The post is written by Jasmine Freehoff and originally appeared on the Time to Listen blog on October 14, 2013.
“People talking to people is still how the world’s standards change” - claims a New-Yorker article on “Slow Ideas” in answer to the question: How can you speed up innovations that aren’t spreading fast enough?
The surgeon, writer and public health researcher Atul Gawande argues that unless people can see a visible connection between an innovation and its effects they are not likely to utilize it, even if they have been told that it can solve a problem they are having.
Atul gives examples to this phenomenon from his experience in rural Indian maternity wards. Too often, he argues, trained practitioners do not take on the new techniques they are taught. The most startling example given in the article is that many nurses in developing regions, who have been trained by international aid and development organizations, are still avoiding the use of the “great warming technology” of “a mother’s skin” as a means to prevent newborn mortality.
BetterBirth workers in India helped Atul realize the challenge behind adopting a practice such as this noting that “every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.” One of the local nurses trained by BetterBirth reveals the mechanics of that delicate social process, which her BetterBirth mentor maneuvered successfully:
Atul asked the local nurse why she decided to change her practice following her BetterBirth mentor's visits. He challenged her: “She only had a fraction of your experience.” Her response was direct: “She was nice... It wasn’t like talking to someone who was trying to find mistakes… It was like talking to a friend.” [Full article]
If “people talking to people” is truly the most effective vehicle for change, then you would think that the international assistance community would be an expert in it.
But thousands of people in aid recipient societies have said they need “both better information from and better communication with” those providing assistance. Too many times local people on the receiving end of these systems are not well informed and consequently “feel sidelined and are left with questions, suspicions, and disappointed expectations.”
Time to Listen, the book gathering the cumulative evidence from people living in societies that are recipients of international aid, closes with a question, and a challenge, “Can a field of change agents change itself”.
Atul Gawande provides us with evidence which supports the change we know needs to happen. Not only do aid recipients demand we be “people talking people,” we have now seen how this “innovative” approach yields tangible results. A simple solution to a complex problem—listen and talk to one another to spread good ideas.
Jasmine Freehoff's reflections on the New-Yorker article “Slow Ideas”. Jasmine Freehoff is CDA's Communications and Do No Harm Program Associate.
This post claims something that is provocative and yet very much a part of the age-old understanding that we are social beings and derive energy from others. Freehoff highlights the tendency for connection, both between cause and effect and individuals’ interaction. I believe this connection concept can be applied in multiple ways, one of which was artfully described in the “Slow Ideas” ideas article.
If I may, another application for connection (as defined here) is through the student conduct process in colleges and universities. Our school is piloting restorative justice conferences as an alternative option to the more traditional processes in place. First hand, as a facilitator, I am already seeing the benefits of connection between individuals and among those in the community. To have the impacted individual(s) speak honestly about how they were harmed or affected by the behavior of a student respondent can be powerful. The information, especially if delivered within the confines of a RJC, is not meant to condemn, but to inform.
The idea is that student respondents, newly armed with the knowledge of the impact of their actions and the harm committed on the community, will not repeat their offenses. The face-to-face interaction of information exchange among members of the community, directly or indirectly involved in the incident, is considered an “innovative” approach as well among higher education institutions. In student conduct, we’re trying to shift the focus from “rule breaking” to “impact” and we’re doing so by having people talk to people. Informing students about the true impact of their actions could be a “simple solution to a complex problem – listen and talk to one another to spread good ideas.”
Jasmine, thank you for writing this post, I believe it raises some important aspects of international peacebuilding and the longterm processes of change. Firstly, I would have to disagree with the New Yorker claim that “People talking to people is still how the world’s standards change”. While people talking to people may begin the process of changing the world’s standards, it is the institutionalization of ideas that changes standards. Further, I would propose that it is people listening to people that begins effective, positive, transformation. I would like to focus on the BetterBirth quote, “every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.” In the book Real World Research, the author Colin Robson, outlines an abridged version of Fullan’s general framework for both, understanding and effecting change. In this framework there are two points I believe are connected to the challenges of this particular case.
Firstly, “people need pressure to change (even in directions they desire) but it is only effective under conditions that allow them to react and interact. Resocialization is at the heart of change (otherwise you need to replace the people involved!)”. Like your post aforementioned, people are less likely to implement change they have not been a part of creating. It was in the moment that the local nurse felt like she was “talking to a friend”, and not being analyzed or judged, that she felt she could begin to adopt the practice that had been implemented. The BetterBirth mentor made the effort to befriend this local nurse and assist in the process of resocializing her into this new context.
Secondly, “Don’t assume that your version of what the change should be is the one that could or should be implemented. You have to exchange your reality of what should be through interaction with others concerned” . In my opinion, there is less room for assumptions and one-sided views of change, when the interaction with the others consists of more listening than talking. Through the mutual exchange of perspectives on “the reality of what should be”, effective change can be effectively implement.
I appreciate your concluding statement, “simple solution to a complex problem––listen and talk to one another to spread good ideas.” I would add to this and say, listen more than you speak, reflect with one another, and the mutual creation of ideas can be spread.
 Colin Robson. Real World Research, 3rd Edition. United Kingdom: Wiley Publications, 2011. 192.
 Robson, Real, 192.