Tag Archives: communication

It doesn’t ALL have to stick

All of the parenting books I’ve read over the years tend to run together, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t remember (and use) snippets of the advice. I just can’t credit it properly.

For example, one tactic that works well with my youngest son, who can tend to shut down in the face of what he sees as complex instructions, is to boil those directions down to the most essential elements. A morning interaction with him can sound like this, then: “Ben, shoes.” “Ben, backpack.”

And then we have more leisurely conversation about the other things that he wants to talk about–Curious George, candy, and, somewhat inexplicably, Gerald Ford.

But the really important parts? He needs those really stripped-down.

This came to my mind when I was reading Made to Stick over the winter. The authors remind us that not all of our communication necessarily needs to stick (an impossible aspiration anyway). We will be more successful in getting our key points across–and getting them to really move people–if we don’t try to muck them up with basically extraneous information.

Essentially, if we stop trying to get every piece of information we have about a given issue to really resonate with our target audience, we can get the (relatively few) things that are truly critical across much better.

We experienced this with our advocacy around the Food Stamp rule change that affected U.S. citizen children in mixed-status families and their eligibility for food assistance (see–I can’t even describe it without beginning to lose people!).

I spent so much energy, and sucked up so much of our targets’ attention, trying to really explain it. And it’s complex. Anything that involves phrases like “pro-rata share” and “mixed-status” and (seriously) “pre-PRWORA ineligibles” is going to be killer, right?

It seemed important, somehow, that people understood how the math worked, so that they would know that the state agency’s claims that the old formula was biased in favor of immigrant households just wasn’t true. They had to understand, right, that we don’t count the immigrant parents for the purposes of determining the household size. It matters, doesn’t it, that USDA will grant states the authority to institute a cap against which to evaluate the benefit size, if they just ask for this waiver?

Not really.

It was like the heavens opening the day I said, really in frustration, “it’s just wrong, when we decide that it’s okay to treat kids differently just because we don’t approve of their parents.”

The reporter with whom I was talking got quiet for a minute.

And I knew that was it.

The core, which had been so elusive.

Because the heart of the issue wasn’t even hunger–talking about the hardship the new rules visited upon these children inevitably brought questions about whether they were really hungry or not, how we knew that, what resources were stepping up to fill the need…blah, blah, blah.

And it wasn’t even just that these children are U.S. citizens. Everybody knew that, but that alone doesn’t really tell us much about what their legitimate claims should be.

The core is that we cannot address the needs of children in this country if we treat anti-poverty policy as a referendum on parental behavior.


That’s all that has to stick.

Then, the policy solutions that must flow from that will all have to make sure that, whatever we do, children aren’t harmed as a way to prove a point about their parents.

Do whatever math you need to to make that work; that’s our endgame, and the standard by which our policy actions must be judged.

“Ben, coat.”

And we’re ready to go.

Understanding their narratives–listening to stories from ‘the other side’

We’re not the only ones with stories.

The thing is, though, that even we social workers–with our “I messages” and everything–are often guilty of ‘otherizing’ (that really SHOULD be a word) the ‘other side’.

As though, just because they disagree with us, their narratives are less poignant.

But that’s a mistake, because we can’t hope to understand where they’re coming from if we don’t listen to their stories.

Their facts may be incorrectly analyzed, or their conclusions may be erroneous, or they may be operating only from their perspective and failing to craft policy alternatives that meet the needs of our constituents.

All quite possibly true.

But the stories about why they pursue a certain change, or, conversely, why they cling to a failed status quo…those stories are important. To them, and, if we hope to be able to counter their arguments, to us, too.

Living Proof has helped me with this, because it breaks stories down into a sort of formula: what is the arc of what was then and what is now, and where are they pulling out the pieces that are most integral within that larger story?

When people (not think tanks, and not politicians) talk about resisting government takeover of their health care, what story are they really telling, about fearing that what they precariously cling to may be eroded somehow?

When people complain about having to ‘press 1 for English’, what are they really saying about what they remember of the United States, and about the changes they wish they could prevent?

When someone berates people receiving public assistance as lazy dependents, what story are they telling about their own identity, and about their fears for their future?

To me, this isn’t about trying to psychologize (again, should TOTALLY be a word!) our opposition, or, especially, about ascribing motives to them that may not, at all, motivate their positions or their actions.

It’s really just about recognizing that they do have a story, just like we do, even if theirs is different than the one we tell.

It’s about honoring that story, as authentic to them, just as we would not try to oppose someone else’s ‘I statement’. It is theirs.

And, maybe, that can give us a starting point, to share a story of our own, and to see if we can’t find some common themes–and maybe even some common values–in the stories that have shaped each of us.

What is your ‘other side’ saying, when you stop to listen?

Can I tell you a story?

We social workers are fond of “I” statements, as a way of communicating our perspectives irrefutably (because only we can truly know our own stories).

Turns out, stories in advocacy work much the same way, by engaging the voice inside our listener’s head (“I’ve always wondered about that” or “Could that really be true?” or “That is so terribly sad”) instead of immediately arousing the listener’s defenses.

That doesn’t mean, certainly, that stories are automatically given tremendous credence; remember, we live in a climate where even verifiable facts are contentious.

But, just as saying “When you fail to do laundry the entire week that I’m gone for work, I feel overburdened and underappreciated” (hypothetically, of course) is a better place to start a conversation than “I cannot believe that you dressed Sam in swim trunks for school rather than run the washing machine!”, so, too, is telling a story a step towards building a common narrative from which we can have a real dialogue, even about difficult issues.

The book, Living Proof, is much more about how to tell your story for advocacy than why, but there’s some of the ‘why’ in there, too. We brought one of the authors in for the Sunflower Foundation Advocacy Fellows speaker series last month, and I had an opportunity to talk with him about his work helping people claim, and successfully tell, their own stories.

But, in practicing what I preach, I think, rather than me trying to convince you that telling a story is a particularly compelling way to break through opposition and deliver a message even to rather hostile ears (something that you probably are at least somewhat inclined to believe already, at least in the abstract), check out these stories from Living Proof–the stories of some of the advocates who have told their stories, to great effect.

Stories that can make even the most ardent multitasker think twice about checking email at stoplights.

Stories that cut through the hateful rhetoric on gay marriage.

Stories that can make people care enough about clean drinking water halfway around the world that they give up birthday presents to pay for it.

What stories do you tell, to convince people to lower their defenses and journey with you towards a more hopeful tomorrow? What stories do you use to get past those who think they already know everything? What stories do you share to combat hopelessness?