For Real Change, Have Conversations: The Art of the “One-to-One”

By Thomas Atwood and Sarah Byrnes

No matter who wins the debate or ultimately the election, we know our nation and our communities will continue to face complex economic, ecological, political, and social challenges.

Our challenges are compounded by a culture of isolation and disconnection. The skills we need to build connection and empathy may not come as naturally as they once did. Mainstream culture encourages us to separate from each other—to be “independent” and “self-made”—despite a growing body of evidence that our brains are actually hard-wired for connection.

Community organizers in the field report that Americans revolve around an axis of “overwhelm” these days, as they struggle to access the services that they need, educate their children, maintain a middle class lifestyle, or merely survive. Why are volunteer hours for community service or membership organizations plummeting? Why do so many of us refuse to let their children play outside? Precinct walkers at election time rarely find anyone at home, and many who are refuse to answer the door. Why is it increasingly difficult to get a response from a voicemail, email, or even text message?

Given our challenges, we just can’t afford this level of disconnection. Isolated individuals cannot create real social change. It’s up to networked communities to do that.

That’s part of why people have been forming small groups like Resilience Circles and social action affinity groups around the country. These groups are a way to relearn skills of mutuality, consensus-building, story-sharing, and real listening. They form an essential piece of the architecture of social movements built on solidarity and relatedness.

But pulling together a small group can be a real challenge. People are likely to be puzzled at first if you invite them to join one. That’s where the art of conversation comes in.

Labor and community organizers have been using a practice called the “one-to-one” conversation for generations as a way to build networks, enhance relationships, and enlist people in their work. A one-to-one can be defined as a structured conversation where you authentically share your story with another person and listen to theirs. Based on your commonalities, you invite the person to work together. It’s a great way to invite someone to join your small group, or if you’re not trying to form a small group, it’s a great way to build relationships and learn more about your neighbors’ concerns.

We have found that if you begin a regular practice of inviting others to have deliberate, one-to-one conversations, you’ll find it rewarding. You’ll enhance your story-sharing and listening skills, and you’ll learn to focus more on your relationships than on specific outcomes. One-to-ones teach you a whole lot about how other people see the world, which can deepen our commitment to social change and make us wiser organizers.

The down side is that they can feel risky. No one likes to experience rejection, and unfortunately you aren’t likely to hear an enthusiastic “Yes, I’ll join you!” at the end of every conversation. It’s best to prepare for a range of responses. No matter how skilled you are as an organizer and conversationalist, some people will say “No” to your invitation. Some will say “Maybe” (which generally means “No”). Some will say “Yes,” but won’t show up. Some will say “Yes,” show up, and then drop out. Some will say “No” today, and “Yes” later. And luckily, some will say “Yes” and become valuable contributors.

We can’t get around doing this. We can’t build a strong movement without actually talking to people in person. This isn’t an ‘extra’ when it comes to organizing or social change. As Cesar Chavez reportedly said when asked by a student how he organizes, “He said, “First, I talk to one person. Then I talk to another person.” “No,” said the student, “how do you organize?” Chavez answered, “First I talk to one person. Then I talk to another person…””

You get the point. Talking is organizing. So let’s get the conversation started.

How to Have a One-to-One Conversation

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