If annoying, talking down to or ‘othering’ people is a terrible way to influence them, why do we keep doing it? (research edition)

I’ve been thinking about how we criticize/critique people, groups and ideas recently. It started with a conversation with my pal Chris Roche who first expressed surprise atangry man reading the snarky tone of my post on a paper on NGOs (What can we learn from a really annoying paper on NGOs and development?) and then pronounced himself a bit irritated by some of the ‘Doing Development Differently’ messaging, which he sees as largely repackaging (and taking the credit for) approaches that assorted practitioners have been using and promoting for decades.

The paper I bashed last year has been revised and appeared in World Development, along with a note saying ‘The writers were inspired to write the article after a recent working paper by Banks and Hulme was criticized on a widely read blog’ (yep, that would be me). Its content is a lot better in this new version (possibly because they’ve pulled in Mike Edwards as a co-author), but as I read it I still found my hackles rising, because although the content has improved, the tone has not. Stating the blindingly obvious as though it’s a major discovery; assuming all NGOs are venal, stupid or both; not acknowledging any differences within and between NGOs; not consulting NGOs or reading their internal literature. Teeth-grindingly annoying.

So what? Well, alienating your audience to this degree is a pretty terrible way to influence anyone – taking myself as a proxy for the target audience (the paper is arguing that NGOs need to sharpen up their act) I found it really hard to read and take in the messages of the paper through my cloud of irritation.

And the experience of being on the receiving end in this case made me think about all the times NGOs (including me) dish it out in much the same way – to the World Bank, the IMF, the ‘private sector’, ‘banks’, ‘economists’.  I fear we do exactly the things I have just criticised the paper’s authors of doing – talking about ‘the private sector’ as though it’s one thing; saying ‘growth is all about people’ as though only NGOs get it; either not sending the paper to the target, or sending it two days before publication so there’s not time to revise it, however good their response.

Why do we do this? Some reasonable explanations, and some less so. On the reasonable side, you need a clear consistent narrative for campaigns, and there is no doubt that Robin Hood-style campaigning (we are heroic outlaws, they are the Sheriff of Nottingham) is coherent and effective in getting media coverage. Try writing a press release saying ‘hey they’re all different, but some are worse than others and could improve’. And in some cases you’re not looking to ‘engage’, but to build up a big and noisy opposition – in that case polarization is good.

cartoon_truth to powerBut I fear other factors are at play in the way we ‘other’ our targets. A lack of self confidence/fear of being coopted makes it tempting to divide the world up into us and them. There’s also the common psychological phenomenon called splitting where people find it easier to divide world into Good and Bad. Who would campaign about shades of grey? ‘Speaking Truth to Power’ can sometimes be heroic and necessary, but it can also be counter-productive and even self indulgent, if by alienating power, it closes off possible paths to change.

As for Chris’ ‘old wine in new bottles’ problem, the academic incentives are all aligned behind saying ‘I have a new theory/concept/approach’ rather than ‘I’ve tweaked this idea that’s been around for a while but hasn’t been taken seriously’. In any case, academics are much more likely to get noticed, and so achieve wider impact with their work, if they follow that route. Tricky – my feeling is that if you see some bigger fish stealing your ideas, you should congratulate them for their amazing new insights, quietly pat yourself on the back, kick the cat (if you need to get it out of your system) and move on.

So what might good practice look like?

–          Assume the people you are criticizing are as smart as you, and that some of them at least will already have thought about these criticisms

–          Seek them out and try and involve them in your work as early as possible

–          Find out what the sector (or your predecessors) has said/written on your issue and acknowledge it

–          Avoid lazy generalizations – be specific about what and who you are criticizing


Update: Gareth Price-Jones, Oxfam’s rep with the Geneva-based humanitarian agencies, sends me this example of trying to build a more grown up relationship with an advocacy target – in this case UNHCR: Oxfam-UNHCR common understanding on advocacy final. Any other examples?’

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20 Responses to “If annoying, talking down to or ‘othering’ people is a terrible way to influence them, why do we keep doing it? (research edition)”
  1. Nicholas Colloff

    I would add – Recognize the limits in which our opponents operate. It is all very well to be tell people to do ‘X’ but ‘X’ is usually not so easily done (which is why it may not have been done! We often think that those in power, have power but often its diffused, contested, bound up, inexpertly driven etc. There is not always someone at the wheel, though we keep imagining it so.

  2. Pamela White

    Indeed – ‘othering’ is a big influence in this world. I have been very guilty of it myself. When I was a volunteer in a developing country (or infact, low paid long term cooperante), I judged others our own group who were paid so much and got lots of goodies like cards, etc. Consultants were, in my opinion, paid too much and doing no better job than me. I also thought that the World Bank was the devil incarnate. Lots of black and white hats. Now I have passed through various incarnations (NGO, government, consulting company) and even have done jobs for the World Bank! And I have become more pragmatic. I can see the pros and cons of different modalities. More important seems to be the individuals themselves.

  3. Elise Wach

    Great post. I think it’s so important to keep reminding ourselves of the ways in which we separate ourselves from the ‘other’ and how this can be really counterproductive. I need this reminder as much as anyone!
    I would like to add that I was involved in research related to the ways in which people have been effective at shifting policy (the study was specifically related to undernutrition, a polemic issue related to multiple sectors and disciplines, across NGOs, private sector, government, at different levels, etc.).
    Of course the ability to make progress towards addressing a problem hinges largely on our ability to make sense of (the complexity of) a situation. For the policy challenges we were investigating, a big part of this seems to have been ‘stakeholder awareness’ and ‘perspective awareness.’ This includes being ‘attentive to information that might allow [you] to understand how different stakeholders think, feel, and act.’ There is a good body of evidence demonstrating how these capacities can be developed through courses, coaching, etc., and I would also argue that spending time in different roles (as Pamela mentions above) can be another route to this.
    In case it is of interest, a brief paper on our thinking in this area is available here: http://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/bitstream/handle/123456789/2969/PP%20InBrief%2011%20Learning%20about%20champions%20FINAL.pdf?sequence=1
    and I would also recommend checking out Jake Chapman’s work on this (http://integral-review.org/documents/Chapman,%20Lessons%20from%20Pluralist%20Approach%20Vol.%206%20No.%201.pdf) and Thomas Jordan’s as well (http://integral-review.org/documents/Jordan,%20Skillful%20Engagement%20Wicked%20Issues,%20Vol.%207,%20No.%202.pdf)

  4. Jamie

    I like the ‘golden rule’ thinking to this. (Don’t write a report in a way you wouldn’t want to be written about). Part of it comes down to being clear about the audience and purpose of our work.

    I think Pamela’s point about becoming more pragmatic once you’ve worked in a variety of organisations is important. Could we sometime encourage more people to cross over from the private sector (or leave the development sector with a plan to return as I’m vaguely considering?). I’ve heard of someone who worked in banking for a while arriving to work in a major donor’s private sector team and discovering that they’re the only one who has ever worked in the private sector.

    • Duncan Green

      My advice to anyone who asks how to get a job in an NGO usually includes going to work for a target institution, whether state or private sector. That equips you to understand how decisions are made, people think etc, and may reduce the level of finger wagging once you move across to the light side……

  5. Jim Tanburn

    Great post and comments! I have always been keen to create incentives for people to think more about their work; there don’t seem to be enough opportunities for that. Current exchanges often take place in a fog of misinterpretation, and a determination to generalise things that are in fact context-specific. Plus a general railing against anything that looks like authority. Ironically, cultivating thoughtful allies would probably ensure much faster progress.

  6. Rashmir Balasubramaniam

    Love this post, and the awareness (self- and other- ) that is at play and that you are prompting for us all. It’s essential to transformation at every level, and too often missing.

    If we are serious about change, we must move beyond “them and us”. Putting ourselves in other people’s shoes, looking at things from their perspective, being empathic etc is essential.

    However, this need not mean that we hold back our own thoughts, feelings or ideas. Instead, it can prompt us to be more generative and solution oriented. It can prompt us to ask questions, rather than attack or berate. It can sharpen our thinking, and lead to a more constructive approach to criticism – one that includes and engages, rather than beats and batters.

    After all, no one of us has ‘the’ answer. But together, we may well have essential parts of the puzzle.

  7. Becca Allchin

    good reminders…. the reality that we play a part and need each other should help us to keep grounded however it is just so easy to other the the other. Nicholas’s insightful comment helps remind us that we each have a context we work within with constraints and blinkers. Perhaps we need the others to point out our own that is harder for us to see. No sector can solve it in reality.

  8. Nanci Lee

    Farokh Afshar, a professor in my Masters’ program, gave me the best advice of my career. Respect and assume, by default, that other thinkers and practitioners come to their work with thoughtfulness. Ask tough questions. Respect nuance. And a brilliant adult educator Dian Marino reminds us to stay a bit humble in our assertions:

    “Always be passionately aware that you could be completely wrong.”

  9. Gordon McGranahan

    I wholeheartedly agree with your advice: 1) Don’t make lazy generalisations; 2) Respect those who you are trying to influence, and; 3) Don’t state the blindingly obvious as if it is a brilliant discovery. All that niggles is that the first is blindingly obvious, the second is a lazy generalisation and the third is disrespectful to those you are trying to influence. So I guess I also agree with your point about how we all need to be more self critical. Well done.

  10. Erik Feiring

    Great post! I share Pamela’s and Jamie’s sentiment about moving across sectors. I started out in an activist NGO, moved to a large audit firm advising MNCs and am now in the World Bank, and I have seen this alienation everywhere I have been – and certainly been guilty of it myself, a few times. There is so much potential in nontraditional partnerships, but you have to deal with all the pre-conceptions before you can get down to business. Often, you have to compartmentalize somewhat, saying “OK, we disagree on a number of fundamental issues, but can we still work together to achieve a common short term goal?”

  11. Chrisanta

    All good comments – and I particularly like the quote ‘old wine in new bottles’. I would only add “Listen! and one may just learn something about the new bottles”

  12. David Couzens

    Great post. Having joined an NGO after 30 years in the Army and in that time having worked with a number of different government departments I know how easy it is to think everybody else is either stupid or determined to oppose progress. Some are but in My experience most are trying to find their way through often highly complex challenges. working collaboratively with people is much harder but I would suggest more likely to get to a workable way forward , challenging each others presumptions and prejudices generally Leads to a better result. I guess the question is do we want to find a workable way forward or do we really just want to look as if we are?

  13. Emilie Wilson

    Hi Duncan, thanks for the provocative post – and to your comment-ors, who prove just why yours is “a widely read blog” – it’s as much about the quality of debate as the incisive perceptiveness of your blogs!

    I can only concur with many – Jamie and Pamela re working across sectors; Elise and Rashmir re importance of other’s perspectives; and Erik re dealing with preconceptions! You almost need to write a second blog capturing the richness of their experiences.. 🙂

    One thing I’ve found contributes to “othering” – in all spheres of life – is a linguistic/grammatical (?) device that we use, in English at least. And that is – a noun which categorises people e.g. NGOs, and the use of the word “the” (esp when we are feeling like pointing fingers) – “the private sector” – as soon as generic nouns are combined “the”, our ability to analyse, be compassionate, see things from others’ point of view seems to disappear. Just try it out with words like “policymakers”, “bureaucrats” or, even, “cyclists”… what happens next is people start attributing qualities (adjectives) to these nouns e.g. “cyclists” plus “reckless”…

    One way around this, is to ask people to “unpack” (a favourite expression at IDS!) the nouns – take “policymakers” – What policy? Where (sector, country, level)? Are they (actually) making policy (by which you mean…drafting, redrafting, simply doing the research for it..) or implementing? By what process are they making it? etc etc

    This is exactly what marketers do – as far as possible, we try to pinpoint exactly who we are talking to, what makes them tick, why (on earth) might they be interested in us, how is what we do relevant/useful/exciting for them? And if we don’t have money to conduct market research that would throw up this sort information, we may do secondary research (e.g. existing reports, website stats, social listening).. and/or we may develop “personas” based on our own experience and knowledge within the organisation.

    So, in a nutshell?
    1. Watch your language – are you using vague, group nouns? Can you be more specific?
    2. Be clear, specific and honest about what it is that you are trying to achieve (Theories of Change or Outcome mapping can be useful for this, as well as thinking about what would be an indicator of success)
    3. Take time and effort to listen, and then respond (as opposed to just wait your turn to talk!)

    (I may not write a blog about this, since I’ve got this far – will keep you posted!)

  14. Nowhere Man

    OK, I’ll say it.
    This is all good but I’ve actually come to the realisation that trivial and shallow people aren’t quite as rare as I expected. I blame incentive structures at Universities and Org.s.
    There .. 🙂
    Your advice is still valid, tho.

  15. gawain

    Thanks for this Duncan. I appreciate the reflection here and I think it is important.

    I struggle with this. I’ve had the opportunity to get close to some of the institutions and companies that are often the targets of campaigns and come to realize that they are made up of people – most of whom are smart, well-meaning, and trying very hard. It can make it hard to muster the righteous anger that is required for good campaigning. Powerful campaigns are not about nuance and subtlety. They’re about identifying actions (and actors) that are out of bounds and driving them.

    It’s a tension that I haven’t resolved. On the other hand, it’s also possible to see that some of the campaigning – as blind and rough as it is, can also serve to help allies inside the institutions, and help them to make changes that might not otherwise be possible.

    So, there’s a lot to consider.