If you want change, learn when to argue and when to stop

Getting stuck in the wrong fights can eat up energy—so learn to use it wisely.

Tim Gray
29 April 2016

Credit: CC0 Public Domain.

If you're trying to create change on an issue, your time and energy are as deep and wide as the ocean, right? Or possibly you're a human being like the rest of us.

Here's how you're unusual. At some point you've recognised that there's a problem, seen that there are solutions, and have a drive to bring others to the same point of view and make stuff happen.

That's fantastic, and much needed. But that very thing puts you at odds with most people, who are not operating in a rational problem-solution mode. Often campaigners and activists assume that other people's heads are operating in the same way as theirs, but it isn't true. Most people, most of the time, are running on habit.

Sometimes a response comes from argument, or a genuine statement of someone's fully thought through views and position. More often though, a response happens because their worldview feels like you've poked it and it has to release that energy through a defence or a counterblast. For example, if you warn people about carbon emissions from their cars, parents making the school run feel like you're saying that their life is wrong. Talking about vegetarian food? People whose habits have formed around more traditional fare will need to express how weird they think you are.

Their response might not make much sense. It might even be transparently crazy. But once they've issued it and it's become part of their publicly-expressed self, it's covered by their defence umbrella too.

Your instinct might be to keep making points to persuade them. But the problem is, you're not in an argument. It's not a discussion. They're not interested in exploring your points: they're fighting off an intrusion into their day.

If that's the situation, all you’re doing if you keep going is adding momentum to their resistance. When the next person comes along with ideas that seem related to yours, they'll be more inclined to fight them off. They'll get invested in casting you as bad.

They may even adopt into their social face or personal identity that they are a person who fights that thing, and become actively involved in movements that oppose you. Habits build on habits.

Some people put massive amounts of effort into fighting small changes that have triggered their defence systems. One example that bugs me is the movement that treats Agenda 21—a statement of intent from the 1992 Earth Summit—as a government conspiracy. You can easily demonstrate that it's not what they say it is, but they're invested in it and worldviews don't willingly admit that they are wrong.

So what to do?

Put your feelers out

First, develop a radar for when people actually want to discuss something and when it's a fight brewing. Then try not to feed more energy into the resistance.

Of course it's important to have discussions, to claim idea-territory and help thinking develop. At the right time those can be amazing. There are also times when it's important to make counterpoints—for example if people are spreading inaccurate information that others might pick up. But do it sparingly, be polite and try not to engage with antagonism. Sometimes you need to make a surgical strike and then withdraw.

If you make a furious rebuttal to every comment it becomes easier to paint you in a bad light, and you'll use up a lot of energy that could be better spent where more movement is possible.

Online forum users know that there's no shortage of people with seemingly endless reserves of time and a driving need to knock things down, muddy the waters and steal power. I sometimes say that the majority of online comments are people rehearsing their worldview and personal identity. It's about them, not you.

Also, we live in a time when old stories are breaking down—about working life, the economy, the structures of society, relationships, communication beyond borders, who we meet on our streets, what technology can do, and who has authority and answers. That means increased levels of what I call ‘mental inflammation:’ people are being asked to think about things they previously took for granted, and their brains are on high alert to shoot down new demands that need processing. There are a lot of defensive people out there.

So make your difference strategically: a nudge here, a support there, and a big push just at the right time on the way to momentum and tipping points.

Be your message

Secondly, take lessons from marketing. The old model of 'interruption marketing' that gave us mailshots, TV ads and PPI calls is increasingly discredited. With so much choice between information streams, people are rejecting marketing that gets in their face. Today's world favours approaches that build relationships, credibility and authority. That's how things work online, and it's spreading outwards from there.

This tells us something that maybe you'll find uncomfortable. Your lever for change is not just the arguments you can marshal, but who you are. Or, rather, what kind of person you're perceived to be.

Your message is not separate from you. If you want people to follow you somewhere, you have to be someone they can trust, someone with a vision they want to see realised.

If you talk about a future of renewable energy but it seems to make you bored or miserable, why would anyone want to go there? If you talk about animal rights but you're angry all the time, why would others want to be like you?

The things you say are framed by a lot of stuff that gets picked up (often subconsciously) and colours the way you're perceived, or even blocks the connection altogether. There are skills to gain if you really want to serve your message.

In the online business world of entrepreneurs and thought leaders this is often called 'personal branding.' That phrase may make you think of corporate language that you don't like or trust, but today in those circles it's usually accompanied by talk of ‘authenticity’ and ‘integrity.’ That's because those things feed the hearts of those who are doing the work, and of course are good for business.

That leads on to a larger point: don't neglect your own personal development. Make balance and happiness part of your mission.

When the flaws in the world call to you loudly it can be hard to enjoy your time here. Believe me, I know. My superpowers include seeing how things can be better, a strong sense of right and wrong, and empathy for suffering.

That cocktail brings massive frustration with the way people mess things up, along with the desire to wrestle them into better shape. It's what makes me interested in why people act the way they do and how change works—and it turns out that shouting doesn’t do it.

We only have the one life. Service is noble but deliberately martyring ourselves is dumb—and kind of rude really when you remember what's on offer in the world. We only have so much energy and we need to use it wisely. Movements for change need to get smarter and more human.

You might just find that when your life and who you are shine out of you, that's the most powerful campaigning tool of all.

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