Truth is one of the core principles of the Action Circles Model. It is important to recognize that truth is different from facts. Facts are things that are known and objectively proven to be true, where truth is subjective is based on that individual’s lived experience. A person’s truth is more than just how they view the world, it is their reality.
Many organizers and policy advocates can fall into the trap of believing that all they need to win is the facts. Facts are important, but they often don’t matter if decision makers don’t want to listen to, or don’t trust the facts because they run counter to their own truth. For organizers driven by facts and data it is slightly horrifying to learn that this information will do little to win over those who dismiss information that is contrary to their lived experience. How do you overcome this obstacle? First realize that each person’s truth is valid.
Recognizing that everyone’s truth is valid allows you to step back and realize that to create effective dialogue you need to spend less time educating, and more time understanding. The better you understand the truth of a person or group of people, the easier it will be to speak in a language that resonates and addresses their needs and motivations. How do you better understand someone’s truth? The answer is to take the time to listen.
Taking the time to listen is the most important thing you can do to understand someone’s truth. This can be a challenge, especially for people who have a strong understanding of their own truth, but in the end taking the time to listen can lead to some amazing breakthroughs and exciting partnerships.
When Wilma Mankiller began her work to revitalize the community of Bell her colleagues and people that knew the town gave her little chance of succeeding. What allowed Wilma to succeed where others had failed was her ability to listen.
She did not go into the community with an agenda, timeline, and work plan ready to present, she kept asking the community “what single thing would change this community the most.” The unexpected answer was a water supply connected to every house and indoor plumbing.
Wilma had faith that the community knew their own truth and what they needed, and she was right. With Wilma’s help, the community secured funding to support the project and worked together to dig the ditches and lay the pipe from house to house. This project lowered high school dropout rates because students no longer were ashamed because they could not bathe as often as their classmates, and it brought together a community that had thought of themselves as individuals for many years. In the end, the project was successful because Wilma took the time to listen and understand the truth of the community she was trying to reach.
(story shared from A Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, by Gloria Steinem, 1992 – p.94- 98)
Another example of a woman who took the time to listen can be found in the 2016 book Strangers in Their Own Land. In the book, Arlie Russell Hochschild tried to examine why many low-income conservative and Tea Party voters would vote for candidates that support policies contrary to their economic and environmental interests. Her conclusion was that they were voting this way not to fulfill an economic need, but an emotional need that aligns with their truth.
As described on NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast “both conservative and liberals have “deep stories” — about who they are, and what their values are. Deep stories don’t need to be completely accurate, but they have to feel true. They’re the stories we tell ourselves to capture our hopes, pride, disappointments, fears, and anxieties.”
After spending many days and hours listening to right-leaning conservative voters in Louisiana, Arlie learned that many were motivated to support the Tea Party, and to a larger extent the Republican Party, because they believe the Democratic Party and the federal government doesn’t value less affluent southern whites, and that regulations aimed at improving public safety put their ability to support their families at risk. These voters put a high value on self-sufficiency and do not support safety net programs, even though many have had to reluctantly use them when times are tough. While people on the left might see these programs as a necessary tool to protect the most vulnerable in our society, people on the right often saw them as a tool to help other people from away cut them in line for the American dream.
Based on this information, you can begin to think of how you would craft an effective dialogue around issues like safety net programs. One tactic could be to simply ask questions about how these programs have supported friends and families in their community and what could be done to make them better. After we take time to listen and understand how a person’s beliefs align with their truth, we can develop a plan for how to craft a conversation that acknowledges the truth of everyone involved.
When working to engage others it is important that you, as the organizer, always tell the truth, and always own that truth as your own. Recognize and respect the different truths that exist among your supporters and allies because it is exactly the diversity of truth in your group that will make you strong. You also need to recognize and respect the truth of the people who are working to oppose you. The better you understand the truth of your opposition the better you will be able to analyze their strategy and tactics and create productive dialogue around issues where common ground can be found. Finally, use that same respect and understanding to accept the truth of the decision makers you are trying to influence, and learn how to speak to it. Find the places where your truth and their truth align and use that as the starting point of a conversation that can lead them to make the decision you need them to make.
You also need to recognize and respect the truth of the people who are working to oppose you. The better you understand the truth of your opposition the better you will be able to analyze their strategy and tactics and create productive dialogue around issues where common ground can be found. Finally, use that same respect and understanding to accept the truth of the decision makers you are trying to influence, and learn how to speak to it. Find the places where your truth and their truth align and use that as the starting point of a conversation that can lead them to make the decision you need them to make.