As part of the People’s Climate March on September 21, 2014, Canberra hosted a “Festival of Community Action”, which I helped to organise. It had the rally tropes of speeches and chanting, but then transitioned into a set of workshops focused on climate campaigns or skills for activism, an attempt to embody “action, not words”. I co-facilitated the sole skills workshop with one Ray. Our workshop covered the art of persuasion and examined where it is done and how it can be done more effectively.
After the workshop participants were interested in hearing more about the content that we’d only been able to touch upon in the one-hour session. I was also keen to reflect on the workshop design and execution. Thus: this blog post! Herein I will try to draw out both the substance of the workshop, for those more interested in persuasion, while also reflecting upon the facilitation and training elements. Feel free to skip around!
Designing the Workshop
This was a tricky workshop to design. I didn’t know how many people would be attending, or what their level of familiarity would be. The attendees would be new to me and to each other, there would be no established norms or group dynamics to support safety. There would be only 75 minutes, we’d likely be starting late, and the open format would mean that people could come and leave throughout the time. Yikes!
With this context in mind, I deliberately took a “less is more” approach. Often as trainers we have so much we want to convey that we squeeze too much in to a workshop, which means that people end up learning less, not more. Having the trainer proffer less content can paradoxically improve learning outcomes, by making it easier for participants to digest the available content. Thus, the total time in which we trainers were explaining theoretical concepts was limited to roughly five minutes.
This was also motivated by a desire to move away from the “banking model of education” and towards the “spiral model”, of the Doris Marshall Institute (hat tip to Holly Hammond of http://plantowin.net.au for useful discussions around this!). The spiral model starts by asking participants to reflect on and synthesise their shared experience, only then adding theory and engaging in practise. I like this for many reasons. Two of them are that, firstly, the model embodies the principle that we each have the knowledge we need to be more effective – in this sense, the role of the trainer is facilitative, to help surface that knowledge. Secondly, the model makes learning easier, as each person will be able to structure new content on existing foundational knowledge, and will tend to identify new information that latches well on to what they know already. Winning!
Our workshop agenda ended up looking like this:
- 5m – welcome, introductions, review agenda, and setting space, explaining some group processes
- 10m – in what contexts do we have persuasive conversations? (whole group discussion)
- 15m – what makes conversations more persuasive? (small group breakouts)
- 10m – reporting back, first in two half-groups then in one big group
- 5m – Spectrum of Allies, Likeability heuristic
- 5m – Roleplay demonstration in front of whole group
- 15m – paired roleplaying and debriefing
- 10m – wrapping up, summary, evaluation
A few other notes on this:
- I wanted to avoid whole-group discussion. Given the context of the workshop, I wanted to avoid spaces in which the entire group would be expected to listen to only one speaker, as this had risks around having individuals dominate at the expense of less vocal group members.
- For the roleplay, we decided to add a roleplay by us in front of the whole group. I was a tad unsure about this as I was wary of taking away time that people could use themselves. I decided to go for it because I thought it was an effective way of explaining to people what we wanted them to do in their roleplays, by demonstrating one ourselves. We actually “roleplayed a roleplay” in that we had a persuasive conversation and the debiref to model the entire process. It also ensured that everybody witnessed an exemplary conversation, which could assist with their own paired roleplaying.
- We also made the spectrum of allies concept less of a lecture and more of an exercise, hoping to include more kinesthetic learning elements in the workshop. Instead of just speaking, or drawing, Ray invited five volunteers to the front each to act out a different person on the spectrum of allies. This physical embodiment of the spectrum ended up being entertaining, while also a vivid illustration of how the concept can be applied.
I’d now like to recount how the workshop ran, with a focus on the material that surfaced. In a subsequent section I’ll reflect on the facilitation lessons; here I’ll stick to the content.
What we learnt about persuasion
The first question Ray asked of the group was: in what contexts does persuasion occur, and what are we trying to achieve in these contexts? I was impressed with how readily the group discussed a range of situations and purposes, from queues at the supermarket to the lunchroom at work, from asking people to attend a rally to asking them to change their lightbulbs. What I wanted people to recognise here is that persuasion isn’t something done just by professionals or activsts on street corners and in front of TV cameras. Rather, it’s something we can all practise in our daily lives. Incidental everyday conversations are opportunities to influence views on important matters: more so than training a cadre of dedicated campaigners, I wanted this workshop to leave people a little more competent at handling such quotidian encounters.
The conversation then shifted to how we could be more influential in such contexts. After brainstorming in small groups, participants reported back, and I recruited a trusty scribe. People talking about the importance of listening, “gently questioning”, finding common values, and showing empathy. A common misconception around persuasion is that it depends upon knowing facts and being able to recall them: “You don’t believe in climate change? Don’t you know that 98% of climate scientists….” Some people did suggest this, saying that being well informed was important. Overall though, there was a strong sense that influencing others was a lot more about connecting as people than using facts.
Following this, Ray covered the “Spectrum of Allies”. This organising staple communicates the fact that community members will vary from active supporters to passive supporters, to the undecided, to passive opponents and then active opponents. Typically, the strong opponents (the “5s”) are most prominent, and it is them we want to win over. However, the Spectrum of Allies allows us to use our resources more effectively by focusing on people more open to suasion. We accept that we can’t shift the active opponents or get people to make miraculous leaps. Instead, we target the areas in the middle of the spectrum, and try to shift them each across a bit, targeting them with messages and actions that make sense: neutralising the passive opponents, convincing the neutrals, and mobilising the passive allies.
Ray gave the example of a petition tactic: if you want to get people to sign a petition, who should you approach? From his example we could see that a petition was suited best to mobilising passive supporters or being a tool to have a conversation with an undecided person. One point that didn’t get drawn out was that not only does the Spectrum help you to choose an appropriate audience for a given tactic, it can help you to chose an appropriate tactic for a given audience0. Joshua Kahn Russell gives the example of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which in 1964 coordinated the “Freedom Summer” to involve passive supporters from the US North as active supporters joining their struggle in the South.
Another important lesson from the Spectrum of Allies is that we don’t need to shift active opponents at all. Rather, as everybody else moves around – passive opponents become undecided, undecideds become passive supporters, passive supporters become active supporters – then the active opponents end up marginalised and irrelevant. Their views have less power simply because they are deprived of an audience and become fringe.
I then gave a cursory treatment to some of the psychology of persuasion. Principally, I wanted to convey that most decision-making (95%?) is non-rational, influenced by factors other than argument strength. These factors are diverse, but definitely include decision-making shortcuts: heuristics. I chose to focus on the likeability heuristic as one of most useful in the context of the workshop, explaining that you are more persuasive when your audience likes you. If you give a positive impression, make them like you, create connection, you are going to have more influence. My experience is that campaigners will tend to worry too much about not knowing the right things, rather than simply relax and aim to befriend their audience. But the likeability heuristic reminds us of the importance of simply being a real, pleasant person.
Our fairly brief workshop didn’t cover more content than that, and people were keen to have suggested sources to explore further. I suggested Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow as the best source on heuristics, although the hardcore might also explore Chaiken, Liberman, and Eagly 1989, or sample Petty and Cacioppo 1986 via my summary.
How it went
So that’s it for what we covered in the workshop. But want went well? How could things be improved?
The experience for me brought home the value of reflection and preparation in making a workshop effective. Ray and I made sure to meet beforehand to discuss our ideas about the workshop design, who would cover what, and how it would run. I’d previously devised the agenda, but having a second person’s input led to many improvements. It also meant that we were more comfortable running the workshop together, and bouncing off each other on the day. Too frequently I feel that some of those with responsibility for training ignore their duty to be adequately prepared, even taking a perverse pride in the fact that they didn’t prepare: “I hadn’t even seen the workshop before I entered the room!” In this case, I was glad that Ray and I each valued training enough to invest time into crafting the workshop.
I think that we each also played our roles well. I think we managed to take responsibility for the workshop, without trying to be too directive or authoritarian. In a reactive way, we established group processes for collaboration, with Ray keen to share the classic “hand in the air to quiet the group” and “finger twinkles for active consent”. I think we managed to wisely balance our position of authority with a certain humility, ensuring we didn’t use the workshop as a chance to put forward our own views to the detriment of others’ learning. When facing time constraints, the group took responsibility for deciding how to use our remaining time.
There is some space for improvement, which I think is less to do with how we run things and more what we run.
Running this workshop again, I would opt for something like this:
- 5m – welcome, introductions, review agenda, setting space, explaining some group processes
- 10m – in what contexts do we have persuasive conversations? what is our aim? (whole group discussion)
- 10m – what makes conversations more persuasive? (small group breakouts)
- 10m – reporting back in half groups, discussion
- 10m – Spectrum of Allies
- 5m – roleplay demonstration in front of whole group
- 15m – paired roleplaying and debriefing
- 5m – whole group roleplay debrief
- 5m – wrapping up, further reading, summary, evaluation
My experience on Sunday was the the first small group report back was quite effective, while the second one in the big group didn’t seem to add much. I’d cut the heuristics section because I feel it was a touch too technical, and used up valuable time. While it is a useful point, it didn’t sit coherently alongside the Spectrum of Allies, which I think deserved more attention, if not more time. On Sunday we didn’t end up running the roleplays as the group, having started the workshop much later than anticipated, was pretty ready for lunch. This is a shame as practising skills is intrinsic to the spiral model of education, and participants missed a chance to deeper their engagement with the workshop material. In the future, I would endeavour not to let this happen.
Overall, Sunday was a new experience of co-facilitating with a new partner, working with a unique assortment of people, in novel conditions. While the workshop we designed for the condition was not perfect, it created a useful space for participants to draw on their own experience and engage with useful concepts, by applying handy concepts about effective workshop design.
I chose to run a workshop on persuasion because I thought it would be the most useful content for the given context: people who had chosen to come to a climate mobilisation, but not to attend a campaign-focused workshop, who would presumably have some willingness to engage with their community around matters important to them. With the workshop I aimed to gradually build confidence and competence around such engagement, while scraping away some of the unhelpful misconceptions out there around the importance of facts. Judging by what came up in the workshop and participant feedback, I feel that Ray and I got it right.