The Personal Effects of One-to-Ones

What do we know about one-to-one conversations? How useful can they be to our organizations and us? Scholars note that one-to-ones are not just a way to develop interpersonal relationships, but they are the crucial way to developing interpersonal relationships and organizing within the community. After collaborating with groups and conducting studies with various organizations and campaigns, scholars have concluded that grassroots organizing is becoming one of the most popular and effective models in terms of mobilizing efforts for a cause, and one-to-one conversations have proven to be the most important part of grassroots organizing.

According to the PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) one-to-one relationships create a contact “geared toward several relational and developmental goals” and “pushes participants to embrace their human dignity and power as a part of a larger social whole.” The point of a one-to-one is to create a transformation leadership by one person empowering the other to become a leader during that one-to-one conversation. According to scholar Brian Christens, power and relationships are the key themes of the relational part of organizing. One-to-ones focus on forming the relationship and valuing that relationship above any other potential instrumental or organizational gains that could result from the meeting. Practitioners of one-to-one meetings know that their role is not to promise immediate fixes for the issue in which they are discussion or facing, but they are simply to ask how the other is going to improve the situation in their own neighborhood or communities.

Caring for people and building relationships are very important to any organization. One-to-ones are how one reaches out to people at the local, state, and national level. One-to-ones can be as simple as casual conversations to discussing how the person on the other end can be the next leader.

While the use of one-to-ones in grassroots organizing campaigns and other organizations seems to be a fairly new concept, those conversations have shaped social work in the United States since the use of one-to-ones between poor immigrants and their contact with their neighbors. For example, the “Hull House approach” was a tactic that brought together research, practitioners, community organizers, and residents in constant dialogue where they talked through their problems and discussed political action while being informed on social theory. Most recently, one-to-ones are a large part of participatory research where the researcher and participant are the main characters in the investigative process, and where the participants are able to reflect on their goals and their direction. Author Sung Sil Lee Sohng claims dialogue is a key methodological feature that brings people together to participate in aspects of education, self-reflection, educational and collective action. Dialogue, through one-to-ones, answers the “whys” of the examination of what affects our daily lives.

One-to-ones also contribute to retaining volunteers and organizers in community activities and organizations. The easy part is getting people to join something, but over time, there is a tendency for inactivity. Typically, one-to-ones are not much longer than thirty minutes and they are associated with greater likelihood of future participation in organizing, according to scholar Brian Christens. One-to-ones create a psychological empowerment where people are socialized into beliefs and patterns of behavior through participating in one-to-ones as well as group meetings. One-to-ones give the participant an incentive to stay involved because the trained participant who is interviewing the other finds ways to relate every situation back to the participant, which will make them want to keep contributing to society.

While one-to-ones are not the only way to successfully engage with the community on a grassroots community organizing level, they are the most effective way to reach individuals. We know that one-to-one conversations do not have to be hours long. Even in that thirty minute session, we hear someone else’s story, learn how to tell our own, and learn how give back to the community by hearing how others have. People are much more likely to continue to give back to the community if they have someone such as a mentor that they met during a one-to-one conversation that will guide them in the direction to lead and mobilize effectively.

Below is a section of research that focuses on one-to-one conversations, and each article discusses different aspects of one-to-ones and how they influence a person’s decision to engage with the community.


Christens, Brian. “Public Relationships in Grassroots Community Organizing: Relational Intervention for Individual and Systems Change.” (2010) Journal of Community Psychology 38 (7). Retrieved from April 8, 2013

Christens discusses the formation of a civil society across disciplines, particularly among social change organizations and grassroots community organizing initiatives. He focuses on grassroots community organizing techniques and how those involved in grassroots community organizing develop interpersonal relationships. The main question is how grassroots community organizing affects interpersonal relationships.  His observations come from 7 years of participatory action research with community organizing efforts. He collaborated with nine different local groups in seven states, the majority of which were affiliates of the PICO network.  He had 56 in depth interviews of participants in six PICO organizations, and they were conducted by several research collaborators and him. He concluded that one-to-ones are necessary in community organizing and that is a crucial way that interpersonal relationships are developed. Christens’ method of qualitative interviews helped him to see the impacts of building public relationships in a model for grassroots community organizing and highlighted the role of relational organizing in broadening networks of relationships. Overall, grassroots community organizing is a model for navigating the tensions between various organizations in the nonprofit sector. He concludes that future research must be done on differences in orientations to relationship development across different grassroots organizations, and it should particularly link relationships to psychological empowerment and sense of community.

Christens, Brian D. and Speer, Paul W. “Contextual Influences on Participation in Community Organizing: A Multilevel Longitudinal Study.” (2011) Retrieved from April 8, 2013

This article reports results from various areas of community organizing and why people participate. Methods include research design, group meetings, one-to-one meetings, a more analytical approach, etc. These methods emphasize reasons how organizations can sustain participation in their organization. Results found that group meetings, one-to-ones, and other types of face-to-face contact predicted future participation in group meetings but neighborhood-level demographic characteristics were not as predictive of future participation in community organizing activities.

Sohng, Sung Sil Lee. “Participatory Research and Community Organizing.” (1995) September 28, 2013

In this publication, Sun Sil Lee Sohng discusses that importance of one-to-one conversations and exploring the research methodologies where researchers and community practitioners can mobilize information and knowledge resources as one part of their broader strategies for community empowerment. She presents this evidence by discussing participatory research projects and how they work in the community, goes into detail about the goals of the practitioner and participants, and argues that people form a consciousness through participatory research that helps them determine what their best interests should be and lessen the victimization that people impose upon themselves or take from others. Overall, through participatory research, these conversations ultimately contribute to enacting social change.


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