social marketing/education and policy/advocacy) to pushing change along the ‘social diffusion bell curve”. The lens for all these ideas is focused on social change organizations, or actors, in terms of their approaches to ‘pushing’ change along the bell-curve of a community.

Within the broader policy/advocacy vs. social marketing/education frames, most organizations concentrate on one or two specific strategies. Here’s a menu of some of the most basic strategies. Within each of these, there are further subsets of strategies and approaches. As I see it, they’re all important, and they all have a role. But some approaches leverage change more quickly, systematically and broadly (across communities) than others, depending on the degree to which they focus on systems vs. individuals.

1. Direct service: This is ground zero for perhaps most charities in North America and Europe, and it is the zone where most people are pretty comfortable. Say the word “charity” and most folks tend to think of traditional direct service non-profits focused on health, education, and poverty reduction. Directly provided goods and services are vitally important to the ‘clients’ in need, and can change individual lives. Examples: food distributed through food banks; support services for the disabled; settlement services for new Canadians; or methadone treatment programs for addicts. They could also include “personal development” kinds of service. The tag-line for the Bikram’s Yoga Studio down the street is: “building strong communities by building strong individuals.” This kind of direct, one-on-one support is vitally important – AND, it seldom leverages change for larger groups of people in any sustainable way. Direct services fall in the “give a man a fish” category.

2. Social marketing/Education: Social marketing focuses on trying to reach larger numbers of people to change individual attitudes or behaviours. Here, I’m conflating social marketing and education. Education is almost always a part of social marketing campaigns. It makes sense: people won’t adapt new behaviours or attitudes unless they encounter plenty of facts and ‘validators’ to back up the new idea, facts that tend to fit within their pre-existing ‘frames’ or terms of reference. Examples of social marketing campaigns: public health campaigns focused on anti-smoking, fitness, condom use; anti-bullying education; drinking-and-driving education; or reducing energy consumption. But like direct services, social marketing campaigns focus on individuals, rather than systems. They may focus on relatively large numbers of people, but don’t really address the landscape in which people make decisions in the first place.

3. Business/consumerism: In the past 20 years across Europe and North America, the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) world has exploded. The underlying assumption for CSR advocates is that as market economies are here to stay, and allow educated consumers to “vote” for some kinds of change with their dollars : so let’s develop pockets and swirls of positive, equity-focused, environmentally responsible market forces that can eventually shift the voluntary behaviour of at least some corporations and market sectors. Examples of CSR initiatives range from the development of “climate-friendly mortgages” (eg. to encourage energy efficient building and renovations), organic foods and fair trade consumer products, to cross-branding with progressive social causes (eg. The Red Campaign). On the consulting side, there’s a host of “sustainability practitioners” to go along with the trend (I confess to still not understanding what that means, exactly!). This so-called “pocket-book activism” has power in numbers – huge numbers – of consumers. Presumably, if alternative markets develop and become sufficiently large to truly compete with resource-depleting, inequitable, conventional businesses, they can yield change in the broader system over time. Or, one could argue, pocketbook activism can lull consumers into thinking they’ve done their bit, without substantially changing anything.

4. Policy Advocacy: Advocacy – that is, advocacy centred around clear calls for policy change – addresses power. It is a central strategy for many environmental and anti-poverty groups in their roles as “third party” influencers of the actual decision-makers. Activists often use the term “advocacy” to mean a wide range of activities, from government relations (seeking to influence policy, and decision-makers, through relationship-building and persuasion) to rabble-rousing (negative media attention, petitions, public rallies, organizing and voter education). These efforts come with an implicit (but not always clear) call to action in terms of corporate or governmental policy change. The role of third parties is tricky, because no matter how intense or ‘loud’ advocacy efforts may be, they won’t necessarily lead to change. Advocacy has to be linked to a clear understanding of actual levers of power in the decision-making process. Is there a city council vote coming up? A Treasury Board or finance committee debate about the next budget? A desperate need for supporters by one potential candidate in an upcoming internal party nomination campaign?

Before moving along the continuum, it’s worth pausing to map out this territory a bit further – because it is the primary approach used by most social change organizations. Again, by ‘social change’ (vs. social wellbeing) organizations, I mean those organizations seeking to change the system, or triggers within the system, in order to leverage greater equity or environmental responsibility. Within this policy advocacy realm, there are many strategies groups use to shift power and effect systemic change:

‘Public will’: Public will campaigns are about mobilizing ‘key publics’ to communicate with their elected officials in sufficiently strong numbers and effective formats (eg. real letters vs. postcards) to encourage shifts in decision-making. This can be even more effective when those constituents wield power themselves in relatively direct ways that matter to elected officials – party donors, business allies, or voters in key ridings, for example. Within public will campaigns, there are a host of approaches or sub-strategies:

Organizing – eg. ‘concentric circle organizing’, old-fashioned face-to-face ‘shoe-leather’ outreach (canvassing, streeters, house parties, etc); ‘netcentric’ campaigns using on-line and off-line approaches; ‘viral’ on-line approaches, and likely dozens of others; the idea is to target current and potential supporters, build relationships, listen and where values align, help them move them up the ‘leadership ladder’ to greater and greater levels of engagement – ideally, to create a whole new cadre of organizers

‘Gatekeeper’ campaigns – campaigns aimed at targeting a few individuals who have access to broader groups of people, access that the social change actor or organization does not easily have on its own

Celebrity or ‘opinion leader’ endorsement for positioning and profile (‘surprising bedfellow’ strategies could fall under here)

‘Inside champions’ to provide access to internal podiums, provide endorsements & positioning

Government relations: For me, one big learning over the past year has been how few organizations do any government relations at all – when policy change is at the heart of their entire strategy. Government – both at the staff and political level – is where policies are made. A solid government relations (GR) program provides intelligence about what laws and policies have the potential to move through the internal ‘food chain’ of government decision-making. It can inform what stage policies are at, whether the time is right for moving specific initiatives forward (and when such efforts will realistically be futile), and what the specific levers of change are for moving them more quickly and in a stronger direction. GR is about research, listening, and learning. It is about relationship-building that leads to a deeper understanding of how, where and when to shift power. It is as essential to any effective policy effort as opinion research is to any broad public communications effort.

Litigation: This form of advocacy involves using existing policy levers and legal tools (statutory tools and precedents through the courts). Litigation has been used with incredible, tangible impact by groups such as the Sierra Legal Defence Fund and Pivot Legal. During more progressive government administrations, where ‘third party’ civil society groups tend to have more access and influence on policy development, litigation strategies are less needed, and tend to wane. But during relatively regressive, inaccessible administrations, litigation can be a vitally powerful advocacy tool for advancing social change.

Market Campaigns are about going to a different kind of power source: corporations. So much can be written about this approach, and in this globalized economy, usually only organizations with global reach themselves can use them. But the basic model (which groups like ForestEthics use masterfully) looks something like this:

1. identify a corporate target, ideally an iconic or influential member of a broader sector. Research it thoroughly in terms of chain of supply, investors, distribution networks etc
2. ask for change in policy (eg. procurement policies like selling paper products derived from pristine old-growth forests, or marketing policies like targeting children in tobacco marketing campaigns)
3. when the change doesn’t come, organize creative, public communications initiatives, generating plenty of earned media, that position the company negatively and potentially harm market share and/or investment potential, in order to drive the target to the negotiating table
4. negotiate for the change; agree to publicly praise the company for its leadership when the change comes
5. and here’s a twist that applies to some campaigns: as part of the negotiations, ask the newly-converted company champion(s) to meet with government to encourage a broader policy change that levels the playing field for all companies in the industry – thereby leveraging a more lasting, systematic shift in the decision-making landscape

5. Politics: Politics are about going to the heart of the matter – the matter being power. It is the stage where the complicated dance between vision and compromise plays out most starkly. Politics are not about being ‘pure’, or necessarily right – because in a democracy there may be many variations of ‘right’. As my partner says, “do we want to be a club – or a movement?” Initially, it is about battling it out in the arena of votes, at both the nomination and election stage. But when those battles are over, politics is about the opportunity to roll up your sleeves and dive into the messy work of sorting through diverse and sometimes conflicting values and solutions by tapping into collective intelligence and into leadership, all to develop policy. In the elections process, third party of civil society groups can play indirectly in this arena in several ways: building relationships with prospective candidates (one they’re in power it becomes a government relations exercise); organizing and list-building in specific electoral districts to build power through ‘get out the vote’ (GOTV) work on e-day; endorsing specific candidates; volunteering or otherwise building the capacity of specific candidate campaigns; and various forms of voter education.

Final word:
Power lies at the heart of each of these approaches, as I believe it lies at the heart of all social change. Each approach has value. But I believe that the closer each is to addressing power, the harder the work becomes – and the more likely it is to have lasting, systemic impact. In developing strategies for social change, and for building movements that lead to social change, we are continually faced with the cost-benefit analysis of which approach will best serve, or be more fruitful, given our own assets, resources and ability – and willingness – to wield power.

Power: What Lies Beneath

“There is nothing wrong with power if used correctly… What we need to realize is that power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

wave-clipart.pngAs a campaign facilitator, I see groups constantly faced with nuances in strategy – those fuzzy lines around the “ends vs. the means” dance that seems to need constant re-assessment, if power is truly the aim of the group. By “power”, I mean actual impact on policy decisions. But for many social change activists, after years of battling against the status quo, “power” is synonymous with “abuse”. It doesn’t have to be that way. But what is the ethical, right, smart way to deal with power? What lies at the core? How do we find that sweet spot where power comes from a place of integrity and generosity?

For me, ultimately, underneath all the strategy, tactics and analysis, love is what drives positive power.  Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote continues to inspire me.  And despite the reputation activists often have of being perennially angry,  I believe love is actually what drives many – maybe most – social change folks. Yes, some are driven by anger, and woundedness, and a desire to lash out at authority of any kind. In those cases, our job, as facilitators and coaches, is to help them connect with that deeper positive force within them – the force that will help them sustain their energies over time and build connection with others; that will enroll, rather than repel, the ‘persuadables’ that are so key to any  movement if it to grow beyond the converted.

Thanks to my American colleague Kevin for reminding me of MLK’s beautiful quote.

The Trajectory of Social Change

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How does social change “happen”? And what can social change leaders and groups do to help it happen? Before getting into the philosophy or techniques for movement-building, or for ‘accelerating’ or influencing social change, I’ve found it helpful to unpack the basics. So I’ll start with what, to me, is the seminal and still-useful model for how social change takes place.

Back in the early 1960s, Everett Roger and his academic pals developed the “Social Diffusion Theory”, outlined in the book Diffusion of Innovations. Picture a basic bell-curve: The model describes the trajectory of new idea or technology as it spreads through a community. First, the idea is taken up by “innovators” – a small group educated risk-takers. From there it spreads to a larger group of popular, socially influential “early adapters,” followed by the socially-connected “early majority”. The idea continues to spread through the community, through to the more skeptical, traditional low-income “late majority”, and finally to the cautious and less-connected are “laggards”. Awareness has a role – but “just give the people the info” doesn’t do it on its own.

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At the personal level, Rogers’s theory outlines five steps: Knowledge (just becoming aware of the issue); Persuasion (‘coming to judgment,’ as Daniel Yankelovich would describe it), Decision, Implementation, and finally Confirmation. Other factors are interest, evaluation, trial and finally, adoption. These last five stages more or less correspond to the seven-staged model outlined by the “dean” of public engagement, Daniel Yankelovich, in his seminal book Coming to Judgment. When about 15% of the community’s population has taken up the idea, then it has reached its so-called “tipping point, ” as Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book of the same name. Continue reading “The Trajectory of Social Change”

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