Resonance Communication for Social Advocacy

Communication is fundamentally about building trust, making connections, and sharing ideas. It is not, as many political consultants presume, a matter of activating the selfish tendencies of individuals.

Throughout the last two years, I’ve given many workshops on values-based communication, framing, and strategic advocacy. In these workshops, participants learn about the workings of the political mind through the lens of cognitive science. We begin with an exploration of how our brains process information. This is followed by a discussion of the psychological foundations for trust. Only then to do we start talking about effective communication.

I’d like to suggest a name for this approach – resonance communication.  My working definition is:

Resonance Communication is any effort to create resonance between a speaker and an audience that establishes a foundation of trust and shared identity.

Resonance arises when a “connection of trust” is made at the level of core identity and moral values.  The speaker looks for common ground with her audience by exploring the deep concerns that motivate them and discovering a set of shared values that shape their sense of right and wrong in the world.

Contrast this with the standard practice of presuming people are inherently selfish, then conducting opinion polls based on this assumption.  Poll results are then used to craft messages consistent with the assumptions of their methodology.  What are those assumptions?  Here’s a short list:

  • The world is comprised of individuals (the targets of polling research);
  • Polls accurately reflect the deep motivations of people (based on verbal and written responses to questions);
  • The first two assumptions have no influence on the quality of data or its interpretation (poll results are simply “facts” about public opinion).

Of course none of these assumptions is valid.  The world of human beings is a profoundly social world.  Our understandings are shaped by cultural narratives, commonsense understandings learned through our communities, and accepted norms of social behavior.  Research in social psychology has demonstrated clearly that deep motivations cannot be assessed simply by verbal response.  What someone says is a terrible predictor of what they’ll do.  Even more so if the thing they are asked to speak about is strongly political or moral in nature because they will respond in a manner that reflects their social sensibilities (instead of their true motivations).

The last assumption is especially problematic.  When a communicator assumes that the world is filled with individuals, they are accepting an ideological default position aligned with individualism.  This has strong influences on the methods and assessments that follow.

A Better Approach to Communication

Efforts to create resonance with an audience need to take a different approach.  The desired outcomes will be to (a) build trust and (b) establish a shared identity that (c) leads to shared understandings of the issue at hand.  How might this work?

Step 1 – Be Authentic

People have pretty good B.S. detectors when someone is being fake.  In order to build trust, a communicator needs to express how she really feels, what motivates her, and where she is coming from.

Step 2 – Be Transparent

The audience needs to see the speaker’s motives in order to know where she is coming from.  It is the responsibility of the communicator to be clear about her values and her sense of identity.

Step 3 – Seek Common Ground

Establishing a sense of shared identity involves finding values that resonate with the audience.  Note that the values have to actually be shared in order to make a credible case for the connection.

Step 4 – Empathize with the Audience

Shared values only lead to shared understandings if the feelings of concern that brought the audience to the speaker are expressed by the speaker.  Put another way, it is the speaker’s responsibility to figure out what the concerns of the audience are and speak to them.

These four steps will help the speaker connect with an audience and establish trust with them. The connection of these feelings and values is where “resonance” happens.  Wouldn’t it be great if political communicators were better at doing this?  I think so.

But Wait… People Have Different Perspectives!

Of course, social advocacy always happens in situations where people have conflicting views.  So how does resonance communication work when people disagree?  A partial answer is that perspectives are complex.  Each of us can hold within us conflicting views about the world that arise in different areas of life.  Thus it is possible to engage with people who hold different views (about some things) by seeking out the areas where we see things the same way.

A complicating factor is that we have snap judgments and stereotypes that color our interpretations of people who hold different political views than us.  This is why it is especially important for the practitioner of resonance communication to be mindful of his or her own internal biases.

A technique we use in our workshops to help bring these biases to the fore is called “polarity management” (adapted from the work of Barry Johnson).  When combined with insights from political psychology and frame research, this technique allows communicators to identify the modes of understanding and moral lenses of people who see the world in different ways.  These insights help the speaker to empathize with their audience with credibility and legitimacy – two key foundations for building trust.

This approach to communication has now been tested in organizational settings and advocacy campaigns.  It is a promising alternative to communication-as-usual in the political world.

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.