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Section 8. Establishing Lines of Communication with the Opposition's Traditional Allies

Learn how to communicate effectively with your opposition's allies, in order to build friendly relationships and alliances that can support your cause.


Green vintage telephone with green wall.


You're a health advocate working with a local clinic to find local public funding for a well-baby program. You're opposed by a group calling itself the Concerned Taxpayers Association (CTA), whose members don't believe that any but the most basic services - roads, bare-bones education, police, fire protection - should be publicly funded. Yet among those groups that usually align with CTA are some that you think might be interested in the well-baby idea.

A right-to-life organization, whose members worry about public funding for abortion, is one; a group of seniors, many of whom have young grandchildren or great-grandchildren is another. Since you've almost always been on opposite sides in the past, you don't have any regular communication lines with these groups. How can you contact them and sound them out on their thoughts about the proposed program?

In advocacy work, you often want all the support you can get. You can think of possible support as arranged in concentric circles. The innermost circle contains you and your closest, most committed allies - your core group. The next circle out contains your natural allies - those individuals and organizations that share your beliefs and values, and stand to benefit or to see their values confirmed by the success of your advocacy effort. The third circle encompasses those who are neutral - because they know nothing about the issue, because they're not sure where they stand on it, or because they don't believe it concerns them in any way.

The last two circles are the least likely to be supportive. In the fourth circle out are the opposition's traditional allies, who occupy the same position in relation to your opposition as your natural allies do in relation to you. And finally, in the farthest circle, are your opponents, those who are unalterably against what you're in favor of.

Yet, advocates know that you sometimes find allies in unexpected places. One of those places is among those who normally line up with opponents to your advocacy efforts. Taking direct action - the subject of this chapter - may mean making contact with your opposition's allies. This section is devoted to opening and maintaining communication with some of those folks, actions that may in turn lead to friendly relations and seemingly unlikely alliances. We'll look at what establishing such communications actually consists of, why you'd want them, and how to accomplish the task.

What is establishing lines of communication with the opposition's traditional allies?

Your opposition's traditional allies are those who would be expected to side with your opponents and/or work for the results your opponents favor. They're not necessarily the same as the opposition. All their views aren't necessarily the same as the opposition's, either, but they're similar enough that you might expect them to be allies in most situations.

"Most situations" leaves lots of room for exceptions, however. Many seniors, especially those dependent on fixed incomes, often find themselves in the same camp as those who oppose new taxes and increased school funding. If they have grandchildren in school, however, they may feel and act differently. Fiscal conservatives may nonetheless be willing to sponsor relatively liberal social initiatives. Conservative Catholics, who might oppose such social agendas as gay rights and easily-available birth control, may also oppose the death penalty on religious grounds. In other words, "traditional" alliances depend upon "traditional" situations.

Individuals or groups may also become disillusioned or alienated by some of your opponents' positions. Moderate Republican women often find themselves at odds with their party over the issue of choice, for instance. Many hunters may join with conservative forces to protest the regulation of guns, but may break with them over environmental protection.

People also change their attitudes and opinions as they grow emotionally and intellectually, gain more information and experience, and/or are exposed to more, and more complex, situations in their lives. One of the pieces in Studs Terkel's book Working profiles a former Ku Klux Klansman who, through contact with Black people and broader ideas, dropped his racist, ultra-right-wing philosophy, and ultimately became a union organizer.

Establishing lines of communication means just that, nothing more: creating a means to talk to folks who might be expected to be of a different mind from you on many issues. Your goal, almost undoubtedly, is to build an eventual alliance, or at least a friendly relationship. But the start is simply to open up communication.

A line of communication may not lead to anything concrete: it may be no more than an opening in the fence through which you can exchange occasional conversation, or a way to reach the other party when it's important. Lyndon Johnson, for example, pioneered the "red phone," a direct line between the leaders of the US and the Soviet Union, so they could stave off hostilities in an emergency, and keep the world from nuclear holocaust. The phone line was actually used on several occasions by Johnson and subsequent US presidents.

Contact may or may not lead to an alliance, but it's an important step in any case. It allows for the possibility that you can find points of agreement, and that you can approach one another as human beings who are trying to do what they see as right, rather than faceless "opponents" or, worse, "enemies."

Why would you establish lines of communication with the opposition's traditional allies?

As is implied directly above, communication is the first step to understanding and possible change. If the only communication individuals or groups engage in is hurling insults or fighting over their disagreements, they're talking at, not with each other. Actual communication demands listening to and considering others' points of view, and accepting them as human beings.

Once you've established lines of communication, you can use them for a number of purposes, some pragmatic, some political, and some personal, including:

To alleviate misunderstandings

Misunderstandings can arise in several ways:

  • False information and rumor. Someone may, intentionally or unintentionally, put out false information or rumors about you or your issue, or the media may have gotten something wrong. In either case, it may be important to correct it as quickly as possible. A direct line of communication makes this much easier and more reliable.
  • Errors in judgment. You or the other party may have made an unthinking public statement or done something that will affect or anger the other. If there's immediate contact and explanation, you may be able to defuse the situation.
  • Misinterpretation. One or the other of you may misunderstand something the other has said or done. A line of communication makes it possible to clear up the situation.
  • Lack of information. Your actions or assumptions may not make sense to someone else who doesn't have the same information you have.
  • A true crisis in communication.

One of your staff has just been arrested, caught in the act of committing an anti-Semitic hate crime. You have a short time to react before the community erupts and accuses your organization of discrimination, racism, and who knows what else. You issue a statement, making clear that the organization's policy is in direct opposition to what has occurred. Then you call a Jewish organization, normally allied with your opponents, to sincerely express your sorrow for what happened and your apologies for unknowingly hiring and working with someone who could commit such a crime. You offer to work with the other organization to increase understanding and respect for diversity in the community.

 Your action in this scenario is both common decency - it's what you ought to do in any case - and good politics. It opens a communication channel with the other organization, offers it an opportunity it would be difficult to justify turning down, and gives you an opportunity to prove your good will and your distance from the act that was the source of your call. It gives you a chance to turn a crisis into a positive situation.

It makes sense to look for allies wherever you can find them. If you have common ground with the opposition's traditional allies on this issue, then they are, or could be your allies, at least in the current effort. The first step toward any alliance is communication.

If you're talking with their allies, you may be weakening your opponents by reducing their power base. By developing relationships with your opponents' allies, you may be bringing them closer to your position, thus depriving the opposition of previously reliable support.

This isn't to imply that you're likely to "convert" your opponents' allies, but you might make it easier for them to understand and respect your positions, and, at least occasionally, to agree with them. In the past, without communication, your opposition may have been able to depend on them absolutely to oppose those positions.

By the same token, you may be expanding your own power base. If you can convince your opponents' allies to support your position once in a while, that's more support than you had in the past.

Your opposition's allies may have and provide links to individuals and groups you'd otherwise have no connection with. You may be able, through the communication you've established, to further expand your communication network.

Through their allies, you may be able eventually to bring the opposition around to your position. If your opponents hear your arguments from their friends' mouths, they might be more inclined to listen, and perhaps to see the logic in them. (The same thing could also happen in reverse - you might find yourself agreeing with some of your opponents' arguments as well.)

The above assumes that you and your opposition disagree based on differences of opinion about methods or priorities. If you're trying to stop the opposition from engaging in activities for personal or organizational gain at others' expense, or if they're knowingly harming or endangering others (knowingly poisoning water supplies with industrial dumping), it's unlikely that either of you will be convinced by the other's reasoning.

It also assumes that your disagreement is not a moral conflict. In their book, Moral Conflict, W. Barnett Pearce and Stephen W. Littlejohn discuss what happens when conflicts are based on deeply-held moral or religious principles. These conflicts are not resolvable by logic or mediation or other conventional conflict-resolution methods. There are sometimes ways to ignore, bypass, or transcend the disagreements (given good will on both sides), but not ways to eliminate them. It is not likely that Osama bin Laden will suddenly have a change of heart about the moral stature of the United States - or vice versa.

Communication may lead to alliances in the future, and perhaps a whole new relationship with some of your opposition's traditional allies. If you form an alliance on one issue, it leaves the door open for working together again, and mutual help and cooperation become easier and easier.

Why would you not want to contact your opposition's traditional allies? Given all the good reasons for establishing lines of communication with them, are there reasons not to do so? In fact there are, and you should consider them.

  • If you already have all the support you need to accomplish your goals, it may be unnecessary, at least for the moment.
  • It may get in the way of your courting the support of the uncommitted, who may be far more likely to join your effort.
  • It may be costly. Some of your current allies may object so much that you'll lose their support.
  • It may take too much of your time and resources. Establishing communication with opponents' allies can be a long and delicate process, and you may simply not be able to afford the effort.
  • It may be too much of a long shot, or too improbable. Positions may be entrenched, and the amount of effort necessary to change that may be unrealistic.

If one or more of these is in fact the situation, then establishing contact is probably not a good plan right now. That doesn't mean you can't try at another time, but rather that your efforts now are better spent elsewhere.

How do you establish lines of communication with your opposition's traditional allies?

The step-by-step guidelines below are often useful, especially if you've had no contact with the people you're interested in. In many cases, however, it may make more sense to simply pick up the phone, call the appropriate person, and say, "Hi. I was wondering if we could meet. There are some things that it would make sense for us to talk about." Don't get so caught up in guidelines and protocol that you forget the appeal of a direct personal approach when it feels right.

Once you've decided to try to open communications with some of your opposition's allies, how do you go about it? How do you make a first contact? Who should do it, and when? These are the questions we'll discuss below, as we go through some step-by-step guidelines that can be used in many different situations, but are particularly relevant to this one.

Know the players

The more you know about both your opponents and those you want to contact, the more likely you are to be successful in establishing communication, and in avoiding unnecessary mistakes.

  • Identify your opposition first. Do you know exactly who they are, or are you simply assuming that certain individuals and groups will oppose you because it seems logical that they would? Don't make unfounded assumptions - find out if you're not certain. Why are they your opponents? Are their positions based on deeply-held (and hard-to-change) moral or religious principles; on self-interest; on politics; on ideology or philosophy; on apparent evidence; on prejudice toward particular groups; or on opinions about what is most effective or best for the public good?
  • Identify your opposition's traditional allies. Are these individuals and groups who've agreed with your opposition in the past, or are they simply those similar in outlook and philosophy? What's their history on issues and on activism? Are there areas where they disagree or might disagree with your opposition?
  • Identify those among your opposition's usual allies who are likely to be open to establishing communication. They may be individuals or groups who are willing to discuss ideas, and whose main purpose is to get the job done (even though they may disagree with you on the best way to do that). They may be those with whom you share common ground, or those who have disagreements with your opposition on some issues (remember those pro-choice Republican women).
  • Identify the individuals or groups within organizations who should be the targets of your initial contact. If you're approaching an individual, can you reach him directly, or do you have to go through an aide or assistant? In a large corporation or organization, who controls the area you're interested in? In a smaller organization, who is the appropriate person to contact - the director? the board president? the receptionist? (That last one isn't a joke: in many organizations, the support staff members act as gatekeepers, and really do determine whose messages get through.)
  • Identify your own allies. Again, don't make assumptions, or take anyone for granted. Your opponents may also be establishing communication. Ask individuals and organizations to join your effort even if you're sure they'll support you. Include them in planning and strategy sessions, and maintain your relationships.

Use timing to your advantage

Just as timing is the key to much of humor, it can also be the key to contacting people. If you reach them at just the right moment, you may have a better chance of establishing long-term communication.

Sometimes, that moment is beyond your control. If you happen to know that the individual you're contacting just learned that her daughter is graduating summa cum laude, or that the organization you're reaching out to has just received a huge contribution, now might be the time to approach. But you can't always be aware of those instances - you may get lucky, or you may call on the unfortunate day that Oscar, the office gerbil, gets out of his cage and eats all the files.

There are some aspects of timing that you can control, however. Here are some especially good times to initiate communication:

  • When the other party contacts you. Unless you have an awfully good reason to suspect foul play (unlikely in most circumstances), this one's a no-brainer.
  • When you know that the individual or group is, or might be, sympathetic to your cause or your point of view. You've heard it from a mutual friend, there was a public statement, the other party put out a feeler to you - however you know, seize the moment.
  • When your opposition has done something to alienate one or more of its traditional allies. If the opposition has made a misstep (angering its Hispanic constituency with an anti-immigrant public statement, for instance), you may be able to capitalize on it.
  • When you've just learned of or gained a particularly good contact. The spouse of one of your board members just joined the other party's board, or vice versa, for example.
  • When you have something to offer, or can do them a favor. You may be able to help the other party in some way, or may have important information to volunteer (a statement you're about to make that you don't want to surprise them with, for instance, or an alert about an upcoming grant). Their asking something of you, although perhaps less probable, provides an equally good opening.
  • When you have something specific to communicate about. If you need to clear up a misunderstanding, correct some false information, pass on new information, etc., you have a perfect excuse for making contact.
  • At the beginning of an initiative. Depending on the circumstances, you may want to try to pull one or more of your opponents' allies into your initiative. If that's the case, the time to try is right at the beginning, so they can be involved in the conception and planning of the effort, and take some ownership of it. That makes them full partners, and also decreases the possibility that they'll change their minds partway through.

Decide who will make the initial contact

The first contact may or may not be the same as the first conversation between the parties. Its purpose is often to set up the first significant communication between the parties. The initial contact may not have the credentials or skills necessary for a successful first meeting.

Some considerations in choosing someone to make first contact:

  • Identify those in your own organization or among your allies who have direct ties - familial, social, professional, political, community - to the individuals and groups you want to contact, and find out who is willing to make an initial approach.

As with so much advocacy work, the best approach is almost always personal. People respond most readily to those whom they already know and trust. If you can find a personal connection among those you hope to reach - someone whose kids play soccer with yours, your wife's cousin, a fellow member of a community board, someone you see often at conferences in your field - it can make your initial contact much easier.

  • If there's no direct connection (somewhat unlikely in a small community, but quite probable in a larger one), the next best option may be a neutral intermediary known to both parties. This might be almost anyone - the United Way director, a dentist you share, the principal of the school both your children attend, a mutual friend.
  • Where even an intermediary isn't a possibility, you'll have to make a "cold" approach by simply contacting the individual or someone in the group you're interested in. Whoever does this should be comfortable with making this kind of approach, and with interacting with people she doesn't know. Don't ask the shyest member of your group, or the least congenial, or the most confrontational. (And if you fit any of these descriptions, don't take on the task yourself.)
  • If you're approaching someone in a large organization, or at the level of a legislator or the CEO of a large corporation - or a federal Cabinet secretary - your first contact will probably be with an aide or assistant. These folks can be important contacts in themselves, since they have direct access to their bosses, and may be important decision-makers and advisers. Always being pleasant and considerate to aides, assistants, receptionists, and others is a matter of both simple human decency and wisdom: don't abuse the gatekeeper if you want to get through the gate.

There's also a question of how manipulative you want to be here. You can often meet someone by placing yourself where you know he'll be - a conference, his place of business - or taking part in activities you know he'll participate in - a gallery opening, a softball game. You could even get your beautiful sister to start a conversation with him at a concert or his favorite bar.
While there's nothing intrinsically wrong about meeting someone "accidentally on purpose," it would be somewhat less than honest to pretend that you didn't know who he was, or that you had no interest in talking to him. (The beautiful sister strategy is inherently dishonest, and could easily backfire. What if he finds out you put her up to it? Worse, what if your sister runs off with him?)
If you do use this method or one like it, it's probably best to be straightforward about your purpose. "I'm glad I ran into you here, because I've been thinking about calling you about..." You don't have to explain that you engineered the meeting, but don't pretend that it isn't something you find useful.

Decide how to make the initial contact

Consider carefully what form your first contact will take: a face-to-face meeting ("accidental" or not), a phone call, a letter, an e-mail. Your form of contact might depend to some extent on the position of the person you're contacting. A federal Cabinet secretary or minister will probably require more formality -- you'll go through an aide; you may need an introduction from a state legislator or other politician - than the director of a community-based organization, for instance.

Distance and accessibility are also issues here. You're not going to "bump into" that Cabinet secretary or minister unless you live in the capital area, for instance. She's also seldom alone, but is apt to be surrounded by aides, other officials, Secret Service men, etc. most of the time she's out in public. Her office may not pass on phone calls or make appointments with people who haven't been pre-approved in some way. You may have to start with a formal letter (perhaps with that introduction included) in order to get a foot in the door.

In less formal situations, a phone call -- ideally made by someone with a direct connection (see #3 above) -- may be fine. If your contact person knows the other party reasonably well, a drop-in visit may also serve the purpose.

For many people, e-mail has become second nature, and is used constantly for both personal and professional messages. In academia, for example, people regularly email colleagues and others they've never met to communicate or discuss ideas.   There are still some, however, who consider email too informal or trivial for serious communication.  If you e-mail them as a first contact, they are likely to see it as as betraying a lack of seriousness on your part. That's why it's important to know all you can about the other party before you begin.

Another consideration is the nature of the occasion of first contact. If an intermediary is involved, one way she might operate is to invite you and the other party to the same social function or event, so that you'll be formally introduced. You might find yourself at anything from a formal dinner party to a pickup game of basketball. (This is the more legitimate variation of meeting "accidentally on purpose".) The real question here is what would be the most effective way to meet in order to set up a substantive conversation.

Decide who will represent you in the first real communication between the parties

Some things to consider when choosing someone (either an individual or a small group) to take part in that first significant communication, usually a face-to-face meeting:

  • Interpersonal and communication skills. Your representative(s) should be comfortable in conversation and able to connect genuinely with other people. She should be an attentive listener and a careful and capable speaker. Perhaps most important, she should be able to put others at ease and disperse tension.

Even if your first substantive communication is in writing, the same skills apply. The difference, of course, is that your representative needs the writing skills to make the same kind of impression on paper that she'd make in person.

Background and information. If the conversation concerns your cause or your advocacy effort, your representative should be well versed in both the big picture and the details. He should know the facts of the situation, the research that supports your position, the arguments for what you're advocating, and the answers to your opposition's arguments. 

  • Flexibility. Don't send an ideologue, someone who's so convinced of the rightness of your position that she can't hear good ideas that aren't part of the party line, or concede that even some arguments she disagrees with are important for those with a different point of view. Flexibility is a key to human relationships in general, and to communication of this type in particular.

If the conversation concerns your cause or your advocacy effort, your representative should be well versed in both the big picture and the details. He should know the facts of the situation, the research that supports your position, the arguments for what you're advocating, and the answers to your opposition's arguments.

Flexibility doesn't mean that you have to agree with arguments made by the other party. You should, however, be willing to understand and consider the reasons for supporting the opposing view, and to think about ways to resolve the differences those reasons rise.
Some critics of US welfare reform, for example, reacted in fury to the idea that welfare recipients should work or perform some community service in return for benefits. Many welfare recipients themselves, however, saw work or community service as an opportunity to gain skills and enter the job market. The critics might have done better to advocate for support services -- child care, job readiness training, etc. -- to help those recipients do a decent job and move off the welfare rolls as a result.

  • Status. In some cases, you have to pay attention to the status of the representative you send. If the party you're trying to establish communication with is the CEO of a major corporation, for instance, or a US Senator, she'll want to know she's talking to someone who can speak for your organization -- the director, the board president, a governing committee. Furthermore, if there are decisions or commitments to be made -- or even suggested -- in an initial meeting or conversation, the person involved should have the authority to do that.

If you're a collaborative or collective organization, this issue may be irrelevant, or it may not. Unless you're deliberately making a statement of your philosophy by your choice of representatives -- which may be totally appropriate -- you should pay careful attention to the other party's assumptions. If that corporate CEO will automatically write you off unless you send someone with an impressive title, you may -- at least initially -- decide to comply. In either case, your representative still ought to be one who can speak for the organization, at least to some extent. (On the other hand, everyone in a collective organization is by definition a co-director...)

  • Familiarity with the other party's world. If you're talking to a corporate law firm or a large corporation, it's unwise to be represented by someone who'll be overly impressed by large rooms full of expensive furniture and long views over the city. By the same token, if you're contacting a grass roots group whose headquarters are in the basement of a housing project, don't send someone who won't want to get his pants dirty by sitting on a donated couch. Even if your first conversation is by phone or letter, it's important to have an understanding of the other party's assumptions about the way things are. It can be the deciding factor in whether you're able to establish communication or not.

A single person or a group? If your first significant encounter is in a face-to-face meeting, another choice here is whether to send an individual or a group, and whether to ask to meet with an individual or a group. To some extent, that depends on the content of the meeting. In some cases, for instance, it might make sense for a staff group from one organization to meet with a staff group from another to discuss common issues that relate to your advocacy cause. This may be less threatening to both organizations than a meeting of directors or boards, and may lead to further meetings.


In other situations, it may make far more sense to start with individuals on each side who can state their positions well, and who operate at a fairly high political level. Advocacy coalitions, when meeting with legislators or other officials, often send delegations representing a variety of constituencies, so that a group from one party meets with an individual from the other.

If you're requesting the meeting -- and that's what this section is about -- you'd do well to be guided by the preferences, if any, of the other party. The more comfortable they feel, the more likely the meeting is to lead to something more.

Decide on the content of your first substantial communication.

However you make contact and arrange a first meeting or phone call, you have to have something to talk about. The substance and form of your first conversation can set the tone for whatever follows -- as well as determine whether anything follows.

Some possibilities for content include:

  • Starting an open-ended conversation -- perhaps, but not necessarily, about the advocacy issue -- with no specific goal. The point here would be to make a connection, which could then be built upon in further conversations. Topics might include ways you could work together, the difficulties of dealing with the issue, the nature of the community, or even mutual friends or your kids' schools -- almost anything of common interest.
  • Establishing common ground.The other party -- or for that matter, you as well -- may not have realized how much you had in common. Exploring your areas of agreement could lay the foundation for a relationship.
  • Offering help or counsel to the other party in some way. If you have something to offer, it presents you with an ideal way to begin communication. Just be careful that the offer isn't condescending, and that there's no implication of your superiority attached to it.
  • Asking for something specific. You may need information or help with a task, or want the other party to cosponsor an event with you. Whatever the request, it not only provides you with an opening, but gives the other party the opportunity to feel good about helping.
  • Discussing common problems or issues, with an eye toward a solution. If you both work with the same population, for instance, or struggle with a common difficult funder or funding situation, this can provide the basis for an ongoing dialogue of mutual help and support.

This is the kind of situation where a first or subsequent conversation could evolve into regular meetings of program staff members who work with some of the same people, or who share similar frustrations and concerns.

  • Apologizing for or explaining an error on your part or a misunderstanding on the other's. This can be a tricky situation, depending upon what was said or done, and why. If you're obviously backpedaling, you can easily be seen as insincere, and even less trustworthy than you were already thought to be. But if the apology is sincere and reasonable, or if the explanation is convincing and makes sense, it can establish a basis for future communication.
  • Letting the other party know about something you're about to say or do. Providing advance information that will allow the other party to avoid, or at least anticipate, embarrassment or other problems is often an ethical course of action. It also opens a communication channel, which can then be used for other purposes later.
  • Asking for noninterference, cooperation, or collaboration. Here, you're actually opening the conversation with advocacy concerns, and seeking either neutrality or an alliance on the other's part. This can be risky, for a first try at communication, but it may also be what you need to do.

Actually make the first contact and engage in the initial significant communication. You've planned it all out -- now do it!

What about failure?
There is always the possibility that your efforts at a first contact will come to nothing, or that once you make contact, the other party will refuse the offer of communication. There is also the chance that your first significant communication will be unsuccessful, and that the effort will go no further. One of these negative scenarios is very possible -- these folks haven't been your friends in the past, after all.
Even if your effort at establishing communication fails, don't look at the failure as permanent, or write the attempt off. There may be another time when it will be possible. Situations and circumstances change, and people do as well. Continue to put out feelers when it's appropriate, and your efforts may bear fruit.

Follow up on the first communication.

The ideal here is that one of the topics at a first meeting ought to be how to continue the communication. The most desirable outcome would be the creation of an agreed-upon structure for continuing communication. You might decide that communication will continue on a regular schedule. This could mean anything from the directors of two organizations having lunch together once a month to daily e-mails, depending upon the nature of the communication and the relationship. It would also encompass the meetings of line staff described in the box above.

You might also decide that communication will be regular, but unscheduled. This is similar to two acquaintances agreeing to "keep in touch". As we all know from our own experience, sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. If both of you pay attention to the relationship and to communicating, everything's fine. If neither of you is a diligent communicator, then it simply doesn't happen. If one of you is good at sustaining communication, then you'll probably keep it up, but it will almost always be a situation of person A initiating and person B responding.

If no regular schedule comes out of your first conversation, and you want to keep the communication channel open, you'll have to be person A. (If the other party behaves similarly, so much the better.) You'll need to follow up on your initial meeting (and use your follow-up to schedule a second meeting). Perhaps the most common method is a note, e-mail, or phone call, expressing some variation of "I enjoyed our conversation the other day. It opened up a lot of possible avenues for discussion, and I'd like to follow up on them. Can we meet again? How about the week of the 19th?"

In addition, it's vital to assure that any concrete promises or tasks that came out of your first conversation are kept or done within the time frame agreed upon. If some or all of the promises or tasks were yours, then it's simply your responsibility to see that they're fulfilled or accomplished. If they were the other party's, it's a bit more difficult, since you don't want to sound like you're nagging or don't trust them to do what they've agreed to. One method is to arrange a check-in as part of your original conversation ("I'll call you on Thursday to see where you are with that, and if we can help in any way.")

Maintain and build upon your lines of communication over time.

Remember, these are your opposition's traditional allies. Building trust with them may be a long and involved process. Successfully opening communication is only the first step. You have to continue communicating to keep the lines open and working properly. As with any advocacy work, you have to stay at it indefinitely, and never take it for granted.

Opening lines of communication to your opposition's traditional allies can serve you -- and them -- well in many ways. It can eventually lead to changes in their points of view; it may help you see some things more clearly; and it can help to assure that information that flows between you, as well as information that goes to the public, is accurate and timely. If you can establish these communication channels, it should make your advocacy effort easier, and increase your chances of long-term success.

In Summary

Establishing lines of communication with your opposition's traditional allies means just that: creating a communication link with people who are usually on the opposite side from you, either on the issue you're advocating for, or in general. The expectation is not that you'll necessarily make them into allies, although that's obviously a desirable goal, but rather that you can begin a dialogue. People and circumstances change with time and experience. If you can listen to and respect one another, you'll certainly improve relations, and you may improve your advocacy position as well.

Opening lines of communication can be the first step to real understanding between two parties previously at odds. It can also serve to clear up misunderstandings of all kinds, and to make you new allies in unusual places. It may reduce your opponents' power base, by decreasing the people and organizations they can count on to support them unconditionally. Setting up communication channels can help you expand your own power base, as well as your advocacy network. It may even bring your opponents around to your point of view, and lead to future alliances.

To establish communication with opponents' traditional allies you first should identify and get to know everything you can about your opponents, their allies, and your allies, so you'll have some idea whom to contact and how. Consider the timing of your attempt -- you're more apt to succeed when your opponents' allies are disaffected, for instance, or when you have something specific and important to communicate about.

Next, decide who will make the first contact, and how. This first contact isn't the same as your first real significant conversation -- you have to decide who'll represent you there, as well, and what that conversation will be about. Then, once the decisions are made, do it if you can -- make the contact, have the initial conversation.

Make sure to follow up on your first effort, so the momentum won't be lost, and to try to schedule, or at least structure, future communication. Finally, work to maintain your lines of communication over time, so they don't wither from neglect.

Establishing lines of communication with your opposition's traditional allies should, at the very least, improve relations and your position in the community. Ultimately, it could lead to new alliances, and greatly improve your chances for successful advocacy.

Online Resources

Basic Advocacy Skills is a guide that provides basic information to being a good advocate, including information on how to open lines of communication. 

Identify Allies and Opponents. This advocacy planning model provides information on how to establish a group or individual as an ally, opponent, or neutral/unknown group.

Now Hear This is a guide provided by FENTON Communications that offers information on communicating in advocacy.  The guide discusses the “9 laws of successful advocacy communications.”

Print Resources

Kretzmann, J., & McKnight, J. (1993). Building communities from the inside out: A path toward finding and mobilizing a community’s assets. ACTA publications. This book provides case studies of successful community-building initiatives across the U.S. In addition to this, it outlines how a community can move toward asset-based development. 

Meredith, C., & Dunham. C. (1999).  Real Clout. Boston: The Access Project.

Robinson, J. & Green, P. (2010). Introduction to community development: Theory, practice, and service-learning. SAGE Publications, Inc. This book provides both theoretical and practical approaches to community development, as well as case studies and supportive materials to develop community development skills.