“The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.”
– William Hazlitt
If you want to organize people to create change, few things are more important as one-to-one relational meetings. One-to-ones are at the heart of community organizing. They are also at the heart of leadership.
These conversations are not about converting the person, or running through a list of intrusive, personal questions. One-to-ones are about establishing a professional relationship with someone, and sharing stories as a way to understand their personal interests, motivations, and how your common interests and values might engage them to act in support of the change you are both interested in trying to create. This mix of personal, sometimes intimate knowledge leading to public, professional action holds unique value.
If I ask you to tell me a piece of your life story as part of one of these conversations, my goal is not personal friendship (though that could always happen as a result of professional familiarity). The intended outcomes of one-to-ones are:
- to form a basic relationships across a community (community of place, or community of interest);
- to understand common self-interests as well as a person’s passions;
- To understand not only what they believe, or want, but why they hold those beliefs and desires;
- and to gain insight on how that person’s unique talents and insights might be leveraged to support your common goals.
Conversation logistics and strategies
Email, or ideally phone the person you want to talk to. Introduce yourself. Explain what you are doing and how their name came up as someone you would want to speak with. Ask them for 30-45 minutes of their time. Make it clear that you are not selling anything, and that you are interested in their thoughts and ideas. Do as much homework as you can to understand what you think their interests may be — like you might if you were going to a job interview.
Arrive on time. Enter having thought about the questions you want to ask, but do not arrive with a pen and paper in hand. This isn’t a survey. You can make notes after you leave. There is no script. Listen closely. Keep the conversation relaxed. Let the other person’s interests guide your inquiry. They should do more talking than you.
Ask the person about their interest in your issue of concern. Listen for indicators of how the issue is personal to them. When they express concerns that they you also share, ask them to explain their views further, then try to build on those shared values.
As you near the end of your conversation ask about their interest in committing to a specific action. Don’t be too pushy. If they can’t commit to anything immediately, find a way to keep the door open for further exploration at a later time. If they can commit to some action, ask them how you can be of assistance. Follow up later and thank them for their commitment.
If the conversation is moving in the direction that you had hoped it would, here are some examples of the type of questions you might want to ask:
- Have you been involved in this issue? If so, how?
- Are there things related to this issue that you wish you knew more about?
- What in your mind is an ideal outcome on this issue.
- In what ways do you think you could best contribute to the effort?
- Can you recommend anyone else I should talk to?
There are numerous resources online related to engaging in one-to-one conversations. Here are a few.