person holding a pair of prescription glasses against an urban backdrop

12 habits of successful change-makers: understanding others

The Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s Social Change Project investigated how social change happens. The research identified “the 12 habits of successful change-makers”, behaviours found in both individuals and organisations. Every month in 2019, SMK CEO and ACEVO trustee Sue Tibballs will reflect on what these habits mean for civil society leaders and invite you to do the same.

Habit #7: from cabinet ministers to cabbies, we are all trying to make sense of the world. To start a real conversation, we need to understand who we are talking to and what makes them tick – even if that makes us uncomfortable.

On the wall of our offices is a quote (probably apocryphal) from Abraham Lincoln, who said “I do not like that man, I must get to know him better”. I have often thought it one of the best pieces of advice, and not just for campaigners.

Those who took part in the Social Change Project talked frequently about putting themselves ‘in other people’s shoes’. Here, I would particularly like to make the case for putting ourselves in the shoes of people who oppose us, with whom we disagree or whose ideas we find distasteful.

No one becomes a campaigner for fast cars and glamorous parties. Nor do they do it (sadly) for the work-life balance or job security. People drawn to campaigning are motivated by values – by things they believe in and feel strongly about – and they want others to feel the same. Yet human interests and feelings are complex – and it is far from straightforward persuading others to see the world as we do.

Human beings tend to interpret the world through the lens of our own experience and ascribe importance based on our own values. If our experience is too narrow, we’ll miss vital information and be too easily blinded by our own confirmation bias. If we then seek to convince others based solely on our own values, we are unlikely to win the support of people with entirely different world-views.

How, as an organisation leader, can you encourage your campaigners to truly understand, even empathise with, the people they may have been fighting for years?

Firstly, make it clear that it’s an ability you value and expect to see demonstrated. Secondly, recognise it’s something that most of us need to practice because we are often surrounded by ‘people like us’. Thirdly, make building empathy and listening skills part of people’s personal and professional development.

  • Ask them to read a paper they don’t usually identify with (force a Guardian reader to choose the Daily Mail or Times) for a full month and then report back on what the world looks like to its readers – how do they feel about current events, what are they worried about, what do they look forward to?
  • Encourage applications to schemes like NCVO’s A Day in the Life, which arranges work-shadowing swaps between the voluntary sector and civil service
  • If you run services, expect them to spend time each year volunteering there, alongside people in whose interests they are supposed to be working – what world-views and values do they hold dear?

There is much debate about how far it is wise to re-frame your case to appeal solely to others’ values. Will telling people to save energy because it will save money create sustained behaviour change? Or, in the longer-term, will it damage efforts to build public support for major public investment in renewables? Chris Rose and the Common Cause Foundation offer different perspectives.

Whatever model you choose, you’ll still need to understand people in order to be persuasive. Ultimately, it’s not about rejecting our own values and embracing others’ paradigms, but the ability to recognise where meaningful, authentic and, most of all, human connections can be made.

Previous blog in the series: Habit #6, the primacy of relationships

Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash (person holding a pair of prescription glasses against an urban backdrop)

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