Significance

The Craft of Research , by Booth, Colomb, and Williams, advises writers about how to write clear, effective research reports. The central part of the book describes how to support a claim (or assertion) with reasons and evidence. The authors also offer a way to evaluate whether a claim is worth reading about, and therefore worth writing about:

After its accuracy, readers will value most highly the significance of your claim, a quality they measure by the degree to which it asks them to change what they think. While you can't precisely quantify it, you can gauge significance by this rough measure: If readers accept a claim, how many other beliefs must they change?

If you want your readers to change many beliefs, you will need to provide lots of compelling reasoning and evidence to support your claim. The greater the change you ask your readers to make, the more support you must provide to motivate that change.

I think that the same is true for proposals for change. The significance of a proposal is the degree to which it asks people to change their beliefs and behaviors. The more significant our proposal, the more strongly people will resist. The greater the change we ask people to make, the more support we must provide to motivate that change.

If we turn this around, we can understand resistance as information about the significance of our proposals. When people strongly resist a proposal, that's a clue that we are asking them to change beliefs and behaviors that they value highly.

Note that the significance of our proposals is determined not by us, but by the people we are asking to change. To test this claim, consider The $2.10 Game from Jerry Weinberg's The Secrets of Consulting :

I toss a coin. If it comes up heads, I give you $2.10. If it comes up tails, I give you nothing. Now, consider how much you would pay to play the game. [p 30]

I've played The $2.10 Game in many of my workshops. To make the game real, I tell people that I will play the game with one person for the fee they offer. I ask people to write their offer on a card and show it to me.

As Jerry predicted, some people will pay $1.05 or more to play the game. Some people offer less. Some will not risk even a penny to play. The difference gives me clues about the significance each person attaches to the game. But those clues are fuzzy. To understand the significance more clearly, I ask people how they decided how much money to offer.

One woman offered "$0.00" to play. I asked her how she chose that amount. She said, "I have exactly 35 cents in my pocket, and the bus ride home costs 35 cents."

Resistance tells you that there is something important for you to learn about the significance people attach to the change. The penny you thought you were asking people to risk may turn out to be bus fare home.

Experiment: For the next week, each time you make a proposal, ask people how they decided whether to accept or reject it.

Experiment: For the next week, each time someone makes a proposal, make a note of your reasons for accepting or rejecting it.

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