Preaching to the Converted and the Path to Unlearning: this week’s random conversations

January 13, 2017 8 By Duncan Green

Had some interesting if random discussions this week – I work from home a lot, and then get far too excited when I actually end up in a room with interesting people.  Two thoughts (among many) seem worth capturing:

Preaching to the converted: This is something we’re not supposed to do – waste of time all preaching-to-the-convertedagreeing with each other, right? We need to get out there and engage with the Other, the heathen, the unenlightened etc. Well (channelling Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction), allow me to retort. Most Imams and priests spend the vast majority of their time preaching to the converted, and they seem to have a pretty solid business model. Preaching to the converted plays an essential role in consolidating commitment and attendance, both inspiring and training activists, it builds a sense of belonging and engagement (depending on whether the preacher is any good, of course). However, it may be worth drawing a distinction between preaching to the converted and ‘preaching to the choir’, which I take to be the US variant of the phrase. Preaching to the choir – as in your hard core, totally committed activists, may indeed be a bit of a waste of time – NGO full timers telling each other stuff they already know (‘agreeing violently’) springs to mind.

But where does that leave the discussion on getting out of our filter bubbles? Sticking with the religious analogy, should we all be doing 90% preaching to the converted, and 10% trying to proselytize among the heathen? Or should we be looking for hard core missionaries to live outside the bubble full time? Who/what would they look like in political terms?

How does Unlearning happen? Next up, if we are going to try and get aid agencies to ‘do development differently’, we will be asking people who have had logframe thinking drummed into them for decades to start behaving in a drastically different fashion. To caricature (hey, it’s what I do…) people who count beans, tick boxes, hit deadlines and implement The Plan will suddenly be expected to be cool, entrepreneurial, improvising risk takers and surfers of unpredictable events.

unlearningIn many cases, I have serious doubts that this is possible – we may just have to employ different kinds of people as jobs fall vacant (change happens one funeral at a time etc). But if we are going to try, then existing staff and partners will have to ‘unlearn’ a lot of what has gone before.

But how does unlearning even happen? Thinking about it in my own life, I can identify a few processes which lead to me jettisoning ways of thinking and working:

  1. Humiliation and defeat: Here’s how I learned to let go and devolve power. Newly arrived at Oxfam, I was sent on a deeply traumatic management training course at an outward bound centre in the Lake District. One of the exercises was a giant outdoor chess match. Each team had a couple of people moving the pieces around, and a couple of remote ‘managers’ who were told they were in charge. They communicated with the players via a walkie talkie, which was tied to a tree, and a runner who carried messages from the walkie talkie to the players. I was a manager, and we duly set up a dummy chessboard and sent messages via the runner (who in our case was Jo Cox, during her period at Oxfam). As the delayed results filtered back via Jo, we watched horrified as our side was destroyed by the opposition. We later found that the enemy manager (Kate Raworth) had used the walkie talkie to ask her players if they were good at chess. When they said ‘yes’, she said ‘right, over to you’ and went and had a cup of tea. She had no problem letting go/devolving power, whereas it had never occurred to me. It was a lesson I’ll never forget. I could tell a lot of other stories along these lines – regularly making a fool of myself seems to be my prime personal driver of change……
  2. Success stories on the ground: But screwing up is not the only way; there’s nothing like the demonstration effect of seeming something innovative working on the ground – Chukua Hatua in Tanzania, TajWSS in Tajikistan, Community Protection Committees in DRC
  3. Paradigm shifting overall narratives: I get ridiculously excited by big picture books that shift my way of thinking – Robert Chambers, Ha Joon Chang, Eric Beinhocker, Donella Meadows, Jerry and Monique Sternin, Portfolios of the Poor. They not only critique a standard way of thinking, but offer a convincing and original alternative.

In terms of promoting new ways of thinking and working, it feels like lots is happening on (2) and (3), but what about (1)? Do we need to think about how to engender a personal sense of crisis, shock, fear or whatever before people will really abandon tried and tested (but failed) approaches? How to encourage those moments in a reasonably humane fashion?