Listen, don’t change

I was at the Compass Change:How? conference today and was struck by a few things in a discussion we had about ‘why it’s so hard getting people to change’.  By this it meant getting members of the public to take action for a more progressive, sustainable (etc.) world.

The first thing that struck me was the way that many people seeking change on progressive issues seem to believe there are two sets of people – first, us – the people seeking a better world, who are ethical, intelligent, well-informed and see the world for how it really is, and them – the general public that we are trying to influence – who aren’t so enlightened and don’t care so much.  This assumption is deeply condescending to other people and completely untrue.  And is perhaps at the root of our problem of why we find it so hard to gain social change.

The second thing that interested me directly follows from this point – it was the assumption we have as ‘change seekers’ that other people need to be ‘changed’ in some way – in other words, the idea that we need to shift them from their current position to another one, because we don’t approve of their current position.  When we articulate it like this, it’s not hard to see why we’re having problems gaining social change on key issues – because we’re trying to herd people into opinions and actions that they’re not currently prepared to take, and we’re doing so in a way that pays little attention or respect to what they think.

These observations gained greater credibility in my mind as one member of the conference suggested that the best way he had found to gain change was to actually ask people what matters to them and then to listen to their views properly and respectfully – and then try to find a course of action that takes account of these.  It’s really no surprise that this should be one of the most successful ways of gaining change as it doesn’t try to change people – it tries to change issues by focussing on the things that people care about.

But this idea of ‘listening to people’ has its risks for the progressive change makers.  I hear many progressive voices saying that we must become more democratic and let people have a voice – but at the same time they want people to hold particular views and behave in particular ways.  These two aims are conflicting – it’s one or the other.

As people seeking change, we’ve got to work out what we want from people.  If democracy matters to us and we want to let people have a voice we have to do this whilst understanding that people may choose some things we don’t like as progressives.

These are just thoughts I’m chewing over at the moment, and I’ve not formed a definitive opinion on them but they do provide food for thought….

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