Offering the Challenge

In organising, we all face the need to ask for someone’s action. It may be listening to someone at the door when you’ve got to the point of challenge and commitment. You might be in a one-to-one with a leader and recognise they have the capacity to take a new step for the community. Today I want to explore how we ‘make the ask’, the dynamics at play in moving individuals to action. Whilst this comes as part of the role of organiser, this is also a human act that we can practice with our friends and family just as much as in organising .

For organisers, challenging to action is the result of forming a relationship with the other person (I have written about the importance of relationships here and here) . It may have lasted only a few minutes or may have developed all the maturity that comes from many shared actions. But the relationship is a fundamental basis for inviting the other to take a fresh step. You need to understand the other person’s self-interest – what’s in it for them and their family – as well as their values and norms. You can only achieve a successful move to action if you have each developed real tangible trust and have an insight into each other’s motivation. It can be an intensely exposing moment of truth-telling. And may just put everything at risk!

Challenging each other proves a sensitive goal. Some aspects worth thinking about include:

  • Planning for the right moment
  • Getting the ask just right for the individual
  • Making it a collective action
  • Being inspiring and stoic
  • Confirming the gains
  • Shaping the next steps
  • Keeping the door open

Conversation on Teaching: Deep Learning by Vandy CFT CC FlickrMake the transition

Often the moment for a challenge does not come unplanned. The organiser is on the outlook for the right moment to switch tack and to deepen the conversation a further notch. The conversation will have moved through routine matters and a moment comes when the chance arises to make the transition to something more fundamental. I have found that I sometimes lower my voice in tone and volume when this moment comes. My vocabulary changes and I find that I often speak with more emphasis and directly. This is a key moment to speak with clarity and power. All this indicates that the point of the conversation has been reached.

Be bold, confident and challenging

Some people find it difficult to know what to ask for. We all know that if we ask for too much, the person may baulk at the challenge. If we ask for too little, an opportunity to stretch the other’s vision and capacity has been missed. In the earlier conversation or previous contact with the person, you will have learnt much about this individual, their background and attitudes, their past commitments and their current life. Your challenge to action needs to be made in light of all these factors but it has to be made boldly, with confidence and to move the person out from their comfort zone. If you are clear and concise in ‘making the ask’, the other will be able to take in your challenge and consider it; if you wander all over the place, they will get lost with you! Small challenges create little change for the individual and for their community. Audacious challenges really ask that person to consider how much they value the community’s well-being.

Rome visit June 2008 - 57 by Ed YourdonAsk on the community’s behalf

The challenge can often seem to be a personal one – ‘Will you do this for me?’ But the reality is that for the organiser, you are asking for the action on behalf of the wider community. You are inviting the person to act not because they value your opinion or to please you but because the community at large needs their contribution. Often now once I have someone’s commitment to taking an action I will stop them and remind them that the action is not for me but for the improvement of their local area or street. Other people than me will be relying on them to act and how their role in the wider fabric of the area needs to be built on being true to their word and trustworthy.

Expect Yes, Accept the No

Your approach to ‘making the ask’ will be deeply affected by your assumptions about the outcome. If you head into the challenge expecting the other person to accept your challenge, your body language, tone of voice and choice of words will all inspire belief in the capacity of the other person to take it on. If you expect a No, then that’s what you are more likely to get. At least half of the part you play in the challenge is by inspiring hope and belief in new possibilities. That said, the reality in my experience is that you get a fair number of declined challenges and reflection will help you learn how better to make that challenge next time. At this point, it’s easy to start negotiating but the key challenge has been made – you were clear and they were clear about it. Don’t confuse or muddy the waters by slipping sideways or changing your ground. Disappointment comes with asking and it is important to learn how to accept a negative result in a way that keeps the door open for future contact. You may long for their participation but acknowledge their free choice to stay where they are.

Conversation on Teaching: Deep Learning by Vandy CFT CC FlickrFocus on the benefit and next steps

When someone has accepted your challenge, the reality is that they have often only just come on balance to accept this course of action. You need to take some time to reinforce and support the person in their decision to move further out of their comfort zone. That support is often about discussing the benefits of the next steps, how the person themselves, their family and friends, their neighbours and the network more generally will gain from their new contribution. This is time well spent. I have too often hurried away when a positive decision has been voiced only to find a few days later that the person is no longer able to take that action.

You might also find that exploring what needs to change for the person to take the action is worthwhile. Most people are busy with many different aspects of their lives and thinking through how they might need to rearrange their lives to permit this new commitment is worth some time as well. It may be that they will need to drop another role, watch their favourite TV programme on catch-up rather than live or find a babysitter for the right time. When you are aware of the impact of the commitment on their lives, you are better able to help it become a settled part of their lives.

Another key step is to articulate for yourself and the other person who will now do what by when. Get dates in a diary, agree deadlines, shape the immediate future so that you both know what to expect as the other person starts out on this new action.

Thanks and closure

Whenever you issue a challenge, accepted or not, you have put the relationship in some degree of jeopardy. As we said earlier on, if your suggestion proves a monstrous affront to the other person, you may lose the relationship completely. But such mistakes are infrequent and become less so as you become more skilled in making good judgements about the scale and direction of your challenges. But the end of the conversation is a great place to reaffirm the relationship and to express your thanks and appreciation of the other person’s role. If they have accepted the challenge, you can thank them again for taking it up; if they have declined, then thank them for considering it and express hope for a different choice in future. Always (metaphorically) leave the door open when you leave! Make sure the other person knows that whatever the outcome of your challenge the relationship will continue. There will be new challenges to bring to their heart in future; this is but one of many to come!


Edward T. Chambers (2009) The Power of Relational Action Acta Publications

A Guide to Root Solution Listening Matters – an introduction to the Re:generate Trust approach to community animation

Michael Gecan (2004) Going Public: An Organizer’s Guide to Citizen Action Anchor Books

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2 Responses to Offering the Challenge

  1. Tom Whitemore says:

    To put this in context I would like to share a little ‘success’ story I had in my work as a trainee comunity organiser.

    Working in a part of London with a high proportion of Bangladeshi and Muslim residents it was clear that I needed to build build bridges with this section of the community. Not speaking the language had proven a barrier to building relationships especially on doorsteps. One door led me to a young Bangladeshi woman who had lived in the estate I was working in all her life but had never been inside the community centre nor knew where it was. We had a great conversation and although she had no real concerns about the area in which she lived she recognised the importance of getting involved, her ‘self interest’ was building her confidence. This was a week before Ramadan. I respected her wish to get back in contact after Ramadan. The conversation continued, we spoke about her coming out door knocking with me. I even identified another female resident, roughly her age who could join us. I gave her a listening pack to read and consider and arranged a date to return on which she would come door knocking with me.

    On the day I very much went with a positive attitude that she would say yes but did have a plan b that could use her skills of working with children and being creative. Of all the VCOs ( volunteer community organisers) from reading the listening pack I gave her she really got and RSLM but that week she got a job and could not commit. That was where Plan B came in handy. Other residents had decided to produce a newsletter, could she get involved with this? Not only did she say yes but from this starting point she became a key figure of the team and took a central key role in a successful open day event in the community centre where many Bangladeshi residents and their children participated.

    • Mark Parker says:

      Thanks for sharing this, Tom. Great story and yes, Plan Bs are sometimes very helpful. I wonder though at the point of gaining her commitment to going door-to-door if you had Plan B in place? My experience is that only having Plan A makes the offer much more persuasive. Plan Bs are often the result of our reflection on the consequences of someone not coming through with their Plan A commitment. They are held in reserve for later and often emerge from how work is developing since the first challenge. What do you think?

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