If truly oppositional political leaders can come together and forge alliances, what’s stopping the rest of us from doing the same in our work and home lives? To get some clarity on just how to do that, Jane Dawson, Head of External Communications at Quakers UK, will speak on Leading beyond authority: Collaborative decision making in an ever more connected world at Aspire’s Trailblazing Leadership Conference, 12th and 13th of December in London.
In a recent conversation, we asked Dawson, who is responsible for the Quaker political and media voice, as well as their print and online presence, to share her top strategies to engage and influence people with Aspire’s News & Views community.
Listen to understand, so the person who is talking knows they are heard. Find a way to explore the publicly inadmissible, by creating a safe space for discussion and find opportunities for people to talk together who can’t normally meet in public. In conflict areas around the world, Quakers have been involved in what we call ‘small circles work’. This might bring diplomats and key players together, maybe over a meal, to simply talk and hear each other’s point of view in a private, informal setting. The opportunity for someone to talk freely without being judged is rare. It is important to hear what we might perceive as difficult or challenging. When you listen well, you hear someone else’s truth.
If you find yourself having a difficult conversation, before responding consider first, ‘Why is this person angry or defensive?’ Ask yourself: ‘How would I feel in this situation, how would I respond? Why do they care so much, would I? Is there a grain of truth in their criticism of me, my position, or my way of life?’ Take a moment to put yourself in their shoes, your empathy can make all the difference to diffuse a situation. In addition, your knowledge and understanding will grow.
Plant an idea in someone’s mind, so they own it for themselves. In many ways this can be the hardest aspect of change. If you’re trying to influence someone to make a radical or even a small change you want them to run with it themselves. Your idea needs to grow bigger than you. Think of your idea as a tweet going viral, it is out of your control. An idea can’t be branded, or owned by you, or your organisation. Is it enough for you to know the idea has been adopted by others? It might mean the original idea changes slightly, can you let it go? If you help shape something, it is normal to want acknowledgement. Giving up our ego as individuals is necessary for organic change to happen.
Part of my job is to start conversations with people from varying political backgrounds; it helps me hear different perspectives, opinions, and life experiences. The key to opening a conversation is to create rapport. Try to find something in common – a connection – and show respect, even when you disagree. I relish connecting with people; I enjoy finding out what makes them tick. Be curious. People like to talk about themselves and be prepared to explore the less obvious, you might find it takes you further.
I always want to know what motivates people. To do that I believe you have to show your own vulnerability. I’ve been in meetings with female politicians, whose politics differs hugely from mine. Yet, because the meetings were private, and we shared the unpleasant experience of being trolled on Twitter, they felt safe enough to trust me, and vulnerable enough to cry. They knew we shared a common experience as women in the public eye. I would never exploit that vulnerability.
Walk the walk. For people to trust you and follow your example, it is critical to practice what you preach. If you want to influence people, you’ve got to demonstrate you follow your own logic. That means changing your own life first. Very often there is a personal cost to breaking new ground.
Don’t let being a change maker damage you. I have the support of my wonderful children and friends. I was a yoga teacher for many years, so I also have a tool bag of stress busting techniques. Physical exercise is integral to my well-being, I like to walk at altitude. I come from the north of England, which is very hilly. When I go home, the first thing I do is run up to the moor. A strong Yorkshire breeze soon puts things into perspective.
I make a point of trying to hear diverse points of view. I recently spent four months on sabbatical in South Africa, working for an international NGO that employs HIV positive women to combat AIDS. It was a good opportunity to hear stories from African women from diverse backgrounds.
The dominant media narrative is exceptionally narrow. There are untold stories across the world we need to hear. There are pockets of hope, and places where things are a great deal worse. It’s about getting things into perspective.
Coming back to the UK after South Africa, I felt the privilege of walking as a woman without fear on the streets of an effortlessly multicultural London. It made me aware of the UK, while flawed and unequal, was still a society where I could articulate and broadcast my concerns.
It’s important to see what we are living through is just a moment in history. It’s not the end of the world, it’s a moment – one we obviously want to do something about. If you allow yourself to see the rise of the silver backed politicians as the only thing happening then you miss the long view. Where is this phase of history going to take us? This isn’t the end, we are living through a process of change. It is incredibly important not to lose hope. Now is the time for weaving together strong networks for change that will knit together the fabric of a future, fairer society.
I always think about my audience, how can I reframe a concept into language, which will resonate with them. If I was talking to a group of artists, I might frame an idea poetically or metaphorically. If I were talking to a group of scientists, I would use practical examples or scientific evidence. If you use language and examples that mean something to your audience, your message is more likely to switch on a light.
When you are passionate about a subject it is easy to frighten your audience so they switch off. I try to remember what it would feel like if someone was challenging or suggesting a new way for me to think. Try to make your listener feel a little more comfortable moving towards your perspective. Ask yourself: ‘How can I put this in a way to help them take a small step in the direction I want?’ History might remember the moment the world changed, but before that moment many small, incremental steps made that moment possible. All those small conversations and tiny shifts in perspective need to come first. That’s the fabric I was talking about. You’ve got to have the fabric and the network of people underpinning these moments. Change rarely comes out of the blue.
This sounds basic, but I think this is a really good rule for life, as well as for movement building. When you have a discussion about anything important, write it down. Make sure others agree with what you’ve written and everyone’s clear what is expected of them. Setting out the parameters clearly so there’s no confusion, helps everyone, particularly when you’re working collaboratively. When you’ve got lots of groups coming at things from different angles, summarise what you agreed and put it in writing. It creates clarity and transparency and means leadership and responsibility can be passed on.
One of the reasons aggressive language is used by our world leaders is because they are trying to counteract a more collaborative and cooperative world, which undermines their power. Women are immensely well placed to work collaboratively in a connected world where you’ve got to work with other people to make things happen. A lot of shouting and posturing is because aggressive leaders have limited people skills. Collaboration can be hard work, and it requires tenacity, but the results are powerful and can change history. Recently I went to a talk about the Clinton media campaign and I just thought how the messaging and positioning was in direct opposition to Trump; it wasn’t around doing things differently. We don’t need to be in binary competition. We are more effective when we work together to find common ground. Women are supremely good at connecting, relationship building, and collaborating. It’s what we’ve always done but now we’re doing it professionally. Hierarchical leaders tend to have short term influence but long term change happens by embedding ideas at a deep level, when society sets the new normal.
Women shouldn’t be frightened to be themselves. We don’t need to be like the men in the room. I think younger women find it harder to speak with their own authentic voice. I’ve years of experience speaking out against unfair treatment and calling out men who speak over women. It takes resilience to be knocked down, come back and start all over again. As women we tend to question ourselves, and our actions. We want to please people. Female political leaders often take up the rhetoric of male politicians – that’s what prevents change happening. When you look at countries like New Zealand [Jacinda Ardern] it demonstrates you can do things differently. Women have something unique to offer and it’s more valuable for the long term benefit of society. There can be different ways of doing things, a kinder sort of politics.