Monday, February 27, 2017

Being effective in social change: Remember the bell curve

Image by Rebecca Monahan via Unsplash

Chances are, you've probably seen some excitement happening on social media these past few months.  Maybe you've even had some of these conversations in real life.  What I can guarantee you, though, is that you've come across people you don't agree with.  In fact, you've almost certainly talked with people who you believe are downright wrong.  I know I have, and it's made me very, very frustrated.

The problem comes with deciding what to do about it.  I've always enjoyed arguing with my peers, even before I knew to argue well or fairly.  Even now, sometimes I  want to shout out what I believe just to try and convince people to see things the way I see them.  I mean, I truly believe I am right and that it would benefit all these people to be blessed with my perspective.  I've got the facts, I've got the history, and I've got the rhetoric (sometimes).  Wouldn't the world just be so much better if they could listen and see what I have to say?

^ Surely I'm not the only one who thinks like this, and now that I've got us all on the same page, I want to step back and look at the other, more important facets of how these conversations pan out.

Regardless of whether you're bringing the most beautiful piece of truth to the world or not, your message isn't the crux of this situation.  What you have to say doesn't matter most.  What matters most is how receptive your audience is.

The Bell Curve

Back in 2015, my church hosted a panel discussion about the Ferguson protests and racial tensions in America.  I learned a lot that evening, and I want to share this one piece of the discussion that has stuck with me and that I've returned to so often since that night.

Whenever a new technology is introduced to society, it always has a gradual adoption.  A small few who were close to technology and who loved music bought the first walkmans.  Walkmans slowly caught on and then they were seen everywhere on the streets, in parks, and in the backseat of family cars.  After the rush died down, there were still a few stragglers who wanted to get their walkmans, too, so a smaller number brought up the rear of the walkman introduction.  The same thing happened with the iPod, then the iPhone, and the same thing happens with social change and perspectives.

You can see this bell curve in many areas of society.  The shift away from legal, and then away from any slavery.  The shift toward better nutrition.  The shift toward mandatory vaccinations.  (Hopefully we're just at the beginning of a bell curve toward organic and sustainable farming.)  It starts with a smaller number of people, then comes the swell, and then it tapers out as the last few folks come on board.

I've found it very helpful to to keep the bell curve in mind when debating, because it plays a large part in who is going to be receptive to your message.  For a practical example, let's pretend you're a civil rights activist in the '70s.  If you're trying to change the minds of the world toward viewing, treating, and respecting all people the same regardless of their skin, the people you're talking to about this progress fall into three categories.  Some of the population is already 100% on board with you or will agree with you very quickly.  A large majority will adopt this perspective a little later but they're also at least somewhat open to hearing about the change even before they themselves change.  Finally, another smaller number will change much, much later or maybe not at all.

While we'd love for everyone to adopt the practice of equality right away, the way you can be most effective and spread your message quickest is if you focus your efforts on the first and second groups of people.  When you find someone who fits into the third category, no matter what you tell them or how you say it, they are just not ready to listen.  We still want those hearts to be won, but that third group will take the most time and energy.  Knowing that ahead of time will hopefully show you where you might need or want to adjust so you aren't just spinning your wheels in conversation.

In Practice

Instead of discouraging you from speaking with anyone around you, I want to encourage you to speak to those who are ready to listen.   Haters are gonna hate, but you have waves to make! Stay focused, stay buoyant, and when you do come across a hater, don't let it get you down.  There are so many more people who are ready to listen to what you have to say.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome point! If you don't see the change you want, be bold in your arguments and affect it. The tipping point idea is important to that. You won't see real change for a long time, but when it happens, it will happen quickly. So, wait for the payoff.


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