Photo by Renee Fisher on Unsplash

Connecting Across Divides, Opening Minds and Hearts

Some time ago, a friend told me about “White Right: Meeting the Enemy”. This brilliant documentary by Deeyah Khan, a Muslim woman of color, is her creative response to the deluge of hate mail she received after an interview on the BBC. Khan wanted to meet some of the people who were sending her hate mail, so she came to the US to meet and film some of the Charlottesville organizers. The following quotes are from a review published in the Atlantic:

“I made the film to try to understand why people do the things that they do,” she said, “so the fact that some of them started using words like friends for me, the fact that we were able to build a real relationship, was absolutely shocking to me and confusing and something I never would’ve expected. If you would’ve told me a year ago that I was going to be friends with people like this, my God, I would have laughed at you at first. And then, second, I think I would’ve been offended that you think I would do that.”

Two of the people she interviewed ended up stepping back from their involvement with the white nationalist movement, and contacting her afterward to let her know they had done so. That was not her original intent; she simply wanted to learn more about why these people hated her.

“What struck me after the fact is that what interrupted people’s hatred and ideology is for someone who represents the other in their eyes to treat them with dignity.”

I was deeply inspired by this review, and wanted to see the movie. After a quick search, I discovered that if you have a library card, you may be able to open an account at Kanopy.com, a free service that streams high-quality documentaries. Many public libraries (though not all) subscribe to this service, though which their members are able to access a wide range of documentaries.

After watching the movie, I started telling others about it. I even organized a few watch parties, where I invited friends to join me in watching this hour-long documentary, and then sharing our responses to it afterward.

My interest in this kind of work is long-standing. Over the last 25 years, I have been learning various practices for connecting across divides in ways that open minds and hearts. Meanwhile, the need for this work continues to grow. And so I started writing a compilation of the various people and organizations that I know, who are dedicated to connecting effectively across divides. As I did so, I began to realize that there are valuable distinctions, as well as valuable parallels, among these many approaches.

I’ll start with those practices that I am calling empathy and listening-based approaches for social change campaigns. These practices have a specific purpose — to intentionally, ethically, and effectively influence people to open their minds and hearts, in order to treat others more humanely.

  • Dr. David Campt created the White Ally Toolkit as a way for white people to do more effective one-on-one work with their own family members, neighbors, and friends — using deep listening, empathy, and story-telling as a way to help people open their minds and hearts with regard to racial issues. I have personally attended two of his workshops, and highly recommend his work.
  • Deep Canvassing is a listening, empathy and story-telling based approach to canvassing originally created by Dave Fleischer, who was leading campaigns on transgender issues. It has been researched and found to have significant effects re influencing people in the direction of more inclusive and caring attitudes. It was recently used by George Goehl, director of People’s Action, in campaigns reaching out to undecided voters during the most recent presidential election. At the same time, see below for an important caveat about the limitations of this approach, and of empathy-based approaches in general.
  • While Deep Canvassing is relatively new on the scene, the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI) was created in 1988 by Cherie Brown, for purposes of reducing the various ‘ism’s — sexism, racism, classism, etc… through experiential workshops and a ‘train the trainer’ approach. They have created chapters on various college campuses; their workshops include training people in how to “interrupt” racist, sexist comments etc. in a way that helps open people’s minds and hearts, rather than blaming/shaming/shutting people down.
  • Along broadly similar lines, Cat Zavis teaches workshops in Spiritual Activism, where we learn and practice Prophetic Empathy, a combination of a deep listening practice based in Non-Violent Communication (NVC), along with sharing one’s values and visions for a life-oriented future. This work also encourages us to consider how we have all been conditioned by a capitalist system, as a way of developing empathy for ourselves and others. Cat is partners with Rabbi Michael Lerner, and they are co-creators of the Network for Spiritual Progressives.
  • And right here on Medium, we have Dr. Karin Tamerius’ brilliant work on Progressively Thinking.

All of these approaches were designed for purpose of engaging with others in ways that model deep respect, while also sharing personal stories that communicate one’s own values. They can be very helpful for one-on-one conversations with friends, family members, or colleagues. And, when used with care, skill, and integrity, these approaches allow us to effectively influence the folks with whom we are engaging, to expand their own circle of care and concern, by considering a wider range of people as fully human. For example, some deep canvassing campaigns were designed and carried out to help gain rights for transgendered folks.

A related-yet-different set of approaches are ones I am calling empathy and listening-based approaches for depolarizing/rehumanizing. In this kind of work, the intention is not to influence others’ beliefs, even in the direction of greater human rights for a specific group of people. Instead, their focus is on depolarization — helping people on different “sides”, begin to see one another as human beings. In the process, people tend to develop more understanding of how and why others have arrived at their present beliefs.

  • Resetting the Table hosts and trains people in “Courageous Communication Across Divides”. Their work grew from experiences facilitating communication on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and their film “Purple: America, we need to talk” is an inspiring example of their work in action.
  • Braver Angels (formerly known as, Better Angels) was created in 2016 by Bill Doherty, a family therapist from Minnesota, along with David Blankenhorn and David Lapp. They bring together equal number of ‘reds’ and ‘blues’ together in highly structured workshops — not to change people’s political orientation in any way, but simply to engage in re-humanizing encounters.
  • Edwin Rutsch, a self-described “empathy activist”, created the Empathy Circle format as an accessible opportunity for people to build community, while learning and practicing a basic conflict de-escalation skill that you can use in one-on-one conversations. This work is similar yet different to the Empathy Circle format taught in Non-Violent Communication (NVC).

Then there is a third set of approaches, ones that are designed to help people who are facing a shared challenge to engage creatively with their differences, and arrive at their own common ground, points of unity, or shared steps forward. I am calling these empathy and listening-based approaches for creating new shared outcomes.

Like the “depolarizing/rehumanizing” processes listed above, those of us who facilitate “new shared outcomes” processes do not have a particular outcome in mind. Yet in addition to helping participants have a meaningful and authentic experience and arrive at greater understanding of one another, these processes are also designed to help participants come up with their own solutions to the particular challenges they are facing.

One of these approaches that I particularly appreciate is the work of the Center for Understanding in Conflict. Their mediators work with active listening, which they call “looping”, to help participants feel heard and understood, and thus be able to work creatively together toward shared outcomes.

Another empathy and listening-based approach for working with groups is Convergent Facilitation, created by my friend and colleague Miki Kashtan. In this process, the facilitator helps find the “non-controversial essence” of each participant’s contribution.

And then there’s the work I practice and teach, which is called Dynamic Facilitation. This empathy and listening-based approach for supporting a group’s creative energy has been used extensively in parts of Europe for facilitating participatory public policy processes called “Bürgerrate”. Similar in some ways to Citizens’ Assemblies, these smaller councils are less resource-intensive and more agile, thus better suited for more local uses.

While there are many different ways of working with groups, the ones I’ve mentioned above are particularly focused on a highly active listening role on the part of the facilitator or mediator, to generate a productive empathic climate and support shared outcomes.

In sum, in this approach I’ve explored three different-yet-related kinds of approaches:

  • empathy and listening-based approaches for social change campaigns;
  • empathy and listening-based approaches for depolarizing/rehumanizing the “other”;
  • empathy and listening-based approaches for creating new shared outcomes.

The parallel is that in all three arenas — the social change approaches, the depolarizing/rehumanizing work, and the creative group processes — we can see the power of empathy-based approaches for opening minds and hearts. And in all three, it is the practice of starting with deep listening that makes change possible.

Now for the caveat: I want to be clear that I am by no means implying that skillful empathic responses are all we need, in order to address the serious challenges we are facing. And so I want to close with something I’ve learned from my study of deep canvassing, something that reiterates the need for a variety of different approaches.

In their research on deep canvassing, social psychologists Joshua Kalla & David Brookman are very clear about the tension between what works at the individual level on the one hand, and what works at the societal level on the other. They point to others’ research showing that social norms which signal that “exclusionary behaviors will be judged negatively by others” can indeed be effective for changing behavior. However, these same norms do not appear to affect underlying attitudes.

In other words, at the societal level, of course it makes sense to have laws and consequences for behavior that incites hatred toward any particular group. There’s many different ways we need to work on reducing hatred and encouraging inclusion. And these kinds of policies will definitely affect behavior.

At the same time, if we also want to change attitudes, not just change behavior, we need to create interpersonal or small-group listening spaces where “individuals will not be judged negatively for expressing exclusionary attitudes.”

This does not mean, giving people who espouse hateful views of others, a megaphone. Instead, within one-to -one or small group interactions, we can learn to treat all people with basic human respect. We can offer each person the opportunity to have their own stories be heard, as well as, to hear the stories of others. Doing this seems to be essential for helping to reduce prejudice and bias by catalyzing internal shifts in attitudes, rather than simply changing external behavior due to fear of consequences.

The key to changing people’s minds is to be curious about what other people think. Think back to the last time you changed your mind about something important. It likely wasn’t because someone berated you. The biggest gift you can give someone whose mind you want to change is a supportive environment that lets them think about their experiences and how those experiences affect their opinions on issues. We’re just beginning to learn how to do this well, but it’s important. And the data shows it works.

From 7 questions with Dave Fleischer

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Written by Rosa Zubizarreta • www.DiaPraxis.com

Associate of the Co-Intelligence Institute & fan of CII’s Wise Democracy Project

thank you to Tom Atlee and Peggy Holman for recommending some of the above resources…. and thank you, dear reader, for reading this far. Here’s a closing gift: the link to a particularly inspirational 3-min video from You-tube, featuring the real-life story of Michael Kent and Tiffany Whittier.

Update as of July 14, 2021: I recently finished co-leading a seven-week online workshop that was inspired by this article. In the process, we created a resource list that is freely available here. While it contains some of the material described above, it has a lot of additional stuff as well. Enjoy!

Deepening democracy through participatory leadership, empathic group facilitation, and co-intelligent design. Learn more about my work at www.DiaPraxis.com.