Wednesday Dec 01

Winter 2020

Words Matter

It’s axiomatic in our work that we say that actions speak louder than words. What could be clearer? Becoming acquainted with the work of something that refers to itself as the Loughborough School, we find that words also matter. In fact, words and the way we use them, choosing them carefully, and stringing them together in certain ways, are almost as powerful as actions themselves, because they provoke action in the responses that they engender. Professor Elizabeth Stokoe and her colleagues at the aforenamed university located in Leicestershire,

England, have developed a specialty that they call “conversation analysis” or CA for short as a branch of a special blend of psychology called discursive psychology or DP in their densely argued papers. How do I know and why do I care? Both are good questions, and it won’t surprise that I think everyone should begin to take this as seriously as I’m now doing.
I know about this based on random coincidence or what I would term, blind luck. Driving towards Canal Street in New Orleans, there’s a point near Congo Square on Rampart Street where I can’t get the signal clearly from WAMF, our low- power noncommercial radio station in the city. I have taken to hitting the next station over, the local NPR outlet usually. I caught a smidgen of an interview with Professor Stokoe that hit me like a lightning bolt. She was reporting on the thousands of conversations she had recorded and analyzed “in the wild,” as I later read. The brief upshot was that the efforts of callers and other interlocuters who engage us in conversations by trying to establish personal connections and building rapport is less effective in producing results than straightforward conversations that get right to the point and say what they mean without inferring some faux or personal relationship or attachment.

Why I care has everything to do with how we discuss and engage constituents to join collectively to act in making change. As community and labor organizers, we have preached exactly this point on the soapbox and any other forum where professional tradecraft might be exchanged for decades, even as other colleagues had argued for “relational” engagement as an a priori to individual engagement. Professor Stokoe has found such preliminaries less effective from her extensive research, and we are the amen chorus. There are few feelings as sweet as finding out that something close to science proves what you have always believed! Conversation analysis also makes sense in some other ways. Organizers have always been challenged on whether or not we are “manipulating” people into organization and action. Much of the work Stokoe and her colleagues have done looks at persuasion and whether the exchange is constructed – or received – as coercive or denies agency. Remarkably, some of the difference in how people feel about a conversation can hang on a word, like the difference between a caller asking if they might. “speak” to someone as opposed to “tell” someone about a service or situation.

We’ve often had an expression at ACORN about “not swallowing the ask.” In CA, listening to conversations, the psychologists can pick out the infrastructure beneath that problem. Sometimes the clues are in silences, as much as in words. A pause is freighted with meaning on both sides, just as the construction of a conversation can be presented both negatively or positively by the alignment. The examples they offered in their reports often came from social service agencies offering community or family mediation, where the choice of words and inflections could presume an answer almost without the client agreeing or present the offer in such a way that the agency seemed to assume rejection. Conversation analysis seems very important to understand in organizational work for social change, political endeavors, and sundry other settings where it is critical to make sure that you are presenting information fairly, but also in the best light for an important decision by your partner in the exchange.

What organizer has not lived through countless role plays, too often by rote, hoping for an easy or understanding partner? Often what we learn is simply what Dr. Romeo, my high school Latin teacher, would repeat countless times during each class, repetition est mater studiorum, which is to say “repetition is the mother of study.” We may have to rethink these role plays, so essential for training organizers and others, and begin to do serious conversation analysis by joining the Loughborough School after a fashion with our own twists and turns.

I for one, am going to be looking and listening more closely from here on out.

WADE RATHKE is the Chief Organizer of ACORN International, Founder and Chief Organizer of ACORN (1970-2008), and Founder and Chief Organizer of Local 100, United Labor Unions (ULU).

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