30. Eight Tips for Conducting a Good Needs Assessment

The Needs Assessment, as I discussed in Chapter 29, is a conversation with an interview hidden at its core. Here are seven tips for conducting a good one:

1. Remember: You’re Selling Throughout the Process

A sale’s success or failure doesn’t occur at the moment when you finally ask the customer to take the action you require; it happens in degrees throughout the sales process. Throughout the Needs Assessment and other steps, the person you’re talking with is consciously and unconsciously gathering information and impressions about you and your cause. Each little bit of information and each impression inclines him closer to, or further away from, accepting your viewpoint. This means that you should be the best possible advocate you can be, not just at the end of the sale when you explicitly ask the customer to take your action, but throughout the sales process. Waiting until the last minute to “turn on the charm” is not just duplicitous; it doesn’t work.

2. Remember: You’re Still Qualifying

Somewhere during the conversation you may learn that the person you’re talking to is implacably against your cause, or for some other reason is not in a position to take the action or make the behavioral change you seek. At that point, you should end the conversation gracefully and move on.

3. Remember: You’re Primarily Selling Yourself

In any sale, the first and most important thing you need to sell is yourself: if the customer feels comfortable buying from you, you’ve probably made the sale; and if he doesn’t, you’ve probably lost it, no matter how badly he needs whatever it is you’re selling.

As discussed in Chapter 7, more than anything else the customer needs to feel safe, especially when what you’re selling is something as “scary” as an alternative social or political viewpoint. If the customer feels you’re using or exploiting her, or that she otherwise can’t trust you, you’ve lost the sale (deservedly).

The customer also needs to feel respected. Remember the story from Chapter 5, about the culture clash between the Iowa caucus voter and the “Deaniac”? Showing up on a stranger’s doorstep and behaving in ways that conflict with the local customs and mores is disrespectful.

You also have to be attractive, not in the fashion sense but in the pleasant/personable/good company sense. At the very least, you shouldn’t be a person who repels others. Attractiveness has many components—including at least a minimal standard of personal grooming—but an important one is to have an appealing personality. Professional salespeople, as discussed in Chapter 25, work conscientiously to cultivate one, but many activists do not. Many activists, in fact, manifest a repellent personality, in the literal sense: unhappy, sour, judgmental, bitter, alienated or angry. And then they wonder why they have such a hard time selling their viewpoint!

I’m not saying that any given activist, or activists in general, are not justified in occasionally having those feelings; only that exhibiting them excessively or inappropriately is detrimental to your success in activism and other areas of your life.

Another aspect of selling yourself is professionalism. Always be calm and cool and in control. Show up on time, fully prepared and fully rehearsed. Make sure that any materials you use are polished and 100 percent accurate, since even trivial mistakes can seriously undermine your credibility.

4. Employ Active, Non-Judgmental Listening Techniques

Most people listen passively, meaning they don’t really give the person they’re speaking with their full attention. They hear at least some of the words, but their mind is off wandering in different directions. They may be thinking about what is being said, how they feel about it, how they will respond or even something totally unrelated, like what they are having for dinner that night.

Active listening, in contrast, is the process of listening with deep focus to what the other person is saying. That means that you’re not distracted by your own thoughts, and therefore able to more fully understand what is being said.

Your goal, during the Needs Assessment, is to ask questions and then listen actively and non-judgmentally to the customer’s answers—and then, to use those answers to shape the rest of the conversation so that it speaks even more strongly to his individual situation and needs.

Active listening is more difficult than passive listening, and many of us need to practice it to get good at it. Do that by using active listening in all of your conversations, including casual ones with family and friends. You will probably notice an immediate, positive shift in the relationship as the person you are speaking with registers, perhaps only subconsciously, your greater level of interest in their situation and needs.

5. Make Sure Your Language Supports Your Viewpoint

George Lakoff, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant!, warns against adopting the opposition’s linguistic constructions (or “frames,” as he calls them), because when you do you automatically reinforce that construction in the mind of your listener. The minute an environmentalist mentions the conservative frame of “conservation versus jobs,” for instance, she’s put herself at a huge disadvantage. The frame she should be using, over and over again, is, “conservation means jobs.”

Similarly, a reproductive rights advocate should never refer to the opposition as “pro-life,” as it likes to designate itself. They should only be referred to as “anti-choice.”

So, work to develop powerful frames for your issues, and to enforce “message discipline” in yourself and the others you work with. Make sure it is your frame, and not the opposition’s, that is activated in your audience’s mind.

6. Use Your Customer’s Language and, Whenever Possible, Refer to His Experiences

You should be doing more listening than talking during the Needs Analysis—the talking comes later, during the Restating and Presenting Solution steps of the sales process—but when you do talk you should use your customer’s language, and speak in terms of his experience, as much as possible. “[The organizer] learns the local legends, anecdotes, values, idioms. He listens to small talk. He refrains from rhetoric foreign to the local culture,” says Alinsky.

Let’s say you’re giving a talk on climate change at a local church. The audience looks bored: they’ve heard it all before. Then you mention the word “stewardship” and everyone snaps to attention. That’s because stewardship (a.k.a. “taking care of God’s creation”) is a fundamental obligation under the Christian faith. The topic may not have changed, but by simply adopting your audience’s language, you’ve made it extremely relevant to them.

7. Ask Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions elicit a detailed response: i.e., “What do you think about Candidate X’s economic views?” Close-ended questions, in contrast, typically elicit only a brief—often yes/no—response: i.e., “Do you like Candidate X’s economic views?”

Open-ended questions tend to move the conversation along and open it up in new directions, whereas close-ended questions tend to shut it down.

Use open-ended questions whenever possible.

8. It’s Okay to Take Notes

Unless the conversation is highly personal or sensitive, it’s perfectly okay to take notes. In fact, doing so makes you look professional and organized. Before you break out the notebook, though, ask the person you’re speaking with whether they mind.

In my experience, by the way, audio recorders make people much more nervous than a simple pen and paper.