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The revolutionary art of conversation

We anarchists are often terrible at real conversations. The more introverted of us prefer reading quietly, while the more extroverted of us spend our time ranting at friends who already agree with us (online or in person). When we meet someone who is actually interested in anarchism, some of us will direct them to a book, others will bore them with a lecture, and others will ignore them - sure that they must be a cop. We hope people will spontaneously develop anarchist ideas, rise up and create a better society. But how is that strategy working out for us?

Perhaps we avoid real political conversations because we see them as inherently authoritarian? Certainly the sorts of people who regularly have these conversations - union organisers, Leninists, preachers and politicians - use them to manipulate and control.

But approaching a conversation with a clear political intention is not inherently authoritarian. In fact, if you don’t consciously choose your words and actions, you are more likely to fall into the authoritarian ways of interacting that are standard in this society. It’s better to think before we speak, and better still to translate anarchist politics into a conversational approach that is effective organising.

Organising means facilitating the process whereby people become angry and hopeful enough to overcome the passivity and brainwashing of the social system. In my earlier article, Organising in Australia, I argued that if we want to see social change along anarchist lines, we need to improve our organising. In this article I will focus on the most important skill of organising: the one-to-one, face-to-face conversation.

If you aren’t having regular, face-to-face political conversations, you aren’t organising effectively. No amount of writing, reading, gigs, or online posting will create the revolution. To organise a movement, we need to have thousands of conversations. Not chats or rants, but intentional conversations aimed at developing anarchist ideas, empowering people and bringing them into relationships of solidarity with each other. It doesn’t matter whether you’re quiet or loud, articulate or reticent: we all need to improve the quantity and quality of our conversations.

In order to begin the vital task of developing an anarchist approach to intentional conversation, we need to look at different organisers’ approaches. In this article I will discuss approaches from the union movement, community organising, and the feminist and enviro movements. We need to engage with these methods, with a view to adopting some components, while rejecting others which are authoritarian or apolitical.

Structured conversations

Unions in Australia tend to have a very tightly controlled approach to political conversations. It’s not uncommon in big organising campaigns for every single conversation between an official and a worker to be planned, structured, scripted, counted, categorised, debriefed, and analysed. This is because unions know that these conversations are the basis for organisation and power.

The classic conversation structure is ‘Anger Hope Action.’ Picture yourself as an organiser; you might spend five or more minutes finding the worker’s issues and agitating around them: eg ‘What’s the pay like here?’ ‘Does the management treat you with respect?’ ‘That doesn’t seem fair.’ Then you’ll spend a few minutes trying to inspire the worker with hope about the campaign: ‘Lots of other workers here have been saying the same thing, that’s why everyone is getting together in the union.’ ‘Last year workers at company X got a pay rise through running a campaign like this one.’ Finally, you’ll move on to the action, the ‘ask’: ‘Are you ready to join your union today?’ ‘Can all the other workers count on you to come to the picket on Friday?’ Other elements of the conversation that might come into play include building rapport, countering objections, and inoculating against management tactics.

The development of this ‘issues-based organising’ approach is often attributed to Saul Alinsky, who worked as a community organiser for many decades, beginning in Chicago in the 1930s. It is a powerful method with a proven success rate, however it has some problems. Firstly, the conversations (and the campaigns they are a part of) are not transformative or revolutionary, but focus on mobilising large numbers of people around pre-determined issues. Issues that have been chosen (by the 'leadership') because they are winnable in the current system, or suit the institution running the campaign. The organisation that is built through this process is instrumental, and often disappears when the issues are resolved (or turn out to be too big to resolve). The conversation and the campaign itself is focussed on tasks and incremental changes, not relationships or qualitative change. The sort of questions asked are those where the organiser already knows the answer. Also, it is a hierarchical approach, where a specialist organiser exercises a significant degree of power over the people being organised.

Relational organising

Unlike ‘issues-based organising’ which relies on pre-existing communities and pre-determined issues, ‘relational organising’ seeks to build community where there wasn’t any before. This is done through building trust and relationships, through conversations based on honesty and human warmth. The focus is on common values and relationships, not issues and anger. The goals and targets arise out of the process, from the people themselves. The focus is on the process, not solely on the tasks to be completed. And the organisation which is built this way lasts beyond specific issues - because it is based on cooperation and genuine relationships.

Edward T Chambers is a well-known community organiser (also in the Alinsky tradition) who argues for relational organising and the ‘relational meeting’. He defines it as a one-to-one, face-to-face, pre-scheduled, 30-minute meeting, outside the busy schedule of life and work. A good relational meeting involves ‘connection, confrontation and exchange’. It will have an intensity, a purpose and a focus beyond ordinary conversation.

As an organiser, you need to use your whole self in a relational meeting. You need to connect at the emotional level, before the intellectual level. Non-verbal communication is very important: keep eye contact, smile and be friendly, lean forward and nod to communicate interest, and try not to make the person uncomfortable by standing too close (or too far away).

Relational meetings should be mutual and reciprocal. Both people must be prepared to be open and vulnerable about their passions and values. They must be willing to question and doubt their own beliefs, and truly value the other person’s perspective and stories. A good relational meeting will expose two people to the deepest levels of what they care about and are willing to act on. This is why these conversations can be revolutionary in themselves.

Stories are a vital part of relational meetings. When people tell their stories, they become more conscious of their past, present and future, and their potential to change that future. As an organiser, you need to take risks and share some stories about yourself, as well as getting the person to tell their own stories. You should have a repertoire of stories (that you have written out and practiced in advance) that explain who you are, why you do what you do, why you’re an anarchist etc. Stories are an extremely effective way of communicating; people will remember good stories even if they forget your name. Good stories have a plot, obstacle and climax; they include description and imagery.

Although relational organising is a powerful tool, it too has it’s limitations. Its practitioners tend to be very selective - only having relational meetings with ‘leaders’, and writing off everyone else as a ‘follower’. It also tends to be aligned with faith-based organising and can be very conservative in its goals. If all the emphasis is on building good relationships and confidence in the community, relational organising can simply accommodate people to the status quo. Also, relational organisers always look for ‘things we all have in common’ - and may try to include bosses, politicians and other ruling class types in the feel-good love-in.

Good listening

The approaches to conversation discussed so far are effective for mobilisation, but - especially in the hands of union officials - they tend towards authoritarianism and Taylorism (minute control over behaviour for maximum efficiency). They lack revolutionary spirit. I would now like to look at some methods and skills developed in the feminist and enviro movements. These methods suggest ways to open up the really transformative potential your conversations. The first and most important of these skills is good listening.

Good listening requires a discipline of the ego - you need to spend less time talking and thinking about yourself, and more time focussing on the other person. Silence your cynicism and arrogance, and don’t get impatient - even if you think you already know what they are saying. Don’t let your mind wander while they are speaking. Don’t interrupt.

Listening requires respect. If you don’t respect the person, you won’t be able to listen or engage meaningfully. It is a basic principle for many radicals (feminists, anarchists and others) to value the individual, their diversity, equality and participation. So, listen without judgement, with an open mind and genuine interest in where the other person is coming from. Listen for their passions and motivations, their ideas about change, their dreams and the blocks to them taking action. You can recall these elements to help them find hope and take action.

Really trying (and wanting) to listen can be challenging, but it is also deeply rewarding and is a way to connect to the humanity in others and ourselves. Listening is one way to show you care about someone, and people won’t listen to what you say unless they see that you care.

When you really listen, people may open up and talk about strong emotions such as suffering. This can be confronting, and you may feel like backing away, or intellectualising. Much better is to just listen and try to empathise, even if this exposes your own limitations and helplessness surrounding the issues at stake. Give the person your full attention, and you may both grow from the experience.

Strategic questioning

Good listening goes hand in hand with effective questioning. Short, succinct questions can unlock new and powerful ideas in the person you are talking with. Questioning is a basic tool of rebellion, and can cut through fear, ideology and apathy.

Fran Peavey, a well-known practitioner of strategic questioning, defines strategic questioning as a way of facilitating ‘dynamic listening’, where the participants create new ideas together about what could be. Answering a question can be an empowering experience; much more transformative than just being given a solution. The person feels ownership over their answer, even if it has been said many times before.

Critical educator Paolo Freire talks about the need for the oppressed to be agents of their own liberation. Through developing a critical consciousness, people break through the dominant silencing culture and begin to remake themselves. Strategic questioning is a process that can help a person develop this critical consciousness for  themselves and begin to ask their own questions and find their own solutions.

Strategic questioning is not about asking questions to manipulate. The goal isn’t to lay traps to get the answer you want! Strategic questions are open-ended and seek to uncover options. Your intention is important: rather than trying to put ideas into a person’s head, you are really trying to learn from them and help them develop what’s already in their head.

Strategic questioning is the skill of asking the questions that will make a difference. Questions that avoid simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. Questions that create the confidence that change can happen. Some examples (depending on the context) might be:

  • What leads you to say that?
  • How come it matters?
  • How would you like it to be?
  • What are changes you have seen or read about?
  • How did those changes come about?
  • What would it take for you to participate in...?
  • Who else cares about this?

‘Why’ questions are controversial. When we ask them of ourselves they can be profound: ‘Why are things the way they are?’ ‘Why am I doing what I do?’ ‘Why don’t I spend more time doing the things I say are important to me?’ They can prompt a powerful focus on values and meaning. However, when you ask someone else a ‘why’ question they may feel forced to defend the existing state of affairs. For example, compare: ‘Why haven’t you joined this campaign’ to ‘What has kept you from joining this campaign?’

Strategic questioning is powerful and transformative in itself, however this can lead practitioners to a problematic rejection of political content. It is argued that the role of the strategic questioner is solely to uncover the solutions that the questionee already has in their head - even if the questioner disagrees with these solutions. The questioner is expected to put all of their opinions to one side, as they will ‘not be useful’ to the questionee. Most of us anarchists would have a hard time doing that! I think it’s fine that we want to expose people to perspectives that do not have mainstream circulation, and engage with people critically around false ideas. The challenge is to do this effectively and respectfully.

Towards anarchist conversation

There is value in each of the approaches and techniques discussed above; there are also flaws. I think each of us should be experimenting with parts of these approaches in our conversations. You already have a powerful vision, and a passion for social change; people will join you if you have inspiring conversations with them!

Together we need to develop an anarchist approach to organising. As a start, I think we need to increase the number and quality of face-to-face conversations that we have. These encounters must have some degree of structure and intentionality; they must build strong relationships between people, and they must involve good listening and strategic questioning.

We need to be persuasive - not by ranting or writing well, but by talking honestly with people, and by building trust and respect. These interactions help us to build organisation, and also to develop our humanity in the midst of the dehumanising system we find ourselves in.

We all need to be organisers - not paid professionals, but good listeners who help people to empower themselves and make connections with others in their communities, working towards revolutionary goals. An organiser must not be a specialist who selects and manipulates a few privileged leaders, but rather one of an ever-growing number of empowered rank-and-filers. An organiser is someone who practices and shares the skills of organising. Everyone must be an organiser. Including you.

Useful References

  • Barefoot Collective, www.barefootguide.org
  • Edward T Chambers, ’Roots for Radicals’
  • Fran Peavey, ’Strategic Questioning Manual’
  • Lawrence O’Halloran, ’Relational Organising’
  • Luke Bretherton, ’The Origins of Organising’
  • Paolo Freire, ’Pedagogy of the Oppressed’
  • Saul Alinsky, ’Rules for Radicals’
  • School of the Americas Watch, ’Working together for change’ in the ’Handbook for Nonviolent Action’
  • The Change Agency, ’10 rules for one-on-ones’


Jeremy, June 2012.