Four Phrases Change Makers are Tired of Hearing

Image by Willi Heidelbach from Pixabay

Note: I realize that more than half of my readers are not U.S.-based, so I apologize in advance for what is probably a very American-centric bit of writing. If there are similarly frustrating phrases where you live, feel free to comment below.


There are certain phrases that make me cringe. My negative reaction to these frequently repeated expressions is rooted in the ways that they can be obstacles to creating change in the world. Here are four of my least favorite phrases.

“It is what it is.”

Being told to “deal with” a frustrating situation because there is nothing you can do to change it, sounds like an instruction to give up. If a condition is unacceptable, there is nothing the people who benefit from the status quo like to hear more than, “all we can do is accept it and get over it.” When you hear, “it is what it is,” the best response is to come up with strategies to create change despite the situation, not give up because of it.

“No offense, but . . .”

Obviously, when you hear this phrase, you are about to be offended. The reason a person will use this phrase when talking to you is that they think that you need to know that they believe that they are smarter than you are. They don’t, however, simply use this thinly veiled passive-aggressiveness to challenge facts. In my experience, “No offense, but,” is frequently the introduction to any number of logical fallacies. It’s a power play often followed by nonsense. Know your stuff. Hold your ground.

“Everything happens for a reason.”

I understand that many people find comfort in the thought that a supreme being’s providence makes a horrible reality perhaps a bit more tolerable. Other folks like to explain things based on the alignment of the stars and planets. I’m not here to ask you to abandon your belief system.

There are times, however, when changes in human designed policies and practices are at the core of some terrible things in the world. Yes, everything does happen for a reason, and if we take the time to analyze the situation, we can figure out what those reasons are. And if those reasons can be addressed by correcting flawed human constructs, shouldn’t we do what we can to make those changes?

“In these trying/uncertain times.”

I do not disagree that a global pandemic has created disruption and uncertainty in people’s lives. I also know that for poor and marginalized people, life has always been trying and uncertain. I am not interested in simply getting the world back to a pre-COVID state. I want the world to be better than that.

The pandemic has given lip service to “all of us being in this together.” But in reality, this extraordinary event has reinforced the harsh realities of inequality. Poor people got poorer healthcare. People were deemed “essential workers,” yet were often not paid enough to meet their basic needs. As we move toward returning to “normal,” we need to remember to continue to work on reducing the uncertainty in everyone’s lives.

Finding Answers in the Grassroots

“Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Logical, sensible solutions frequently come from the people whose lives are most closely affected by the issues you seek to remedy. Their ideas are usually very insightful and rational, because they have experienced first-hand, the inherent flaws in the current strategies to correct those issues.

Many years ago, I was invited to a meeting around strategies for educating “unbanked” immigrants on the perils related to relying on check cashing businesses and other high interest rate opportunists. The meeting was attended by six or seven well-intentioned, white, gray-haired, male bankers and other business types, myself (an employee of an education-related nonprofit organization younger than the others, but also a white male), and finally a Latina woman who was probably also the youngest person in the room in addition to being the only person of color, and only woman.

I was there just in case there might be a role for my organization to play in any action that might be taken, so I mostly listened. The discussion was primarily about financial literacy curriculum. Banks had developed educational materials, but the materials were all in English. There wasn’t anything in the languages of Latin America, Southeast Asia, or East Africa. There also wasn’t much discussion about any strategies other than translating that traditionally developed and delivered curriculum. That is until the only woman in the room finally spoke.

She said (and I’m paraphrasing, but it was this direct, and this succinct), ‘This is what you have to do. You go to churches, or community centers and talk to parents. You tell them that their kids are going to get ripped off by these places. People want to protect their children so they’ll listen. Of course, it is mostly the parents who are getting taken advantage of by these businesses. You educate the parents, and they will educate their children.’

She knew the culture and how to navigate communicating within it. The best solution did not center on ‘experts’ developing curriculum. Rather, it was rooted in human relationships, and parents wanting to understand something better so that they could protect their children.

I have seen this sort of wisdom emerge over and over throughout the years. I once attended a workshop where a man in my affordable housing discussion group said that the rent on his apartment was higher than a house payment would be for a home that would suit his family’s needs. He just didn’t have the money to make a down payment sufficient for a bank to give him a loan on a house.  He wasn’t an economist, but he knew a solution to increasing his low-income family’s wealth by getting equity in a house.

My introduction to the concept of environmental racism came via the words of a Native American living on a reservation next to a hazardous waste dump. I learned about potential approaches to the multiple transportation, and childcare challenges faced by single mothers, from those women.

People can be experts on the issues related to the challenges they face in their everyday lives. If you need technical expertise seek it out. However, do not underestimate the wisdom of regular folks whose expertise has been gained from experience

False Dilemmas: a Recurring Battle

fire-and-water-2354583_640

Note: This is a companion piece of sorts to a couple of earlier posts: Getting Beyond Either/Or, and Change Happens at the Center. Both of which touch on the importance of seeing opportunities for creating change when you look beyond the only two options you are being presented with.


A False Dilemma (also known as a False Dichotomy) is a logical fallacy that reduces an argument down to only two options despite the fact that many more options may exist. We hear them every day: “America, love it or leave it;” “You’re either with us or you’re against us;” “You either love me or you hate me.”

People in opposition to your goals will use these fallacious arguments in an attempt to force you into an extreme position to create the assumption that there are only two positions. That way they can paint you with broad strokes, and start employing other logical fallacies to misrepresent your positions.

False dilemmas are particularly popular with politicians in ‘us vs. them’ two party systems. People with lines drawn in the sand are not interested in entertaining the idea of reasonable alternatives. To paint the two-options-only picture serves to get potential supporters to forget logic and reason, and to dig in their heels against a one-dimensional villain.

How Do You Counter a False Dilemma?

According to the website, Effectiviology, there are several ways to respond to a false dilemma argument. Here are a just a few of those strategies.

  • Refute the premise of mutual exclusivity by explaining why two options can both be true. Give examples of how ideas be defined as either/or can be described as both/and.
  • Refute the premise of collective exhaustivity by providing counterexamples which show that there are additional options beyond the ones which were presented.
  • Refute the validity of one of the options that it contains. For example, one frequently repeated either/or dilemma is the argument against raising the minimum wage is that raising the minimum wage will put small businesses out of business. However, Researchers say raising the minimum wage doesn’t kill small businesses or reduce job opportunities.
  • Refute with a counter-dilemma using similar premises, but which reaches a different conclusion.

One of my favorite ways to confront a false dilemma is to point out what values both sides have in common. It is the quickest way to show gray areas of this ‘black and white’ argument. Common self-interest is a powerful thing.

You Can Deliver Messages that Inspire People to Act

“I’m not the best person at putting words together. I can’t give you the melody. But I might inspire somebody.”
– Meek Mill

(This article is a companion piece to my post “The Role of Storytelling in Leading for Change.” Check it out for more tips on effective storytelling.)

You can inspire people to act by your own actions, by your art, by your numbers, or by your words. Even if you are not the world’s greatest orator, or even an experienced public speaker, your message can be dramatic. Your goals conflict with the status quo; and where there is conflict, there is drama.

Tie your message to a vision of a preferred future. Give an example of the way things are. Then describe the way they could be. Repeat this pattern with one or two more examples. Then talk about how the desired future is achievable, but only with the commitment of people in the room.

Give people real examples, preferably about people you know, or have met. Personal stories about your own experiences can have the greatest impact.

We are inspired by stories of successful collective action. We are reminded that our experiences are not isolated. We are reminded that people have each other’s backs.

We are also inspired by stories of people with empathy for others. Stories about courage inspire us, particularly those about people who have fought, or are fighting oppression.

Inspiring stories do not need to be polished, or well-rehearsed. If they are honest, passionate, and if they move you; they will move another person — or even a thousand other people.

Changing Minds and Preaching to the Converted

Creating change is about shifting people’s perceptions. The opposed and the indifferent will not engage in a 180 degree philosophical turnaround on their own. That’s why we develop strategic communication plans — to bring people to our side by appealing to our shared values.

At times, however, would-be change agents spend inordinate amounts of time seemingly trying to persuade the already persuaded. It’s pretty easy to follow only people with whom you agree on social media, visit only websites that share your worldview, and have conversations only with likeminded people.

I have written previously on themes related to changing people’s minds. Here are links to three of those posts:

Having made the point about the primacy of changing hearts and minds, it is important to recognize that there is still a place for “preaching to the converted.” Political strategists refer to it as energizing the base.

G.K. Chesterton once said, “I believe in preaching to the converted; for I have generally found that the converted do not understand their own religion.” People often know in their gut why something needs to change, but they sometimes lack the words to effectively refute opposing viewpoints.

As author and activist Dan Savage put it, “Preaching to the choir actually arms the choir with arguments and elevates the choir’s discourse. There’s a reason the right does it and does it well and triumphs.”

This doesn’t mean that you give your allies boilerplate responses to every possible question they may run into. When you do that you risk marginalizing critical diversity of voices in your coalition. Instead, give them the frameworks, filters, and value propositions that can counter a variety of objections.

More on this later.

Public Perception and Opinion Leaders

“American public opinion is like an ocean, it cannot be stirred by a teaspoon.”

– Hubert H. Humphrey

Public perception of the issues related to the change you’re trying to make is often not based on evidence and facts. Those facts and that evidence cannot always see the light of day because of countless layers of myths, propaganda, and media coverage.

The cultural barriers to truth and reality are just as influenced by fiction, as they are by “news” coverage. Ask the average person what they know about Native Americans, and they’ll likely recount a view portrayed in a film, TV, and literary genre known as Westerns. Ask them what they know about the Korean War, and you’ll often get what they remember from episodes of the TV series, M*A*S*H.

With all of the powerful forces contradicting the ‘truth,’ is it possible to change public perception without some enormous, well-funded public relations machine? Yes it is.

Word of mouth communication is as powerful a force as it has ever been. We listen to the voices that we trust.  We listen to people who we believe have demonstrated wisdom in their advice or opinion leaderguidance in the past. These trusted people are known as opinion leaders. Their influence is felt in informal conversations, at work meetings, and today it is abundant on social media.

The recognition of opinion leaders is increasingly common in marketing circles, where ‘word of mouth advertising’ has always been important. Social media has made it easier to identify potential opinion leaders. Just look at people whose YouTube channels have many hundreds of thousands, or millions of followers. These internet celebrities are constantly being sent free products in the hopes that they’ll get a testimonial delivered to a captive audience.

It isn’t just internet celebrities who have opinion leaders in social media. Anyone with followers or friends on social platforms can exert influence. That influence can extend to the distributed networks of those followers and friends as well. So who do you know with lots of followers or friends?

Give Authority

Do it! note

When people are involved in something that is organized, they sometimes need permission to act on certain things. Nobody wants a loose canon, right?

Other times people are held back by the idea that they need permission to act on things that do not actually require permission. Maybe it’s an excuse for being afraid. Maybe they are just indecisive. Whatever the reason, we periodically need to give a stamp of approval.

Here’s something to think about the next time you are in a leadership role where someone needs permission. Are you giving them responsibility, or authority?

If I say that I am giving you the responsibility to do something, it sounds like I am giving you a job to do, and I expect you to do it. Responsibility is positional. It moves from the bottom to the top. Responsibility can sound like a burden.

If I say that I am giving you the authority to do something, it sounds like I am validating your power. You are in charge of doing something due to your abilities, and your competence. Authority is a pat on the back.

Give people authority.

Seeing ROI Through a Community Lens

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“I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap.”

― Ani DiFranco

Often, when people have conversations about proposed changes in their community, there are two questions that are either explicit, or are just under the surface. These questions speak to return on investment (ROI). People want to know: what’s in it for me; and what is it going to cost?

It’s reasonable to think that someone would want to know what kind of return they might expect on their commitment of time, energy, or money. That expected ROI does not, however, always reflect some sort of purely selfish interest on the part of the person whose support you are seeking. Rational people see their self-interest tied to the common good.

Social change, community building, and placemaking are about improving everyone’s quality of life, and identifying their common self-interest. This is why it is imperative to express your case for support in terms of the ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ metaphor, as well as pointing out specific individual benefits.

Most individuals don’t have the ability to create the scale necessary for many of the quality of life measures that they seek. They don’t have the resources to create a park, or a cultural event. They can’t singlehandedly avoid public health issues. They can’t ensure that people will be trained, and make living wages performing the services that they need to care for themselves and their loved ones. Vibrant, healthy communities embrace the idea of the public good.

I have spent a considerable chunk of my career in higher education. For a long time, public investment in higher education was seen by elected officials as a public good. Colleges and universities are economic engines, and incubators of innovation. For some reason, however, public investment in higher education has seen a steady decline over the past couple of decades. One contributing factor to this dwindling support is the fact that college recruitment strategies have focused so heavily on the individual career and income gains that can be realized by obtaining a college degree. Lawmakers took notice and essentially said, ‘if the gains are private, maybe the investment should be private.’

Take some time to look at the issues you are concerned with through a community lens. Even if the issue seems to focus on the challenges individuals or small groups, how does the resolution of those challenges benefit the community as a whole?

The Role of Storytelling in Leading for Change

(image: public domain)

You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built into the human plan. We come with it.

— Margaret Atwood

Storytelling is important. People have always told stories. The art of storytelling predates written language. It still very much plays a significant role in how we understand the world in which we live. Storytelling is therefore, a very important aspect of bringing about change in the world.

Stories shine light on realities we might otherwise miss. They can also motivate people to act. Sometimes we see ourselves in stories. If our experiences are like those of a character, we may learn the same lesson that they have learned. We can come to the realization that our values and our concerns are shared more widely than we may have believed. Stories can articulate a vision of what we can achieve individually and collectively. They can be both inspirational, and aspirational.

Stories, however, aren’t just about seeing ourselves. Vicariously walking in someone else’s shoes is one of the most appealing aspects of stories. Stories help us feel empathy toward others. They allow us to experience the joy, or the sorrow that others have felt. Stories provoke and educate. They can provide cautionary tales that remind us of what happens when we fail to act in a caring and humane manner.

A Few Tips and Resources

You rarely have enough time to show someone that perfect documentary film.  There isn’t time for metaphor-laden, complex narratives. Your opportunity to touch someone’s heart and mind with a story is more likely to occur in a period of under five minutes. Your story should feature relatable, authentic, characters with clear, demonstrated values.

This may sound obvious, but it is important for a story to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should start with a compelling statement, and establish the humanity of the subject. The middle develops a clearly defined conflict that explores values, and chooses actions. The ending resolves the conflict in a way that illustrates a position or teaches a lesson. The story should end with a memorable line.

There are lots of people out there who know much more about storytelling than I do. Below are some good resources to help you craft stories that will touch people, and move them to act on behalf of creating the change that you’re working toward. Now go out and tell your story.

You Are Not a Mind Reader

“Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others.”
– Fyodor Dostoevsky

What types of assumptions cloud our judgement? When we are laser-focused on obtaining an outcome, what sort of thinking might cause us to make a strategic misstep?

There are dozens of varieties of cognitive biases that can distort our logic. One of the most common is to have a tendency to think we know what other people are thinking, or what their mental state is. These forms of bias can result from false reasoning, arrogance, ideology, or simply an inability to “walk in someone else’s shoes.”

I work in education, where it is not uncommon to witness a bias known as the “curse of knowledge.” You may have had the experience of sitting in a college classroom where the professor falsely assumes that the students have the appropriate background knowledge to understand material that is clearly way over everyone’s head.

Everyone does not know what you know. Even if they have the same information, they may be interpreting it differently than you. Intellectual snobbishness isn’t a great strategy for learning; nor is it a great strategy to gain allies and supporters. Convey facts and evidence in ways that resonate with peoples’ experiences. New information doesn’t become knowledge until we can connect it to something we already know, so try to identify common experience to use as context.

No matter how much time we spend interacting with other people, we are always to a great degree focused on the center of our own personal universe. It isn’t necessarily egocentric. We just notice and think about the things that we ourselves see, without ever really knowing how much others notice and think about those same things. A phenomenon known as the “spotlight effect” suggests that someone may have a tendency to mistakenly think that they are as much at the center of someone else’s world as they are at the center of their own. A good rule for leaders is: get over yourself. Being a change agent is not about you. It is about the individual lives of everyone affected by a misguided current state of affairs.

When engaged in a struggle for social change, the ‘us versus them’ frameworks that we create for ourselves are rooted in the belief that our ideas are better than our opponents’ ideas. If we come to the dangerous conclusion that this is simply because we are smarter than our opponents, then we may also jump to the similarly dangerous conclusion that our knowledge of them is greater than their knowledge of us. What people know, and what they believe are two different things.

There is another problem that comes with believing that we know people better than we actually do. There is something that people who study these things refer to as, “extrinsic incentives bias.” This extends our lack of knowing others to the realm of knowing what motivates them.

Understanding people’s motivations is crucial for creating social change. Extrinsic incentives bias is assuming that people put more value on extrinsic incentives like money, than they do on intrinsic incentives like safety, or happiness. People’s motivations are not always easy to understand, or make assumptions about (See my post “Quality of Life Versus Standard of Living”).

Not surprisingly, the most accurate way to find out what people are thinking, is to ask them. Check your assumptions, regardless of how sure you believe that they are correct. Time spent listening to the people you want to support your cause is always time well spent.

Some Thoughts on Arguing

Kent Brockman: Mr. Simpson, how do you respond to the charge that petty vandalism such as graffiti is down 80%, while heavy sack beatings are up a shocking 900%?

Homer: Oh people can come up with statistics to prove anything Kent. Forty percent of all people know that.

– The Simpsons, “Homer the Vigilante”

We live in a world where civil discourse has become a rare commodity. There is little productive debate on topics of great importance, because people of influence and affluence have decided to force every issue into a framework consisting of lines drawn in the sand. This presents a tremendous challenge not only to democracy, but also to anyone advocating for social change.

I am not a scholar of the art of rhetoric. Nor do I claim to understand how argument and debate manifest themselves in cultures other than the one in which I live. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on how you might, or might not want to approach arguing.

Arguing as Seed Planting

There are different definitions of “winning” an argument. An argument does not have to be a knock-down-drag-out fight. Sometimes the win simply consists of giving the other person something to think about.

Unless it is a unique situation involving instant replay enabling rules, when a coach or manager in any sport argues with a referee, they do not usually expect that a call will be immediately overturned. They are, however, planting seeds of concern or doubt in the mind of the official. If I tell you that number 12 is routinely breaking a rule, you will probably pay more attention to number 12 as the game moves forward.

Don’t Argue Values

The issues that we disagree on are laden with personal values. People have opposing views on issues because they have conflicting values. I dislike chocolate ice cream. I love vanilla ice cream. You will never convince me that chocolate ice cream is preferable to vanilla ice cream. When you argue that chocolate is better than vanilla, what is in dispute is a value. It is a preference, not a fact.

We should not fall into a trap of engaging those with whom we disagree in arguments about values. If you argue, it should be about facts. Facts still matter, and your facts should always be accompanied by evidence. In fact, next time you feel yourself being pulled into an argument, try the following approach. Don’t immediately set out trying to change the other person’s mind. Don’t tell them that they are wrong. Instead, articulate as clearly as succinctly as possible, the reasoning that supports your position. When you meet a skeptical person explain to them why you have taken your stand.

Don’t Argue – at Least Not with Everyone

There is a psychological concept known as cognitive dissonance. It suggests that people have a hard time dealing with the stress created by simultaneously holding contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. It is believed that in order to reduce the discomfort created by the conflicting ideas, people will avoid the introduction of the conflicting ideas whenever possible. There are multiple research studies that suggest that people often see attacks on their belief as attacks on their identity, thus making them dig in their heels even more, thus increasing divisiveness.

If you refer back to my piece, “Change Happens at the Center,” you will see a strategy that may be useful when you’ve identified where a person sits on the continuum of opinion of the issue in question. The idea is to avoid the line in the sand people by focusing on moving passive opposition to a neutral state; neutral people to a passively supporting state; and passively supportive people to a fully committed state.  Read that full post here.

Agree with Your Opponent

Using a type of paradoxical thinking, you might use an approach that doesn’t directly argue with a person, but rather, tells them that they are right. Then, using their assumptions, you come up with absurd examples that prove their point.  Fair warning, this technique can backfire so be sure to practice it in some friendly, inconsequential settings first.

Go Ahead and Argue

Finally, if you absolutely have to throw down the gauntlet, try to go in with some sort of strategic framework. Here is an example of some tips which you might want to use to engage with your adversary. They come from, “10 Tips On Going For An Argument Win” by Siobhan Harmer (See the full article for details).

  1. Start off pleasantly
  2. Base your arguments on facts
  3. Respect the opinions of the other side
  4. It does not hurt to admit your mistakes
  5. Exercise self-control
  6. Try to have your adversary agree with you
  7. Ignore statements that have no merit
  8. Always keep an open mind during arguments
  9. Give your adversary the time to talk
  10. Play Up Your Arguments

That’s all I’m going to say on the subject for now, so don’t argue (or do . . . it’s up to you).

Tacit Knowledge and Change Agentry

“We know more than we can tell.”
– Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension

image: public domain via pixabay
image: public domain via pixabay

Tacit knowledge is the kind of knowledge that is difficult to convey to another person either verbally, or in writing. It can also be critically important in the process of affecting social change.

Common examples of tacit knowledge include things such as emotional intelligence, or how to speak a language that you’ve learned through immersion over a lifetime, or humor (we all laugh at things that we can’t explain why we find them funny). There are some people who argue (I am not one of them) that leadership itself is a skill that primarily leverages tacit knowledge, gained only from experience.

This intelligence that people often refer to as intuition, is more than a mere hunch. It is the result of subconsciously connecting many bits and pieces of knowledge that we’ve collected over a lifetime. Think about a chess player who makes a rapid succession of moves. Despite the pace of the game, the moves are as calculated as they are situational.

Tacit knowledge is not always correct. It is just as likely as explicit knowledge, to get caught in the trap characterized by that Mark Twain quote, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” The deep roots of superstition, racism, and all sorts of other human failings lie in the faulty assumptions of tacit knowledge.

Take the so-called “golden rule,” for example: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It doesn’t take training to practice. Its inward orientation suggests that it is based on self-constructed, tacit knowledge. Its biblical origins might even suggest to some that it is some sort of universal truth. The problem is that this “truth” has an inherent bias.  The more generous, and effective strategy for human interaction seems to lie in what is known as the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others, as others would have done unto themselves.” In other words, treat people the way they want to be treated, not the way you want to be treated.

Despite its imperfections, tacit knowledge can be crucial to organizing and motivating people to advocate for change. It is expressed in the wisdom of elders. It is the source of the confidence that people place in a community’s opinion leaders, people who have gained the trust of many people, and whose opinion on an issue serves as a sort of seal of approval for like-minded residents.

The transfer of tacit knowledge is so situational, that there is no easy method to measure, or make use of it. This reality is why distributed networks of grassroots activists are more effective than centralized, networks that look like corporate organizational charts.

Capacity inventories and appreciative inquiry interviews, like those that we use in asset-based community development, can go a long way toward uncovering forgotten or hidden assets. It is often, however, easier to discover skills and talents, than it is to discover what people know. Tacit knowledge often reveals itself over the course of the development of personal relationships. Recognizing when uncommon knowledge is being shared is an important skill.