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Take “The Resister” to Lunch

“Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” – Rumi

Pushback or outright obstruction from employees and managers skeptical of your organization’s sustainability program isn’t just annoying. It can also be a set back to progress and a barrier to bringing about a culture of sustainability within your organization. Fortunately, there are strategies to help aspiring change agents navigate these conversation landmines.

When They’re Not Buying What You’re Selling

In a perfect world, everyone in your organization would understand the importance of the sustainability agenda. In reality, there will be those who see sustainability as a distraction from the “real work” of the organization. These are the sustainability skeptics and nonbelievers, the resisters.

Our natural tendency is to avoid interaction with resisters. It’s probably going to be awkward, and there’s little chance the resister will change his or her position, so what’s the point? But if it’s a person you really need on your team, you’re going to need a way of engaging them.

Some strategies to get resisters on board involve coaxing, cajoling, or outright pressuring. One popular book on sustainability management even offers military solutions to overcome resistance, some of which include:

  1. Retreat and attack the opponent at another place where success is more likely
  2. Retreat and recruit another army to re-attack
  3. Call in the big guns
  4. Create a siege
  5. Cultivate peace and wait for the next good opportunity to re-attack

Notice a trend? In all of the approaches listed above, the sustainability advocate is on the defensive, waiting for the right moment to attack the other side. The problem is seen as “us versus them” and “win-lose.” But is it really a zero sum game?

Rather than attempting to coerce resisters, an alternative approach involves deep listening, empathy, and a focus on common interests.

Fact: engaging in an open and generative dialogue with resistors beyond the sustainability choir takes courage, preparation, and a healthy dose of soul searching. The good news is you don’t have to be a saint to engage in a transformative dialogue with a vowed adversary.  You just need to dust off your soft skills.

There is a Better Way

The idea for this blog came from a TED talk with a similar title: Take “The Other” to Lunch. In her talk, Elizabeth Lesser gently nudges us to counteract our tendency to “otherize” by inviting to lunch someone who makes smoke come out of our ears. I’ll admit, the first time I watched the talk, I couldn’t help thinking how naïve the concept seemed. Take someone who totally disagrees with my worldview out to lunch? No thanks!

To my surprise, when I had my conversation with “the other,” it turned out way better than expected. The key, I found, was coming from a place of genuine curiosity and interest in understanding where my resister was coming from. Rather than arming myself with facts and figures to back up my position, I instead chose to follow Lesser’s groundrules: “Don’t persuade, defend or interrupt. Be curious; be conversational; be real. And listen.”

Widening the Circle

There is a new book that helps us get unstuck in hard conversations. In an era of unprecedented divisiveness, this book is right for the times. It is a field guide for how to navigate challenging conversations, with proven strategies and rich examples on how to move the sustainability conversation from debate to dialogue.

What I love most about this book is that it’s action-oriented. It inspires readers to get to work. It helps us get out of our heads and move beyond our echo chambers. Here are my three major takeaways:

  1. Focus less on what you’re saying and more on how you’re being.So often we try to find the right message and language for the audience. While this is important, it also doesn’t hurt to do an internal mindset check-in by asking yourself: am I coming from a place of self-righteousness and ego or curiosity and compassion?
  2. Push beyond the frontier of perceived tradeoffs. One common mental model is the tradeoff between return on investment (ROI) versus social/environmental value. Considering options beyond competing objectives and compromise moves us into the realm of creativity and innovation.
  3. Take responsibility in the language of an apology. Sometimes an “I’m sorry” can feel disempowering, like we’re giving away our power. But a genuine, wholehearted apology can be incredibly liberating. The authors suggest trying language like, “In conversations like this in the past, I have a tendency to do X. Bear with me while I try something new.”

In every conversation with resisters, we are presented with an opportunity to grow closer and build bridges across differences. Cesar Chavez, one of America’s great civil rights activists, was once asked by a student how he organized. Cesar replied, “First I talk to one person. Then I talk to another person.” The student pressed, “No, how do you organize?” Cesar repeated, “First I talk to one person. Then I talk to another person.”*

So who are the resisters in your organization? What conversation(s) are you avoiding with them? What new way of being and engaging do you want to try out? And most importantly…when is lunch?

*This story comes from Jeffrey David Stauch, Effective Frontline Fundraising: A Guide for Nonprofits, Political Candidates, and Advocacy Groups (Berkeley, CA: Apress, 2011).

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