Make sure they know what to do: Clarity combats exhaustion, which can look like apathy

My husband and I have a sort of running joke (well, several, but only one relevant here). Whenever he asks me what I’m doing, or what’s going on, I say “advocacy”.

See, the thing is, I talk about advocacy ALL THE TIME.

Shocking, I know.

My preoccupation with the term is evident from my job titles. I am an advocacy technical assistance provider. A public policy advocate. An advisor to the Advocacy Fellows.

And, of course, in my free time, just a regular ‘advocate’.

But the reason that it’s funny, too, is that it’s a word that doesn’t necessarily tell someone much. I mean, what’s ‘advocacy’ to me may not be ‘advocacy’ to someone else. So I can throw it around (and, guilty as charged, sometimes do) without having to really articulate what in the world it is that I mean by it.

And, you know, that’s not too helpful, not when we really want people to advocate.

And not when, by that, what we mean is “organize your friends and neighbors” or “call your legislator” or “write a letter to the editor” or “speak up at the next meeting”.

My favorite part of Switch is this section with studies about how having to make a lot of decisions actually exhausts us, to the point to which it can look like we don’t care. They say that explains why we’re so tired after going shopping (and here I thought it was just because I really don’t like to buy things).

That means that, sometimes, what looks like apathy can really just be exhaustion; people can be literally too tired to do what it is that we want/need them to do, after the effort of figuring out what it is that we want/need them to do, even if they really want/need to do it, too.

This is a big problem, especially since we’re much more likely to spend our energy trying to convince people that they should “advocate”, instead of explaining exactly what that means, what it will look like, and how they can do it.

When they don’t do anything, we call it resistance. Or apathy. Instead of fatigue. Because, to us, how can they be tired? They didn’t do anything! Except they really did–they tried to figure out what to do, and that effort can wear us out.

My favorite part within this favorite part, then, is an experiment where researchers identified those within a college dorm most likely to give to a food drive (they called them ‘saints’) and those least likely to give (‘jerks’). Then they asked both groups to give, except they gave the ‘jerks’ explicit instructions about what to take, and where, even with a map. The saints just got the appeal.

Who gave more?

Those who knew exactly what they needed to do.

And this, people, is really, really, really awesome news. Because, as the authors of Switch conclude, it means that we don’t need to spend our time searching for saints, or trying to cultivate saintliness from mere mortals.

We don’t necessarily need more saints, because jerks with maps will do just fine.

And we can do maps.

What would be super-clear look like in your work? Where can we replace ‘advocacy’ with something that means a whole lot more, to more people? How can we resist our temptation to call it apathy, instead of figuring out if people know exactly what we need them to do? And where do you see this in your own life? And, dare I say it, in your own advocacy?

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