Plan, deliver, follow-up: how to turn opponents into allies
Some handy tips how to make communication with your strategic opponents successful.Читать по-русски
Women’s and LBT+ rights are crucial, cross-cutting aspects of social development. Sometimes, while working with these topics, we encounter individuals who don’t necessarily agree with our agenda, but they are essential for proper implementation of our ideas or they are responsible for major systematic changes. In this article we will guide you step by step how to prepare to communicate with your strategic opponents and share some handy tips how to make this communication successful.
What is the most important part of any idea? Some people might vouch for planning, implementing and monitoring of this idea, but not me. For the last five years I have been working with public relations, outreach on social media, and advocacy. And these five years have been an excellent opportunity to prove an old saying that communication is a key. Indeed, it is, especially when we are talking about women’s and LBT+ rights – two topics that are constantly attacked in conservative spaces.
To communicate with people who don’t agree with you and to establish ties with them that will allow you to use these people as your allies is an art. In this article we will go through 7 steps of excelling at this art: 1) Phrasing your idea 2) Studying the context 3) Learning what opponent wants 4) Identifying the benefits for the opponent 5) Communicating your message 6) Repeating the message and working with the environment, and 7) Following-up.
Before we go any further, it’s important for all of us to agree that our opponents can be nasty. While this article is going to repeatedly state that you should focus on your opponent when you are communicating with them, you should remember two simple things:
You are valuable!
You are the crucial part of the communication and your idea. If it weren’t you, nothing would happen. Strategic communication can be a very long and tedious process. At one point you might feel tired, exhausted, and hopeless, so TIP1: before going into the process of communication, ask a colleague or a friend for a permission to talk about your feelings and emotions connected to the opponents.
Think about your values
In this article we will look at how phrasing and proper messaging can help out when you encounter an opponent. But sometimes, no matter how hard you try, your opponents will stay the same. They will not cooperate, they will not speak in favour of your ideas, and that’s OK.
Re-phrasing, highlighting benefits, and giving space to the opponent doesn’t mean that you should hide your values and change you rhetoric completely to accommodate their needs.
1) Phrasing your idea
When you come up with an idea, it’s important to put it in a clear, concise and accessible way for others. As we work with women’s and LBT+ rights for a long period of time, sometimes we forget that we use very specific language to communicate about our plans and ideas, and this language might not be easy enough for others.
Try to avoid professional terminology and academic vocabulary when you work with your idea, and break it down to concrete actions. For example, your idea might be to increase level of literacy for young Roma girls in your region. What does this idea mean in practice? It might be the case that you want to arrange a “moving school” for them that will travel together with the group, or you want to invite Roma girls to participate in a local theater, so they will get to know some literature works. Put the action at the core of your idea and work with it.
Idea: Increase the level of literacy of young Roma girls
Phrasing option 1: I want to arrange several educational visits for young Roma girls to the local theater
Phrasing option 2: I want municipality to sponsor “moving schools” for young Roma girls
Don’t forget about your target audience: your idea and the way you phrase it should speak directly to them. For example, if you want to create a shelter for women who suffered from domestic violence in your city, one way to put it would be to say that you would like to create safe, welcoming space for women who are going through difficult life situations. Such phrasing may help you to reach out to those women who don’t have the terminology to identify domestic violence.
Prepare several arguments that will support your idea. Search for the studies or national statistics, learn what has already been done about this issue in the country or in the countries nearby. Remember that the best way to get support for your idea is to suggest a solution to the problem.
TIP2: try out your idea by presenting it to several people from different social backgrounds. You can talk about your idea to your friends, your grandmother, or people at your workplace. Collect their feedback and prepare several different phrasing that will speak to them specifically.
2) Studying the context
Who are our “opponents”?
The word “opponent” is a strong one: it means a person or an institution who consciously opposes your agenda and views. The word “opponent” can also mean someone who has the power to distribute resources, but for some reasons this person doesn’t want to help you with implementation of your idea. We will use this word in the second meaning, as individuals from the first group gain political support from opposing you, and, thus, they will be extremely resistant to cooperate.
Putting far-right and ultra-conservative groups aside, it’s difficult for people to consciously and free-willingly oppose women’s right to live life free of violence, abuse, or discrimination. Sometimes people who are connected with the governmental institutions and religious entities might be intimidated into solidarization with the official policies, but on the individual level they don’t agree with them. This “partisans” are very powerful potential allies who can speak up in restricted environments, where civil society is not invited.
If we get back to the idea about the shelter, you might end up with several opponents: one person from municipality might not want to provide a space for shelter, and another one from the local community might decide to speak publicly about the absence of domestic violence in the country. Public relations and delivering your idea to local or national audiences is an essential part of campaigning, however, here we are pushing the implementation of the idea in the community. If you must choose between doing PR or focusing on decision-makers, I would advise to work with decision-makers, as in the best case scenario, they will adopt your idea as their own and they will promote it across media and other institutions to gain additional support.
When you identify an individual who takes decision in case of your idea, you should learn as much as possible about this person, including their professional history, interests and career goals. You can find them on social media and follow them for some time to get a sense of what they care about. You can study their environment or ask your colleagues\friends\distant acquaintances who might know the person to tell you a bit more about them.
This all should be done to understand that your opponent is a person with a name, with their own interests, values, desires, and instead of pushing to comply with your needs, you should try to find a solution of how your idea might be appealing to this specific individual.
3) Learning what opponent wants
When you attempt to learn what your opponent wants, the secret is not to imagine, but to take educated guesses. After you have studied your opponent, you know their interests, the context they are in, the type of work they are doing. Now it is time to recognize how your idea might help the opponent to fulfil their needs.
TIP3: you can easily role-play your communication with the opponent. Take your friend and give them all the information about the opponent you have at the moment. Your friend is supposed to act, as if they were the opponent, when you start the communication. Ask your friend: what do they feel when you tell about your idea? how do they feel about you? what do they want?
Sometimes the opponent wants very human things: a person in the government who drowns in the bureaucratic work doesn’t have any energy to invest in anything else might just want to be left alone. Dean in the university may want to promote their University as the most innovative and progressive and improve her\his own image. Person in the police may want the promotion.
Let’s get back to the case of person in the municipality who wouldn’t want to provide a space for the shelter. The person would be called Milena, she is 55 years old, she has been working in the municipality for the last 20 years, and she lived in this neighbourhood during her whole life. Milena didn’t participate in any public initiatives that has been undertaken by the municipality – mostly it is the head of the municipality who does that. If Milena supports your idea, she will have to present it to the municipality, ask for the space and invest her work-time in this matter. Here, the need of Milena in connection to your idea would be to avoid responsibilities that she is uncomfortable to perform.
4) Identifying the benefits for the opponent
The need of the opponent usually contradicts what your idea is trying to promote. When you want to advocate for amendments in the law, you want to the government to undertake additional work. When you want to include indicators in hate-crime into police statistics, you want put additional tasks on the police officers. In fact, it’s quite understandable that the opponents don’t want to invest their time and energy to your idea. Generally speaking, you want other people resources\time\support for a project they didn’t initiate or didn’t ask for. And unless they understand that the risks are outweighed by the benefits, they will avoid supporting you.
To identify benefits for your opponent, you should brainstorm what person in this specific context might want to achieve. Our Milena in the municipality who is uncomfortable with public speaking will be less likely to be interested in promotion, but she might care about the neighbourhood, or she might care about women who suffered from domestic violence. If you suggest to her that creating a shelter will improve the state of the neighbourhood and you would love to present this idea by yourself with her support to the head of municipality, Milena might react positively to this.
TIP4: strategic communication is not one-time shot. You might need to communicate with the same person over and over again. To do this efficiently, identify as many benefits as possible, so you can use different ones during the communication.
What does Milena need?
To avoid responsibilities that she is uncomfortable to perform
What can you do about this?
- present the idea to the head of municipality by yourself
- prepare presentation, statistics and info-pack for Milena to present it
- organize a meeting between Milena and women who suffered from domestic violence, so she can understand the need for shelter better
What are her benefits if she agrees to help you?
- the state of the neighbourhood will improve thanks to her help (learn about the statistics about the neighborhood and domestic violence in the country prior to using this)
- Milena will contribute to the well-being of women (this argument will work only in case when she has met at least one person, and the story of domestic violence is personified to her)
- the municipality will get more funds (learn whether you have any governmental programmes or non-governmental foundations that may support work with women suffered from domestic violence)
- the municipality will get positive publicity (learn whether the municipality needs to report about their relations with media)
- the municipality will be able to report on pro-active working with the needs of the local community
5) Communicating your message
While you might have very strong points on why the state must protect women or why the police should do their work properly, your opponents might be extremely hostile to open criticism and they will try to protect themselves by saying that they are already doing a lot or by denying that the problem exists. To make your opponent an ally, instead of correcting or criticizing actions of your opponent, you should focus your messaging on what they are already doing, their needs and benefits, and explain how your solution to the problem will be useful for them. One of the easiest way to build up a positive start is to recognize the work that has already been done by your opponents.
As for Milena and the municipality, it might be the case that they have already been doing some small things required by the citizens: they planted some trees or made a pavement. Show your appreciation and state that these actions are the reason why you feel that the municipality will care about the women as well. By using positive evaluation of actions that have already been done and implementing it in your message, you will win sympathy.
Your idea: Create a shelter for women who suffered from domestic violence
Phrasing the idea for municipality: Provide women in our neighbourhood who suffered from domestic violence with a safe space
Your message: Our municipality cares about its citizens, and creating a space for women who suffered from domestic violence is a great way to continue this line of work
According to my practice, it works better when you have an opportunity to meet face-to-face with your opponent. However, if you try to establish contact with someone with the state, you might not have the luxury to meet them in person. If you need to call the person, call them only and only during the work hours (or hours reserved for taking calls from the citizens) and during the call ask for a personal meeting.
6) Repeating the message and working with the environment
After your first contact with the opponent, the opponent might agree with your idea and promise to do something about it. If the person provides you with a concrete time-period when they will do something or speak to someone else about it, respect this time-frame. If the person didn’t give you any concrete reply, but they have stated their at least vague support, communicate your message again, when you have the possibility 1) to meet again with the person 2) to talk publicly when then message can reach out to the opponent and 3) to work with the environment.
If we develop the idea with the shelter further, in case when Milena stated her support, you might want to organize a round-table or a public discussion about domestic violence. Invite Milena, or the head of the municipality to this discussion, so they could share what they are doing about domestic violence and present your idea as a project of the municipality. Never shame your opponents on this stage: they have already agreed to help you, so the goal right now is to stimulate their support and show that other people appreciate what they are doing.
Include your allies in the communication: the state, the media, the police react positively when other groups or stakeholders speak in favour of their efforts.
When your idea is being implemented, the shelter is being created, educational visits for young Roma girls are being held, the communication is still going on. Don’t leave your opponent alone, after they have fulfilled their obligations to you. If you want to have a sustainable partnership and if you want the person to promote your ideas further on, remind them about your joint project from time to time, arrange a non-formal meeting to congratulate the person on successful implementation and don’t forget to use the person as an expert on this matter.
TIP5: if you have managed to establish a partnership with someone from the state, share this contact with your colleagues in the civil society, so they can invite the person or someone from their institution as an expert to the events. This will increase visibility of the work you’ve done together and will help to underline the importance of the efforts the person invested in your project.
Communication with your opponent might take from one day up to several months. A great amount of time and resources are needed to be put in it to achieve success, and it is a matter of priorities within your organization or initiative how much you are willing to invest. If you can’t undertake communication right now, one option might be joining other groups with similar agenda and to include your ideas into their projects or messages.
No matter what you would prefer, good luck with your communication and remember: there are no opponents, there are only people who haven’t realised that they support you yet!