To Make Change, Change the Change

What we have here is failure to change

Many people see change as a top-down approach: change policy and everything else will follow. A border wall will stop immigrants from seeking a better life; marching will persuade against such a wall. What the top-down approaches miss is the “down” portion. Such actions do not seek and do not address the personal aspects of change. The individual is the key to changing the “top”, and while the sought change may take more time to achieve, it is more durable and more accepted. Change in the individual leads to change in the overall. 

We see this in targeted messaging used in political campaigns, which typically base their messages on demographics (but not solely). For example, all women receive the same message, or all African-Americans, or all males between 18-30 years old. Yet, personal interaction is removed and personal understanding is never attempted. It fails to effectively change the individual. Consequently, nothing changes and the roots of contention sprout the same arguments over and over and over again.

Personality Goes a Long Way

However, during the 2016 presidential campaign, some politicians utilized a more refined tool of targeting.  Alexander Nix of Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) bases his company’s data mining efforts on the principle that personality shapes behavior. Psychographics is what Mr. Nix calls the focus on personality targeting over demographics. “Personality drives behavior”, he stated at the 2016 Concordia Summit. “And behavior obviously influences how you vote.” This strategy was employed by Senator Cruz, and later, Donald Trump. The results speak for themselves.

People may demonize and blame Mr. Nix for who is in the White House, but that misses an important point. Some may curse the use of technology to understand, and possibly exploit, personality.  It is worrisome that technology can analyze and base messages on psychographics. But again, the main point is overlooked.

The important point, and what the election results illustrate, is the power and salience of our personalities, how they affect our behaviors and how our behaviors influence change. And it is here that we invoke the late Harold Saunders, founder of the Sustained Dialogue Institute and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence. His focus was on achieving and sustaining peace through personal dialogues, and from these “grassroots” efforts for larger change can begin.

So what does this mean?  Well, personal dialogue involves personal interaction and when people interact their personalities are illustrated. Perhaps more importantly, your personality is on display as well. And it is here where change must be rooted.   The old adages, “Be the change you want to see” and “treat others the way you wish to be treated” hold true here for they address the main challenge to instituting change: Why would someone else change, or listen to you, if you aren’t willing to change or listen?

The purpose here is not to declare all efforts to change that do not include dialogue are wrong. Or that the current movements are invalid. Rather, it is the importance and power personal introspection and understanding. If personality is key to change, with Mr. Nix providing convincing evidence, then we should understand our own personalities. Only then can we begin to understand others and their motivations. If you want equal rights, then be prepared to treat others equally, even if (and especially) when you disagree with them. If you want to be heard and understood, then prepare to listen and learn.

The goal is to create honest and open dialogue where both/all sides strive to listen, learn, educate and understand, which constitute personal change. But this is not easy. Allowing for and accepting personal change is a conflict within one’s self. To change is to declare that the current status as unacceptable or undesirable. The ego suffers a strong blow. We are resistant to change and tend to subconsciously become defensive and lash out, thus threatening the dialogue process.  Our old habit is to debate.

I Must Break You

According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit”, habit is, well, powerful. The cue > routine > reward cycle can be so engrained within us that we don’t recognize it, and it becomes difficult to break or change. It requires self-awareness, analysis and understanding. For example, a cue may be a post (a political stance) on Facebook that triggers the routine (opposition to this stance) to produce the reward (feeling of “doing right”). And on Facebook, this cycle continues along this one post. Facebook is full of such posts, and consequently, many cycles of habit. One routine begets others, and down the rabbit hole we go.

Enter Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. What has our habit to debate changed? Why do we keep debating if nothing changes? Why does the same cycle of change keep churning? So, why do we keep relying on debate? This habit is difficult to break because the reward is internal.

There are steps to take that can, over time, allow for personal change in the form of progress and improvement. Realize that habit can be changed, that personal interaction is imperative and that you are a root from which change can grow to the “top”. To break the habit, recognize where it lives. Instead of offering counterpoints, as per the example, ask for clarity or more detail. Granted, Facebook is not  the best place for this to occur, but it’s a start. If such point/counterpoint occurs in person, then breaking this habit is much more salient. It takes practice, but changing yourself can change others, and changing the national habit of debate to that of dialogue can start cultivating change.

The roots of change

Understand your motivations, reactions and responses  We often pigeonhole ourselves into positions and lose touch with our interests. That is, the core reasons for our struggle are clouded by our efforts and strategies utilized to achieve victory.  Ask yourself, “why am I encouraging this or discouraging that?”  Then ask of the answer, “why is this so?”.  Other questions include: Why do you react the way you do? What feelings are brought up? Why those feelings? Why are you mad, sad, happy, irritated, etc.?  Do your response reflect your proposal or your reaction?  These questions are not the one-and-done type. They are asked to invite more inquiry, more discovery. They must be asked again and again with the goal of understanding yourself.

Realize the reasons you are expressing Why do we express our thoughts? What’s the purpose of communicating to someone: Is it venting, or antagonizing, or grandstanding, or persuasion, or pontificating, or something else?  What do you seek to accomplish through expression? Is it working?

Recognize and try to foresee impact  Our words, actions and inactions affect others. In order for the effect to match our motivations, we must know the audience, context, message cycle (word selection > message encoding/sentence structure > transmission > medium > reception > decoding > interpretation > possible impacts), and language (verbal and body).  

Seek to understand motivations of others  Even if you have mastered the process of understanding your motivations, what you’re going to say, why you’re going to say it and at least the medium-term effects, others may not possess such insight and skill.  Why are they expressing? Are they influenced by their emotions? What impact do they wish to achieve? Did I offend them is some way I didn’t realize?

Ask questions to learn, not to badger  Questions can sometimes be used, and received, as tools to ridicule, judge, entrap and challenge. The “gotchya” question is a manipulation of inquiry and good mechanism for the other party to refuse answering more questions. Asking such questions damages your integrity and reputation.  Instead, ask questions of genuine curiosity with the goal of learning something. Enhance your knowledge and, therefore, improve your proposals. Not to mention strengthen your integrity.

Challenge your beliefs  We sometimes hold onto beliefs as a source of comfort, but haven’t asked ourselves why we believe such things. The reasons for a belief could be buried in time, altered by experience and perhaps not really a belief at all, just a form of rote memorization and habit.  

“Reality Check” your proposals Think ahead and put your proposal in place. Who does it affect? How? Who would challenge it? Why and how? If you hand a magic wand and instantly change things to your vision, would you have any complaints? This extends beyond the present one step to the next 10.

Listen Seems easy enough, but in reality it takes considerable effort. If you find yourself thinking of a reply, then you’re not listening. If you interrupt, then you’re not listening. Dedicate your energy to hearing what is being said, then rephrasing it in your own words. Communicate this rephrasing back to the speaker to a) make sure you heard correctly and, b) demonstrate that you are indeed listening.