These five strategies are based on the belief that our ultimate goal is to prevent serious harm.
And to prevent serious harm, we must prevent the behaviors that cause serious harm.
Influencing the behavior of other people is not a simple task, but it’s virtually impossible if we are not able to connect.
Before covering these five practices to increase connection, I believe it is important to make the case for why they are needed and why we should expect to be connecting with almost everyone. Because the current status quo is such that a relatively high percentage of people are either apathetic, complacent, or resistant on these issues.
Who are we trying to influence, and what behaviors are we talking about?
It is important to first see that many different types of people cause real harm to others. One reason there are many different types of people who cause harm is because there are many different types of actions that can cause real harm. Most people would not ever be extremely violent toward another person, but that is only one way of causing harm.
It doesn’t take violence for a person to be violated.
For example, smartphones and other technology can be used to violate basic privacy and cause disturbing experiences without any physical contact at all. Less violent and non-violent behaviors are more common. More people are susceptible to rationalizing unethical actions that do not involve extreme violence. What could be viewed by an immature young man as no big deal or a funny “prank,” or viewed as normal because his friend has done the same, is actually voyeurism and can cause the same trauma as physical violence.
We could go on about the examples of “non-violent,” violating behaviors, but the point is we must not fall into the misconception that we are only talking about obviously violent actions by truly pathological people.
Envisioning psychopaths and sociopaths as the only people who cause harm to others is an error that can feed apathy, complacency, and resistance. Business leaders, administrators, parents, and most other people may take comfort in assuming “those kinds of things wouldn’t happen here” because they embrace the misconception that it would take a pathological person to cause serious harm.
That’s almost entirely wrong. Even some pathological people won’t commit serious harm. And many otherwise good people can rationalize truly damaging behavior.
It is important for those in a leadership role and those who care about preventing harm to remember the number of pathological and extremely morally flexible people in your community is not zero, but it is equally important to understand that it doesn’t take a pathological person to cause serious harm. This is a “yes, and” situation. Yes, sadistic people exist, and they are not the only kind of person who can mistreat and violate another (or who could fail to recognize how serious a friend or peer’s actions are).
But there is good news here.
Because that means there are a lot of people we can reach and can influence with highly strategic training and messaging.
Since much of the abusive and violating behaviors are actually committed by people who are not pathological, we should be able to prevent a high percentage of abusive and violating behaviors.
The problem is it is not easy to connect with those non-pathological people we need to reach. Common messaging can miss-the-mark, leave confusion in place, and even backfire and evoke resistance.
It may be tempting to paint those who “don’t get it” as a group of insensitive and uncaring people. But if we look closer, that is rarely the case. Only a very small percentage of people really do not care at all about an innocent person being seriously harmed. Our world is full of decent, caring, kind, and even open-minded men and women who are not yet engaged in the problems of sexual assault and harassment or abusive relationships.
Because there is a disconnect. And the reality of this disconnect must be considered if we are to bridge the divide.
It’s not as though people are not aware these issues exist. Everyone with either a tv or a phone, or a friend or a family member who has a tv or phone, knows these problems exist.
People are aware, so why don’t they care?
The problem is in the disconnect, not in a lack of awareness.
Countless good people are aware, yet they are apathetic, complacent, or resistant to hearing about efforts to prevent sexual assault, harassment, and abuse. That does not make any sense. That means we need to do something different in our communication that works.
If decent people don’t get it, it’s our job to communicate in a way that helps connect the dots.
You have never been influenced by someone you do not listen to. The same is true for everyone else.
You have never changed your behavior in private because someone you dismissed as not credible, out-of-touch, or irrelevant to you and your life was talking in front of a room a week or a month ago.
Neither you nor I have ever changed our behavior because we were required to complete a click-through module we did not connect with or feel was relevant to our lives.
We must connect with people if we expect them to be engaged.
Access precedes influence.
We cannot prevent harmful behavior if we do not first gain access to that person’s mind and heart. And we cannot influence behavior in private situations if we do not reach people at a deep enough level to shift certain paradigms and connect the dots on the trauma they would be causing with their actions.
Since access precedes influence, we must avoid what shuts down access.
We should be connecting with almost everyone.
And it’s not just young men, old men, straight men, or the rest of men that we need to reach. Yes, them. But to elevate a culture, to improve the workplace experience, to build safer school and campus communities, and to accelerate our progress as a society on preventing harmful behaviors, we must achieve almost universal buy-in.
And why shouldn’t we?
We are talking about preventing life-altering harm. What we are talking about is basic human decency that rises above words and actions that violate the basic boundaries and wishes of another human being.
What we are talking about is a standard of moral responsibility to consider one’s actions and words, and the effect they could have on another person.
That’s what we’re talking about. Since virtually all people agree on those things, we should be able to achieve almost universal buy-in. But we have to avoid some things in our communication. We need to avoid what evokes resistance or misses the mark and leaves people thinking they’re done because they’re “aware” of these issues.
Traditional training on sexual assault, harassment and abusive relationships/domestic violence is widely understood to be difficult to do and often not well-received by men. Years after federal legislation increased training on college campuses, even open-minded men on campuses are still saying that training is not connecting.
And even with awareness at an all-time high, research conducted by Dyad Strategies that surveyed tens of thousands of sorority women confirmed that victim-blaming/misplacing blame is still a major problem. (It takes a more strategic approach than raising awareness and shaming victim-blaming).
Major news stories of celebrities, judges, and other accomplished people show callousness, misplacing blame, and clearly inappropriate behavior is still present at all levels of society.
Awareness of the problem often leaves confusion and misconceptions in place. And sometimes it creates a false sense of accomplishment.
We must connect. We need all decent people on board to create the cultures and society people deserve now.
The good news is many more men and women from every viewpoint are open to being engaged if we can bridge the gap. There are simple practices that can be applied to make it much easier to connect with a broader audience.
In my last six years of providing live-training, developing programs for organizations, and having one-on-one conversations with people ranging from skeptics to survivors, I have found that avoiding these five errors dramatically increases our ability to have productive conversations that connect and engage both men and women.