Imagine ending a political debate today with: “You’re a fellow American. You’re a thoughtful person, and I want to better understand where you’re coming from.”

That’s a tool Mary Adams learned at a Better Angels skills workshop. While it’s one she’s practicing, the Duluth woman said it’s a skill she hopes to build.

“They’re trying to teach ways to have vigorous disagreements without attacking people personally," she said. "When you understand where people are coming from, that’s where you can create constructive compromise.”

Adams is an area coordinator for Better Angels, a grassroots nonprofit that aims to unite liberals and conservatives, to teach skills for listening, constructive conversation and how to engage reds and blues in a search for ways to work together.

There are about 9,000 members; they’ve held about 800 workshops in 37 states. They’re hosting their first workshop in Duluth from 6-9 p.m. Feb. 10 through Community Education.

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Flashback to right after the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“In New York, it was a funeral, the end of America. In southwest Ohio, it was hope and change,” recalled Bill Doherty, a family therapist, professor at the University of Minnesota and Better Angels co-founder.

He was approached by two colleagues, David Blankenhorn and David Lapp, who wanted to get Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump voters together for a weekend to see if they could connect more constructively, Doherty recalled.

He designed the workshop using the same principles in couples counseling, and it’s a suitable strategy, he said. “Part of my own mission is to prevent civic divorce in this country,” he said.

“We tend to say 'Those people,' and 'They do this,' but that's not helping.”

The first event was uncomfortable and powerful. “They said they had communities to run, schools to run, hospitals to run. They didn’t want to live with this animosity,” he recalled.

After that, the operation decided to expand.

There are similar national organizations, Living Room Conversations and Essential Partners, that focus on constructive dialogue in communities, but Better Angels is more narrowly focused on politics and depolarization, Doherty said. Their board and leadership is intentionally mixed with reds and blues — the organizations preferred terminology.

And language is important.

That dehumanizing element is causing a lot of problems on the topic of politics, said Pat Devries, Better Angels Minnesota co-coordinator. “We tend to say ‘Those people,’ and ‘They do this,’ but that’s not helping.”

“Democracy is, in some way, one continued argument,” Doherty said.

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Tension and strife in politics is an age-old concept, said Doherty, noting the Civil War.

Evolutionarily, we are tribal creatures. We evolved in groups, we’re loyal to our group, our survival depended on gauging who was trustworthy outside of it.

To form a nation-state, you have to find common interests and values, survival, prosperity. And today, our party affiliation has become part of our identity, he said, noting that the car you drive, or the beer you drink may indicate your political, or sometimes, faith, leanings.

The past 25-30 years has seen an increase in what political sciences call emotional polarization, or animosity between parties, according to a Dartmouth College article.

“People are now seeing the other political side as enemies, as people who want to harm the country, and immoral,” added Doherty.

The Emotional and Intellectual Transformation of De-Polarization. Courtesy of better-angels.org
The Emotional and Intellectual Transformation of De-Polarization. Courtesy of better-angels.org

In 1960, 5% of Americans said they’d be uncomfortable with an inter-party marriage in the family. A couple years ago, it was 35-40%.

Better Angels hopes to lessen the divide.

The aim isn’t to change people’s minds about the issues, but to change their mind about each other, he said.

Better Angels workshops come with ground rules, trained moderators, series of activities that include identifying stereotypes and ways to reframe questions.

Doherty gave the example of a “gotcha question”: Given that you want to help the poor, how do you justify creating programs that keep people depending on the government?

An example of a Better Angels question: Do you see risk for people becoming dependent on government programs. What do you want to do about it?

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U.S. Reps. Dean Phillips, D-Minnetonka, and Pete Stauber R-Hermantown
U.S. Reps. Dean Phillips, D-Minnetonka, and Pete Stauber R-Hermantown

In November, congressional staffers from the offices of Pete Stauber R-Hermantown and Dean Phillips, D-Minnetonka, participated in a daylong workshop.

While there are negative things happening in politics, the Better Angels approach may help shift the focus to some of the positives, Devries said. “I don’t think every Republican behaves like a certain politician. I know better; I grew up with it," she said.

Devries leans liberal; her husband leans conservative. She also grew up with parents of differing political persuasions. “We don’t always agree on how to get to the solution, but the underlying value is exactly the same,” she said.

So far, feedback has been positive from people who have attended. Currently, Doherty is finishing a workshop for talking politics in families. And Better Angels is working with six universities that are hosting workshops and then checking in with students later to gauge feelings of polarization.

Doherty said solutions have to come at many levels, political and public. At the grassroots level, we need to find ways for constructive conversation. If we don’t see each other as fellow citizens who want what’s good for the country, Doherty said, then it’s very hard to run the country together.

If you go

What: Better Angels skills training workshop

When: 6-9 p.m. Feb. 10

Where: Ordean East Middle School

Cost: $5, registration is required

More info: http://bit.ly/3aOrK4r

Constructive political convos in 3 steps

  • Go into a conversation with curiosity vs. an agenda. Focus on listening and understanding. Don’t try to change the other person’s mind.

  • When offering an opinion, use “I” statements. For example: “This is what I understand about …” or “This is what I think of …”

  • Try to avoid negatively characterizing the beliefs of someone with different political leanings in discussion. Focus on your position and possible solution.