Why don't people listen?

A reflection on the importance of empowering people to act and helping them embrace discomfort and suffering in facilitating transformative change.

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Activists and (aspiring) agents of change face a fundamental challenge - we can see that things are not right, that things could be different, but people don’t listen. If we assume that we need people to at least recognise a problem before we can get them on board with changing things to address it, we need to consider why people don’t listen, and then figure out what to do about it.

I’m drawing here on my experience in academia, the private sector, and public sector, where I’ve had the privilege of working for change as an (engaged) anthropologist, service designer, strategic designer, and most recently a strategic foresight / futures practitioner. I’m also building on learning from the wisdom of great thinkers and doers, like KA McKercher and their book Beyond Sticky Notes, and from conversations with many others.

This reflection was inspired by a recent conversation at work, itself inspired by a colleague reading Janan Ganesh’s reflection on the recent streaming blockbuster, Don’t Look Up. In that piece, “No, really, don’t look up”- paywalled, Ganesh argues that the film, and activism more generally, fails to understand humanity and ignores that denial and diversion are natural, acceptable responses to fear, pain, and suffering.

In his concluding paragraph, he clearly states that denial is both foolish and life-giving, but that this

“is what Don’t Look Up misses entirely. The film is less insightful about the way people navigate stressful and even existential times than the Prince song “1999”. Like so much activism, it shows concern for human beings but only the loosest comprehension of them. What a tremendous disappointment we are to it.”

Faulting the film, as many others have done, for its lack of subtlety and heavy-handedness, Ganesh goes further to suggest it should instead have focused on why people don’t listen. He posits two answers to that question, one appealing to evolution and one acknowledging disempowerment.

On the evolutionary basis for denialism, he points out that the film’s “real crime”:

“is a lack of curiosity about its core subject. It depicts a world that numbs itself with political sport, mobile phones and frothy TV (weaponsgrade irony, that) as it faces death from above. This denialism, this refusal to ‘look up’, is shown here as purest folly. No doubt, given the stakes, it is. But why this human trait exists, what evolutionary purpose it might have served a species that has come this far, are questions about which the film is majestically indifferent.”

Here we see a claim that denialism has an evolutionary basis, and in line with the dominant worldview of our time, that evolution is natural and natural is good. Indeed, denial and diversion are responses to suffering (or fear of suffering) that we humans have evolved over time. But evolutionary processes can produce maladaptations - things that become dysfunctional and destructive over time.

On the second angle, disempowerment, he argues that:

“Without a thumb on the scales of history, where is the harm in losing themselves in private enthusiasms and the consolations of the night? What seems like frivolity is in truth a resourceful piece of what we might now call “self-care”. Think of children who react to trauma by vanishing into their own worlds. You’d have to persuade me they are better off with a frontal engagement with the facts.”

Setting aside the obvious oversight that children’s (and adults’) responses to trauma can be debilitating and create lasting adverse effects, Ganesh’s argument here appears to be that those of us resigned to insignificance in the face of the grand forces shaping history would be better off in diversion than facing up to the existential crises of our era. At risk of being entirely flippant, I’ll paraphrase the message here as: “ignorance is bliss; please keep shopping.

There is some truth in both angles of Ganesh’s argument, but we don’t need to accept denial and diversion as inevitable or even acceptable responses. If our theory of change is that we need a critical mass of people to acknowledge and engage with existential crises (or even the less global problems we might encounter as strategic designers or service designers working in large organisations), we’ll need to investigate what drives us to turn away from pain, and how we can help people to engage with it on the way to making change.

Understanding avoidance of suffering

The question of why don't people listen, especially to difficult truths, is a deep and ancient one. The myth of Cassandra speaks to this problem. It also sits at the centre of Buddhism,especially the Zen traditions I'm most aligned with: why do people turn away from suffering? Delusion, mostly, about the nature of suffering and how to address it. So that's at least 2600 years of history, and probably much longer.

One of the most useful pieces I've seen on this question comes from Joanna Macy and Molly Brown, in their book Coming Back to Life. This book is a guide to the collaborative practice they call The Work That Reconnects (WTR), which is built from deep ecology, Buddhism (and other religious traditions), and systems theory / cybernetics, and quite widely used in social movements.

One of the core concepts in WTR is "pain for the world" and a lot goes into acknowledging it and transforming it into hope and action in community with others. “Pain for the world” describes an implicit acknowledgment of ecological degradation, socio-economic exploitation, and existential risk (e.g. from nuclear war, which many of the activists involved in WTR first mobilised against).

Faced with pain for the world, we turn away - avoidance of pain and suffering is one innate response we humans can enact. It can be effective short term and in acute crises, but it becomes dysfunctional quickly. Pain, suffering, and difficult emotions are signals in the feedback loops between us and the world we inhabit; avoidance of pain prevents us from receiving critical feedback that we need to respond to in order to adjust our actions in the living systems we inhabit.

Macy and Brown describe this avoidance of suffering as “the deadening of heart and mind” and they identify 14 inter-related causes:

  • Fear of pain
  • Fear of despair
  • Other spiritual traps
  • Fear of not fitting in
  • Distrust of our own intelligence
  • Fear of guilt
  • Fear of distressing loved ones
  • View of self as separate
  • Hijacked attention
  • Fear of powerlessness
  • Fear of knowing - and speaking
  • Mass media
  • Job and time pressures
  • Social violence

There are a mix of psychological, social, and structural causes (and of course those are interrelated, because individual psychology, shared culture, and social-institutional structures are systemically intertwined).

The contemporary reality satirised by Don’t Look Up, is one in which a cultural-political-economic system has driven avoidance of suffering to extremes. Feeling bad? Buy some things, go have "an experience," travel (by jet). Need to pay for that? Sell your labour to the people who finance production of the things they want to sell you. And so on. And what choice do you have, really?

This is a stark and disturbing example of reinforcing feedback. Many of the products and services we are encouraged to consume to divert our attention from suffering are produced in ways that worsen social exploitation and accelerate ecological destruction. In human-scale development terms, they are pseudo-satisfiers or destructive satisfiers of fundamental human needs. The dominant paradigm of industrial growth and consumerism reinforces the use of diversion to avoid suffering - we look away, and if the relief is only temporary we can find more things to look away at.

Many of us also experience a chronic sense of disempowerment in that we are either outside the institutions that keep this cycle going, or if we’re on the inside we have little to no influence on the overall direction of travel. Most of us are dependent on employment to gain money to meet our basic needs of shelter and food, let alone to establish long-term security.

This is a direct effect of the way our political-economic system has evolved - and make no mistake, that evolution has been directed to benefit a very small elite at the expense of both people and planet. And yet, it seems like the decisions being made to keep the system running are always someone else’s responsibility - there’s always a manager, or an executive, or a minister, or an investor who simply cannot be denied or persuaded.

Facilitating change

Addressing the roots of avoidance is important, because if we don't address avoidance of pain we won't get very far addressing the causes of pain - things like the climate emergency, socio-economic / ethno-racial / sexual exploitation, wars of aggression, etc. At smaller, less existential scales, we’ll also need to address avoidance of suffering if we want to facilitate change in organisations: whether that’s huge transformations like getting multi-national corporations to stop committing ecocide or relatively small projects like designing new products and services that require some internal adjustments in an organisation.

For those of us who practice in strategic design spaces, work with “evidence and insights,” or want to integrate evidence and insights into our change programs, we’ll need more than high quality information. We’ll need to actively facilitate processes where people engage with the - sometimes distressing - implications of that information. And we’ll need to make sure we find people who are empowered to take action, or find ways to empower people to take action.

Empowering people to take action

Transformative change is participatory work. Change programs designed and implemented by an elite can be hopelessly out of touch with the experiences and aspirations of - for want of a better term - the non-elite. Grassroots change programs, especially in the context of organisations like private or public sector bureaucracies, can fail to propagate if they don’t have elite endorsement, support, and involvement.

If you’re working on the inside of an organisation and you’re willing, and able, to play a very long game, building grassroots momentum for change may be effective. There are obvious risks - will you remain employed long enough to see the project through? And there are less obvious but crucially important considerations - are the people you’re working with empowered to act?

To provide an abstract example, imagine you’re working in a role where you have the opportunity to bring new types of information and new ways of thinking, deciding, and acting into an organisation. Maybe you’re a service designer or strategic designer and you’re leading a team to reframe a problem space, and identify new strategic options. You and the team have done just enough research, you’ve got useful insights to make some strategic bets, and a cautiously optimistic sense that change could result in success.

But to put this change into action, some other major changes will need to happen - you’ll need to shift the meta around the matter, to borrow a concept from Dan Hill’s strategic design vocabulary. This kind of change is scary, it will involve difficult conversations, maybe with “the bosses.”

Whether this initiative is going to even be attempted will depend as much on relationships as on evidence, and probably more. If your project team does not include people who are empowered to make difficult decisions, convincing them will not be easy. If the evidence and insights, proposals and prototypes you provide ask them to rethink fundamental assumptions and mental models, the task will be even harder.

Your work provides signals these decision makers can consider, but those signals will interact with other signals in their decision making space. If your stakeholder’s continued employment and career advancement depends on their responding to other signals in the system - maybe coming from the C-suite, maybe from the Minister’s Office, maybe from the Board - you can imagine which signals are going to resonate.

I’m not necessarily endorsing hierarchy here - but if you’re going to work inside an organisation, you’re probably going to need to engage with people who hold power. This is the blessing, and the curse, of having a seat at the table. Use it well.

Outside organisations - in communities or society - similar considerations apply. There may be more scope for grassroots organising and mobilisation, and there will be debates about whether and how to engage with institutions, especially political, administrative, bureaucratic ones. Empowering people to take action will require both building a sense of possibility and the relationships to turn that possibility into change.

Embracing discomfort

Along with carefully assembling our crew and building relationships within and beyond the movement for change, transformation processes will require people to face and embrace discomfort. If we’re working on organisational change projects, that discomfort might be fear of change, of non-approval, of failure. If we’re working on planetary scale transitions that discomfort might be the deep, existential angst of pain for the world.

Where empowering people to act involves building strategic and pragmatic relationships and networks of power, embracing discomfort involves building relationships of care. This is where wisdom and experience shared in Macy and Brown’s Coming Back to Life, and KA McKercher’s model of care for co-design can be invaluable resources.

Those of us facilitating change will need to draw on a pair of complementary skills: holding space, and active facilitation. In active facilitation, we will need to guide our collaborators through ambiguity and uncertainty, help them look at suffering and help them transform it. We’ll need to cultivate both practical skills in designing processes, presenting information, and orchestrating interactions, as well as less tangible emotional and interpersonal skills that give our collaborators confidence along the way, and the flexibility needed to adapt as a process evolves. As facilitators, we need to direct processes, curate stimulus, synthesise and adapt as we lead a group through processes.

To complement active facilitation, we also need to become adept at holding space. As collaborators and facilitators, we can not predict and must not judge how other people experience and express discomfort, with the caveat that we must ensure collective well-being and safety. We can help to redirect and transform suffering, but trying to do that too soon can be damaging to a process, a community, and people. In holding space for a group, we may end up being led by the group to move in new directions, to reconsider our own assumptions, and to embrace our own suffering. We will also need people, inside or outside the movement and the change process, to hold space for us and to gently but surely guide us through the suffering we’ll encounter.

In change work, as in Buddhist practice, embracing discomfort and addressing the roots of suffering does not mean that suffering won’t happen. It means that we’ll learn to acknowledge, address, and transform it, rather than turning away and avoiding it through denial or diversion.

Are you sure you want to do this?

If this long, unpolished series of paragraphs hasn’t put you off, and you’re willing to take up the challenge of orchestrating transformation and helping people to look directly at discomfort, here’s one more thing to consider. This is as much a note-to-self as a piece of advice.

This work is hard, it takes time and energy, it can be thrilling when it comes together but is often - always? - taxing along the way, and there’s no guarantee that change will take root and grow even if you’ve carefully planted the seeds.

Just because you’re in a place and see change that could be made, you are not bound to commit yourself to it. Even if you are an appropriate person to be advocating or leading change in that space - and let’s acknowledge that many of us have no right to push change in many of the spaces we can see into - it is worth asking whether now is the time and this is the place for you.

This is especially the case for those working inside an institution. Just because they’re paying you, and just because you can, have you considered whether you should? Is working inside this particular institution, at this particular time, the best way to contribute to change in the larger systems that are in crisis? Where else might you find leverage points and community to engage in the work that needs doing?

If you made it this far down the page, thanks for reading.

Like with every post on this blog, consider this an invitation to join in thinking together, and maybe doing together. Why not get in touch with me on the Get in touch on the Fediverse to share your thoughts?

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All posts on this blog are by Scott Matter and licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0