3 Questions to Ask Yourself to Be a More Effective Changemaker

3 Questions to Ask Yourself to Be A More Effective Changemaker

Two sculpture heads looking at one another

Many of us are infuriated by issues in our communities, nation, and world. No matter where we stand on the political spectrum, there’s a good chance we have strong feelings and opinions, whether about the war in the Middle East, the presidential election in the U.S., guns, school curricula, immigration, abortion, transgender issues, animal agriculture or any number of topics that have inflamed and divided our citizenry. But here’s the Catch-22: If we’re not careful, expressing our strong feelings through words and actions can deepen polarization and prevent us from collaborating with others to solve the problems we care about.

These two realities—polarization and strongly held beliefs—exist in a state of tension. For some of us, the desire to right the wrongs we see is so strong that we don’t want to self-censor our (justified) speech or modify our (righteous) actions, even if we contribute to polarization. It’s also possible we don’t even realize that we may be undermining our effectiveness because our language and actions have become so normalized to us that we have not examined their full impacts. We use the words and phrases we’ve heard and have come to embrace within our personal spheres, and we act in the ways others who share our beliefs behave, even if these undermine the likelihood of reaching solutions.

What’s the solution to this Catch-22?

By carefully examining our intentions, words, and strategies, we can become more solutionary as we strive to achieve our goals, which is why it’s useful to begin by asking ourselves to articulate those goals explicitly:

1. What is my goal?

On the surface, this seems like an easy question to answer. Perhaps our goal is an end to the killing of Palestinians. Or perhaps it’s the destruction of Hamas. Maybe our goal is a federal law to ensure women have the right to an abortion. Or maybe it’s to make abortion illegal everywhere. We may want to advance gun control laws to help prevent gun violence and deaths. Alternatively, we may wish to protect the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

On the surface, these goals appear to be polar opposites. Still, when we engage in serious introspection beyond and below the surface, we may be able to locate deeper goals that can form even a small piece of common ground.

Across a wide political and ideological spectrum lie people who want enduring peace, security, and freedom for people of all faiths and ethnicities who reside between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Most people likely want the smallest possible number of abortions to occur. Surely, many wish to uphold constitutional rights and also see mass shootings consigned to history books. If we can identify our deepest and truest longings, our strategies to achieve them may lead to more collaborative, nuanced, and effective approaches, even across divides.

With our deepest goals in mind, we can ask ourselves the following question:

2. Is my communication clear and effective?

Words shape what we think and how we act. They allow us to articulate and understand important ideas and concepts, including new ways of thinking. Words can also become obstacles to understanding, especially when we use what have become charged words or phrases without carefully defining—and deeply understanding—their meanings and how they may be heard and understood by others. Many words and phrases today have become so “loaded” that speakers and hearers may have vastly different understandings of them and, thus, vastly different reactions.

As George Orwell wrote in his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language,

“The word ‘fascism’ has now no meaning except insofar as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’ The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.”

Seventy-eight years later, Orwell’s insights into these words are surprisingly prescient.

Many words and phrases today convey strong allegiances and perspectives and result in big reactions among those who embrace them as useful articulations of concepts and those who reject them as antithetical to their beliefs.

It’s important to note that the meaning of these words, concepts, and phrases shifts over time, sometimes due to the very polarization that this essay seeks to address.

Just think of how the word “woke” transformed from its use in the Black vernacular in the 1930s when it meant “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination,” to its broad use by progressives in the 2010s to apply to awareness about and commitment to social justice issues in general, to its current pejorative use by some to criticize and diminish progressive efforts to seek greater justice and equity. As people become divided over a word like woke and use it to express their emotions (both positive or negative), those who share the deeper goal of ending inequity and injustice can become distracted from persistent problems as well as potential solutions.

What words and phrases are you currently using that could be polarizing? Might you choose different words to support your ultimate goals more strategically and build bridges toward collaborative problem-solving? As Orwell continues in his essay:

“A scrupulous writer… will ask himself … What am I trying to say? What words will express it? … You can shirk [these questions] by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we choose language to “make nice” but instead use the most effective language to achieve our goals. Doing so will help us as we answer the third question:

3. Is my strategy effective and aligned with my interests and strengths?

Because positive change happens through a range of approaches, finding our best strategy also means identifying where the answers to the following questions meet, which will help us channel our skills toward our goals:

What problems do I most want to solve?
What am I good at?
What do I enjoy doing?

There are many ways to transform unjust, unsustainable, and inhumane systems. Some of our efforts may be educational. Some may be oriented toward policy and legislation. Perhaps we’re inventors creating more sustainable and humane foods, products, buildings, energy sources, or transportation. Maybe we work to transform systems over which we have agency within our professions.

Whatever our approach to change, we can ask ourselves if we are being as strategic as possible. Determining whether a particular approach is strategic isn’t simple. There are many factors to weigh: our time, talents, personality, likely impact, and the possible unintended negative consequences of our actions.

We certainly don’t want our efforts to diminish the likelihood of achieving our desired impacts. For example, it may feel gratifying to write angry emails to our legislators, post clever but mean-spirited comments on our and others’ social media, or “cancel” an opponent. Still, none of these are likely to advance our deepest goals. If we keep these goals at the forefront of our minds, our strategies can become laser-focused on achieving them, potentially through reaching across divides.

If we want to create positive change, reflecting deeply and honestly in these ways will help us become as strategic as possible. It will also increase the likelihood that we’ll succeed in actually solving the problems we care about. And just maybe, we can also reduce polarization in the process.

Originally posted on Psychology Today on February 21, 2024