Episode 5: Coping with COVID: How do we spread hope? With Thomas Coombes (Part 2)
Communication is powerful. So let’s talk about it!
“When you need hope most is when things are the most dark.”
Our instinct as communicators is to tell the story of the things that make us angry — government failure, human rights abuses, etcetera. But we also need to show the things that are going right, and how these came to be. In dark times such as the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to show people, above all, that change is possible.
Listen to part two of this discussion between the Owls (Oya, Joza, and Mika) and Thomas Coombes, a human rights strategist and the founder of the organization Hope-Based Communications.
THOMAS: You don’t actually necessarily even need hope when things are okay. When you need hope most is when things are the most dark. That’s when the light shines brightest. That’s when you need a sense of something you can do to get out of this moment.
JOZA: Hello, this is Give A Hoot.
OYA: I’m Oya
JOZA: I’m Joza.
MIKA: And I’m Mika.
OYA: We are WiseOwl.
MIKA: WiseOwl is a consultancy firm that specializes in communication for social change.
MIKA: Here’s part 2 of our 2-part series on hope-based communication in the time of COVID. Please make sure to listen to part 1, if you haven’t already. Our guest, communication strategist Thomas Coombes, talked about how, in order to move people into action, we must shift the narrative to one that is less about fear, and more about hope. Less the problem, more the solution. In this episode, we talk about the balancing act of advocates, and the practicality and universality of hope.
MIKA: Thomas you mentioned earlier how with the coronavirus, there’s a lot of fear, there’s a lot of anxiety. But here in the Philippines, we also see another emotion. It’s anger. There’s a lot of anger when it comes to the failure to deliver or certain policies that don’t make sense to a lot of people especially the poorest of the poor here in the Philippines. Where does anger sit within hope-based communication? How does that work?
THOMAS: So there’s a civil rights activist that said that: “Anger is the spark that starts the engine. But hope is the fuel that keeps it moving.” All the emotions play a role. So when we talk about hope, for me, it’s not about feeling good in the moment. Hope is the belief that tomorrow can be better. Hope-based communications is about making people believe in alternatives that we put forward. So, there’s always space for anger but in the long term anger can lead to despondency. It saps energy and leaves people disappointed and tired.
How do you channel anger into constructive action for lasting change? When people are angry, it’s the moment when you most need to give them the sense that there are actual practical solutions. Otherwise, you’ll find that anger can very quickly be channeled into more division. A colleague called Krizna Gomez who’s from the Philippines. Her and I identified that the strategy of populist leaders is actually to encourage anger. It’s based on creating a sense of conflict, of controversy and of crisis. And we identified that NGOs need to come up with three Cs of their own- which is Community, Cooperation and Culture. So we have to resist that temptation to get angry at our opponents and actually create the environment emotionally that makes people more likely to do the things we want, which is taking care of each other.
Think of anger as a CO2 emission. Our side could get angry, but that anger is not just gonna be something that makes our side mobilized. It’s anger that’s gonna actually pollute the wider conversation in our society.
MIKA: There needs to definitely be a balance. For the coronavirus, we need to be able to understand rationally what the danger is. We need to understand that in order for all of us also to do the, you know, hand wash, to avoid crowded places and all of that. But we also need to pay attention to the feelings and it’s the fear. For places like the Philippines, there is anger. We’ve seen also how anger can spark things. Not so long ago there was a lot of anger with government and then government does respond to that anger. But, it’s a very interesting point that you make that we cannot solely rely on anger. We need to also focus on constructive, productive kind of actions that we can do. I think what makes coronavirus a very difficult challenge is that we need to stay at home. And the way we need to respond isn’t the way we would have responded had we not been locked in our homes. And so there’s a lot of these kinds of emotions and the feeling of isolation, on top of fear, on top of anger. And my question is really can hope-based communication be seen as a realistic thing?
THOMAS: Hope is something that you come through by dealing with sadness and anger. You come out of the other end with hope. You don’t actually necessarily even need hope when things are okay. When you need hope most is when things are the most dark. That’s when the light shines brightest. That’s when you need a sense of something you can do to get out of this moment.
But at the end of the day, I think this is a question every communicator can ask himself, what does the world look like when you succeed? It’s actually about empathy. We want people to see the world from other people’s perspective. And we want them to have more compassion for each other. And then in asking that question, we realize, okay, we need to look at human behavior. So human rights shouldn’t just be about the rights, it should also be about putting the human in human rights. And thinking how can we improve human behavior, human interactions? Again as a communicator we can ask ourselves, what is the ideal story that actually shows our ideas, or our values at play? And that’s where you know in this moment in COVID where you can come to stories of people caring for each other, celebrating the healthcare professionals who are on the frontline. The ordinary people who buy food for their neighbors or are singing to each other from balconies. Taking a different issue briefly for example on refugees. We spent so much time trying to make people welcome refugees and migrants by talking about how much of those people are suffering. But what we forgot about was actually it takes two to migrate. One person who moves but another who welcomes them. And we actually didn’t do enough work on the behavioral aspect of how do we make people in host countries be more welcoming of people who are arriving. A strategy that’s emerging there is rather than just talking about the suffering that’s driving people to come here, let’s also tell stories of the people who are welcoming those people. Say maybe that suggests that the future of human rights and other kinds of activism might be less about protests and more about say dinners where you have hosts welcoming the newcomers.
Something that we need to think about a lot as people are stuck in their homes, how can people support each other? What kind of actions can they take? Human rights activism was kind of born in the sixties and seventies when ordinary people were writing letters to political prisoners. And it was a very simple act of solidarity. But it was also an act of humanity. What we can try and think of is caring for your fellow human, having empathy for other people, it’s something that is natural but you have to exercise, you have to practice. If we think of empathy as a muscle, we can ask ourselves in this situation and any other situation: what are the activities that we can give to people for them to actually practice empathy, to practice hope? And exercise those positive muscles that we want to see more of in society.
OYA: So it’s not just the job of the communicators because when you paint a picture of how you want things to be there has to be movement towards that vision. And if you don’t see that people would just end up more cynical or disappointed.
THOMAS: Our instinct has for a very long time to tell the story of the things that make us angry. You know the failures of government, the things that aren’t going the way we want. And I think what we need to learn practically in terms of communication is, it’s fine to do that. But we also need to show here are the things that worked. Here’s how it did happen. And we can do more of that. So we need to show people above all that that change is possible. And so while we’ll always have the temptation to say, here are the failures. Let’s also say, here are the signs of progress that show it can be done.
An interesting lesson in this for us as activists is that we don’t want government to go away. We don’t believe in a world with no government at all cause we believe government is a tool that society uses to take care of each other. So if we every day say government is bad. Our audience are gonna think, ooh our government is bad. So if we actually want the government to do a better job of taking care of people, we need to show exactly how it can do that. And for that we also need the stories of the things going right.
OYA: Right now, I don’t see where we’re going. There’s no end in sight. So that’s also the source of anxiety. How do you deal with that?
THOMAS: It’s very important that we give people the sense of agency and empowerment. There’s an excellent philosopher called Martha Nussbaum who wrote a book called The Monarchy of Fear in which she documents how damaging fear is in a society. And she makes this amazing point that where when we’re born, we’re completely helpless. And actually that fear, the you know that dependence on our parents is something that sort of runs through our life. And so we need that sense of where we’re going, like the future we need to rebuild. So I think telling stories about building a society built on caring interdependence. The key thing is not to talk about world we’re going to build after COVID-19 but actually that we start building it today.
A simple change in language from maybe talking less about fighting things and more about building things. The challenge is not just telling people, here’s the change we want to bring about, but actually invite them to be part of that. That sense of belonging and community is what reinforces value, support for your ideas.
My own country Ireland has made massive social changes. When I was born in Ireland in the 1980s. It was the most socially conservative country. And there was a lot of fear of the outside world and the changes happening. And Ireland had two referenda recently that gave everyone the right to marry. And it it ended some very restrictive laws on abortion. So it gave women the right to have abortions. And those campaigns weren’t won by telling people to change their mind. So you have a lot of Catholic voters who are pro-life. And instead of telling them not to be pro-life anymore, it encouraged them to have compassion and to care for the people in their lives who wanted to make those different decisions. And so what happened there was you had lots of Irish Catholics who said I still believe that these things are not right. But I also believe that I wanna care for the other people in my community. And so we gave those people the opportunity rather than sort of threatening them or telling them they were wrong or they should feel guilty. You gave them an opportunity to create a new more caring, more modern Ireland. And so it actually invited them to be part of change. I think that’s a key thing for us as communicators is we really need to understand that our audiences are really complex people who can have a lot of different ideas in their mind.
And so the trick is to actually understand how they’re feeling but also never think that people who articulate views that disagree with our own are lost to us forever. That we can actually find other ways to connect to people. So to bring that back to this coronavirus moment, I think what we can look at is as much as possible, how can we give people the chance to already start acting in the new way we want to see. We’ve already seen great steps in that respect with the stories of people who take care of each other, people pulling together to take care of the most vulnerable people in society.
MIKA: Actually there are a lot examples here in the Philippines, and me as someone who’s stuck at home and I basically pay attention to the news, it feels like a balm that relieves you in a way from all of this stress. When you start to see good news, when you start to see members of government who are just working and doing action and are able to come up with faster solutions. When you’re able to see schools and scientists come up with innovation or local communities kind of band together, artists raise money and all of that, it does help. It quells the fear in a way. But it also at least for me, personally, it also inspires me to do more for the community. It seems like that might be a very human thing, a very universal human experience that might cut across cultures. Is that correct to assume that?
THOMAS: The key word is about universality. I think over the last few years there’s been so much talk about the things that divide us. And not enough talk about the things we all have in common.
I think we need to change our own perception of what it means to be an activist and to try and improve the world. It’s not just about showing the problems in the world. We always have to do that. Coming back to the brain science, we see that when people feel joy, when people are affirmed by culture and basically culture’s a beautiful way of telling stories. That triggers the parts of their brain that we need them to trigger which is where they feel empathy, where they care for other people, where they’re likely to take positive action.
I talk about hope but I think we’re also going to need at some point a moment of healing. Lots of people aren’t very sadly are going to die and they’re gonna suffer, they’re gonna be sick. We’re all gonna be very traumatized after this moment. I think we could probably learn a lot from how the Philippines recovered from the horrible tsunami. How do we heal collectively as a society? As you were saying, this has been a moment of universal experience. We’ve all gone through this moment. And hopefully the greatest learning we can all take from it is that reminder that at the end of the day, we’re all human.
MIKA: Thanks for listening and thanks to the people who made this possible, specifically PumaPodcast, the Spark Project, and our backers. Shoutout to Tricia Aquino, our producer, and Mark Casillan — our sound guy.
OYA: I’m Oya.
JOZA: I’m Joza.
MIKA: And I’m Mika.
OYA: Give a Hoot is a podcast for communicators about social change. Please listen to our future episodes and if you haven’t subscribed yet, please do so.
JOZA: And look for WiseOwl PH on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Medium. ou can visit our website wiseowl.ph. And we’d love to hear from you. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
MIKA: Use your voice. Give a hoot!
Thomas Coombes also recommends listening to Anat Shenker-Osorio’s podcast Brave New Words.