Organizing is Mainly About Listening

Or, how to have a one-on-one conversation, reach a shared understanding, and get things done.

We get a lot of questions about how to reach out to, find common ground with, or persuade specific groups of people who may not agree with you or be convinced of the need to take action.

We could try to write several variations of this document about how to talk to all the different groups of people you may need to persuade, but the thing about people is that all of them are unique, with their own set of experiences, priorities, and assumptions. If you go into a conversation assuming that you know what the person you’re talking to thinks, you’re probably not going to get anywhere. The key is to listen to what they tell you, respond to it, and use that dialogue to build a relationship and move people toward a new way of thinking about things.

In other words, there’s no secret thing you can say that will persuade people, but there is a way to have a conversation with them that will help you get somewhere. You are organizersand these conversations are called organizing conversations.

Steps in an Organizing Conversation

An organizing conversation is about getting to a place of action—and next steps to take—from a foundation of understanding where someone else is coming from and figuring out from that what common goals or vision you share. Here we’ve described how these steps could be used in a conversation with someone that starts with different priorities, or positions on issues, than you have.

  1. Get the story. Ask open-ended questions and try to get long, honest answers. What does the person you’re talking to believe and why? What are some of their deep-seated values? Things like fairness or freedom.
  2. Imagine what’s possible. Where do you see common ground that you could build off of, in terms of the framework underlying people’s opinions? Try to articulate some shared, baseline values. What would it look like to work towards them?
  3. Commitment and ownership. Try to connect areas of disagreement to values that you share and get commitment to work in support of those values. It’s also a good idea to decide on a plan to keep talking to resolve ongoing disagreements.

If you’re talking to someone that you agree with on most things, great! But the same rules apply—listen to where they’re coming from, imagine what you can work on together, and commit to a plan for both that collaboration and resolving any issues you need to discuss.

Rules of Thumb

A Quick Note on Compromising

When you ask big questions, someone may say things that you recognize as racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise hurtful. Remember that your goal is not to compromise—to tacitly agree with, or ignore, things that are wrong or offensive to you or others. We don’t compromise on our values. Being an organizer means listening and talking to people, even if they disagree with you—but it doesn’t mean agreeing with things you know are wrong. For more resources on how to handle these kinds of conversations, check out the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guide.

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  • Organizing is about listening. In general, try to listen 70% of the time and talk only 30% of the time.
  • Remember your goals. Organizing is not about compromise, it’s about understanding where someone is coming from and appealing to the things they care about to help achieve a common objective or reach a common understanding. Go into the conversation knowing where you want to get to, even if that’s just an exchange of ideas.
  • Affirm - answer - redirect. People will bring up lots of tough questions that might take the conversation off track and distract from your goals. Affirm - answer - redirect is a good way to make sure the person you’re talking to feels like you have heard and addressed their concerns, while getting back to why you’re talking in the first place. Here’s what it looks like in practice:

Sample Affirm - Answer - Redirect:

Person 1: The Democrats in the Senate are whining about Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. Why won’t they give him an up and down vote, instead of filibustering?

Person 2: [AFFIRM] I hear what you’re saying—we ought to know where our elected leaders stand on things, so an up and down vote, majority wins, is pretty appealing.

[ANSWER] But the Senate is supposed to serve as a check and balance on the power of the administration, including the power to appoint judges. That’s why 41 or more Senators can filibuster a nominee: having an independent judiciary is that important. It’s the Republicans who want to change the rules and push Gorsuch through.

[REDIRECT] Why do you think Republicans in Congress want to push him through quickly? It might be because they know what positions he’ll take—and they know from his record that he won’t be a check on the Trump agenda, just a rubber stamp.

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Seek out these conversations. For some of us, we may interact mainly with people who are a lot like us. You may have to go out of your way to engage with people who think differently or have a different perspective. Find the opportunities in your community where you can safely and calmly interact face to face. An organizing conversation can rarely be accomplished in 140 characters.

Remember: you are now an organizer. You’ve helped build a movement that is standing up to the Trump agenda every day.  But what is it that organizers do? They listen and they talk. They build relationships and organizations. And all of those things start with having good conversations with people--even, or especially, people that you don’t agree with on everything--to get their story, imagine something together, and commit to working toward it.