This article is a re-post of a blog post I wrote back in 2018... which seems to only have become more relevant.
I know two things to be true, simultaneously: what you resist, persists. And: revolutions have, at times, changed the world.
Which probably makes revolutions quite exhausting.
But let’s look at what this means, one by one.
Or, better: have you ever found yourself in a nasty exchange on social media?
The more we push against something, the stronger it is going to hold its ground, push back. And somewhere along the line, the actual issue goes away and it becomes about winning, not about what is right.
People are people, and they get defensive. And they are defensive, because they are trying to avoid pain. Being open to criticism, to being told you are ‘wrong’ requires a relatively high level of consciousness (and tolerance to being hurt) which is often not available to us when we are pressured, stressed, frightened, insecure, secretly wondering if we are enough, if we are loved… and when are we not? — So we defend ourselves — not the issue.
So the next time you are witnessing an online or offline shouting match and ask yourself WTF is wrong with these people — ask yourself why it may be their threshold for pain is so low today. Sometimes you can find clues in the conversation if you know what to look for.
2. Revolutions have, at times, changed the world.
History has shown this to be true for both violent and non-violent revolutions. They can, at times, change things. But if the assumption above is true as well and at the same time, this means that a revolution occurs when the resistance finally falters — be it because it subjects to the violence or gets worn down by the persistence of non-violence. Somewhere there is tipping point, the conditions of change become overwhelming — and things change. In any event — a significant amount of force (or persistence) is required to overcome the resistance and create the change.
Which, to me, sounds exhausting.
3. But wait, there's more: The aggressive paradigm always wins.
Another thing is also true: Sadly, the aggressive paradigm always wins.
I first heard this laid out in the Parable of the tribes by Ran Prieur, way back in the film “What a way to go — Life at the end of empire” (my most powerful initiation into the state of the world…). You could watch the clip, but it goes something like this: You have a tribe occupying an area. Another attacks to take over the area — if the resident tribe surrenders, the aggressive paradigm wins. If the resident tribe fights back: the aggressive paradigm wins. If they leave, the aggressive paradigm wins (over the geographic area).
And these are all the options.
I find there’s a great tragic in this — especially because the parable assumes nothing about who’s right or wrong. It could be women’s rights activists standing up for all the right things, demanding equal rights for women (a good thing!) — and the aggressive paradigm still wins.
So is there a way to do things differently? — Let's start with an encouraging example I’ve come across quoted in “Spontaneous Evolution” by Bruce Lipton, telling the story of Jim Rough, a great facilitator and mediator. He was called in to resolve a conflict between abortionists and anti-abortionists, both almost militant in their views. Yet — within within a short time he had them working together on the same problem, by using a reframe to find the common ground: He asked “How can we achieve a society where all children are conceived and born into families who want and love them?”
Resistance fell away when the issue was elevated.
What do I conclude from all of this for a new paradigm of leading change?
Well — we could continue to battle for what we stand for, wait for the conditions to eventually be right and, with a bit of luck, for change to emerge. The problem is — in the face of the planetary urgency we are facing, the timeframes on this are rather — sketchy.
For example, I think we are just seeing a tipping point when it comes to plant-based diets… have you noticed how suddenly almost everybody seems to be vegan? I would say it wasn’t like that even two years ago… Change in a social media connected world is emergent, but timing is unpredictable.
But even then, we still run the risk of the aggressive paradigm still winning. If I claim my victory through violent or non-violent revolution, whether I’m shouting the others down, threatening them or force them through persistent non-violent protest— I’m still, in some way, participating in the aggressive paradigm. It’s still us against them.
But what about facts? Can’t we create change by simply raising awareness? Sorry, but I have news for you… I doubt that any argument was ever won over facts… Wikipedia alone lists something like 175 cognitive biases — ALL of which not only get in the way of resolving a conflict over facts — but should also make you wonder whether your own ‘fact-based’ truth is as true as you think it is at any given time.
What the hell are we even talking about?
So what to do? How do we lead change in a new paradigm way, that doesn’t perpetuate the aggressive paradigm?
1. PLAY SHERLOCK HOLMES
This one is based on both the principles of NLP and permaculture. Three of the 14 presuppositions of NLP state this: “All actions have a purpose”, “Everyone works perfectly” and “People make the best choice they can at a time”.
Simultaneously, the first thing we learn in permaculture is to ‘observe and interact’, i.e. to get a thorough understanding of the territory and until then — do nothing. Watch a year pass and the seasons change before deciding where to build your tool shed. Don’t rush things you don’t fully understand.
If I take these to heart, what it means is to spend as much time as possible playing Sherlock Holmes, before embarking on my change mission. If I can get a thorough understanding of
- What motivates the behavior I’m wanting to change in the other person (Helpful hint: we all do things mostly to either gain pleasure or avoid pain — and often both)
- What priorities and values drive the other person — and why?
- What is important to them?
- What do they believe about the world and about themselves?
- What good thing are they trying to do (because we all want to do the ‘right’ thing…)?
Then I’m going to have a much better chance of actually discovering the LEVER that is going unhinge the problem. AND I am much more likely to have a positive, compassionate conversation, rather than a confrontational debate. I can actually create a the opportunity of working TOGETHER on each other’s problems, instead of arguing over how to solve them. And who knows — the solution may well transcend the initial problem.
This, by the way, is not to say I want to give up on my change mission. But I’m delaying it until I actually understand what is going on for the other person (or party), so that I can help them change in a compassionate, non-confrontational way.
(Disclaimer: and yes, I do expose myself to the possibility I may abort my change mission if I discover I am either fighting for the wrong cause or against the wrong person. That’s a good thing)
A good way to look at this is to remember (and this also comes from NLP) who ‘owns the problem’. If you are the one wanting change — for whatever perfectly good reason — you are the one ‘owning a problem’. Taking this problem, barging in onto someone else’s life and expecting them to make it THEIR problem (even if you think it is EVERYBODY’S problem) is a big ask… and unlikely to succeed. But if you take another approach by taking responsibility for ‘your’ problem, you can start working out how it might fit in with someone else’s view on the world — and what might need to be in place for them to be willing to help solve it for you.
2. LOOK FOR COMMON GROUND
For EVERY conflict, there is common ground — and in order to have a construction conversation, it is your job to find it. In deep rooted controversy, the common ground may be as high as the sky and seem a bit ludicrous, but if that’s what is, start there. Remember the abortionists and anti-abortionists? — If you want another to cooperate with you, find something you both believe in that you can cooperate on. Keep elevating the issue until you hit common ground. Maybe it’s the goal that every child has a healthy future that you can cooperate on even with those climate change deniers. Which may not immediately get them to sign the zero carbon agreement, but it may get them to do a whole lot of other positive things that help solve the problem. Focus on what you have in common, not what makes you different.
3. GET PERSONAL
The harsh and ugly truth? — We hide behind facts. Because if we can talk about the fact that atmospheric carbon is rising, we’ve reached 127 or so tipping points and every day 120 species go extinct — then we may not have to talk about the fact that we’re just plain shit — scared. That we feel guilty as fuck for our part in that. That we are overwhelmed with hope- and helplessness. That we look at our children and feel a painful empty void because we can’t promise them a great future. That we don’t really know what to do and are grasping at straws. That we feel alone in this. And that we very secretly still DO hope that even those climate change deniers or anti-feminists will still love and respect us.
Yet these are the very things that can create connection, not confrontation. Because we can all relate to these feelings, even if we experience them in an entirely different context.
And yes, that makes us vulnerable and potentially exposes us to criticism — and pain.
Well, how badly do you want change? And what are you willing to risk for it? Or is it that maybe you, too, value something more than that change — maybe it’s your own comfort zone? Well then, don’t you and those deniers have something in common?
That’s the scary side of getting personal.
The non-scary side of getting personal and a great tool to remember is putting a face to replace numbers — because we are emotional beings who connect through stories. The scientific probability (however high) of a x cm rise in sea levels by xyz is not ever going to be as powerful (or relatable) as the story of the single mother who lost her home and livelihood through a storm surge. The mother who has a name — let’s call her Lisa — and whose children have faces and one who likes to play hopscotch and “let’s call him Peter” who wants to be an astronaut — but now his school books got soaked — and how many Peters will we see next year? Or the year after? And what can we do for Peter?
You get the idea.
4. GET CLEAR ON WHAT YOU ACTUALLY WANT
This is something that we like to think is SO obvious, but so often is not.
Let people know what you actually want.
I picked up a leaflet today from a group promoting the ‘Zero Carbon’ Act. It was a folded A4, with information on every page. I learned about the carbon levels, legislative approaches here and overseas, what climate change is and why it’s important… and had to leaf to the very bottom of the last page to find the CTA (if you are a marketer, you know this stands for ‘call to action’). It was: “You can join us! — Sign the petition (a website link). Sign up to volunteer (another website link). And was given the opportunity to ask for even more information.
Look — signing a petition is a pretty small thing if I can do it online. I don’t need all this information to do that. AND — now that you’ve given me all this disturbing information — I am left feeling like ‘signing the petition’ is not going to make any difference anyway.
But at least it was specific. Because often, our calls to action are not. “Do something about climate change”. “Drive less cars” (and MAN — I’m guilty of this time and time again!) or ‘Recycle’.
a) not know what you mean
b) not know how to do that
c) when to do that
d) where to do that (and when not)
and therefore, simply dismiss it into the ‘too hard’ basket of denial and overwhelm.
That doesn’t mean they are bad people. It just means they have other stuff to think about. Who doesn’t?
Or. if you think that ‘just making them aware’ will be enough to ‘make them work it out’ you are making your own life WAAY too easy.
How badly do you want change?
The clearer and more specifically you can say what you want (and why) — the greater your chances of getting traction. Spend more time on the what than the why… people need surprisingly little why if what you’re asking isn’t that hard.
And what is the point in asking other people to do something you can’t even do yourself? Or that you are not sure of? “Use less plastic” while you’re still often enough buying plastic items? Let alone requests like “reduce carbon emissions” (Do YOU have the formula of how to do that across the board? — Let me know!)
Here’s where authenticity comes in — role modeling and walking the talk. Which doesn’t mean you have to be perfect — you just need to be specific about the things YOU are doing (and the ones that you aren’t).
And don’t get me started on requests like “take action!” “take a stand” or “speak up about..”. Wait — what? How?
IF you want people to change, you need to do as much of the work for them as possible (forget the ‘but they shoulds’ — you’re not entitled to anything). So, do the thinking, consider the options — and make one, clear, specific request at a time. “Purchase some reusable shopping bags next time you’re at the supermarket — and then put them in your car so you always have them on hand. Use them every time you go shopping”.
Sometimes the scale of change you’re asking for may be bigger than that — but always keep it specific and do the thinking for them. Point out how this will contribute to (insert the cause) and how it will benefit them.
5. LOVE LOVE LOVE THE “WHATABOUTS”
And finally, learn to love the ‘whatabout’s’. Quite often, when we are trying to influence someone and they raise a question like “But what about… ?” we may feel like we’re dealing with objections. We may even feel attacked and start getting defensive. We may feel like we have overlooked something or are not taken seriously. Or like ‘they are just not listening’.
That is your own confidence issue, not theirs.
The reality is, the ‘whatabout’ is a critical step towards change. If you can get a ‘whatabout’ you have actually already won: it means the person is seriously considering your proposition and is now looking for your HELP to resolve the last issues they have about it.
Dismissing these issues in any way only sets you back.
Instead, learn to love the ‘whatabouts’ and take on the challenge of solving these problems with them — and know you’ll have a passionate proponent for your cause afterwards!
Hopefully you found these ideas helpful! I look forward to your comments!
This post was first published on my personal coaching site www.nataliehormann.com. Sign up for future articles.