Advocating to Callous Listeners: Five (Not-So-Easy) Steps

1. Let Go of ‘Should,’ And Recognize ‘Is’

This is the first step, but it’s also by far the hardest–if you can manage it, the rest becomes much easier. Most people reading this probably agree that anyone with the empathy God gave a grapefruit thinks that other human beings dying through preventable means is bad. The natural corollary that extends from this understanding is that this person we are speaking to does not, in fact, have the empathy God gave a grapefruit. There’s a real impulse to reject not just that person, but the whole rest of the process–“Well this person is terrible, so until they aren’t, I’m done.” And I hate to break this to you, Dear Reader, but if you have set out to advocate you are not, in fact, done–or at least, not just because this person should have empathy and doesn’t. Nobody is going to make those people play by the rules of basic humanity. People who show they lack empathy to a degree that appalls you still sometimes need to be dealt with, and walking away in those situations is a luxury we’re losing the ability to exercise. You gotta even. I’m sorry.

2. Identify Goals (Ahead of Time, if Possible)

You’ll note that I said above, “People…sometimes still need to be dealt with.” The obvious corollary is that sometimes, they don’t. The best way to avoid banging your head against a human brick wall for an hour is to have a good idea of whether you need to deal with this person–and the easiest way to do that is to identify your goals. And even when you do need to talk to a person, having a firm understanding of what you’re trying to achieve helps you get in, say what you have to say, and get out–so it’s very helpful to know going in. What are you trying to achieve by talking to this person? Do they control access to a resource you need? Are they engaging in a damaging behavior you want to stop? Are they voting all of our human rights away in the first week of their first session before your eyes? (Spoiler: If your answer is “I want to let them know that their ideas are bad and they should feel bad,” I recommend walking away.)

3. Look for Carrots and/or Sticks

Okay, so: You’ve accepted that the obvious appeal to humanity won’t work, because the listener is a jerkfaced jerk. But they’re a jerkfaced jerk who has a thing you need. Now what?

4. Offer a Carrot or Raise a Stick, and Preferably One that You Believe

This is another hard but crucial step, because it requires you to take on the listener’s paradigm long enough to persuade them. It honestly does help to believe what you are saying, for several reasons. First of all, a credible argument tends to carry more weight; a thing even you don’t believe is generally not that persuasive to other people. But more importantly, an argument you can accept as true helps you remember is that speaking this person’s language doesn’t mean you hold their values, or that you agree with them–it just means you need something from them and you have to figure out how to coalition-build in order to make that happen. It’s helping them figure out why they want to do this thing you want them to do anyway. (And lastly, though perhaps this should go without saying, it is never a good idea long-term to lie your way to a built coalition, as this creates many problems for both you and others throughout the process.)

5. Take Care of Yourself After the Rinse/Repeat Cycle Ends

Most people’s minds aren’t changed in a single five-minute session; it takes a lot of work and internal screaming and fantasizing about shaking them by the shoulders. This process is hard on a person, and appropriate self-care should be treated as a necessary step. Do what you need to do in order to stay healthy, and that tends to be different things for different people. I encourage you to think of self-care as the final step of the advocacy process, because it’s that crucial.



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Kara Hurvitz

Kara Hurvitz

Boots on the ground for social change, one step at a time.