In a hot election year, Utah’s Braver Angels want to be a calmer voice on your shoulder
Talking about politics, especially during an election season, can be fraught. If people fight for what they believe, the conversations can get contentious. Avoiding those controversial topics, however, can mean people never work through things.
Recently, librarian Erika Munson had to fight the apathy urge when a friend in her church congregation spoke in support of banning books, something which Munson, a liberal Democrat, firmly opposes.
Her first reaction was to avoid any confrontation but then she thought “for heaven's sakes, let's think of the skills I've learned.”
She’s state co-coordinator for the Braver Angels Utah Alliance, a volunteer group that helps bridge the partisan divide through productive conservation.
Braver Angels teaches the LAPP approach: Listen to the other person, acknowledge what you hear, pivot and ask if it’s OK to share your point of view and then offer your perspective.
So she called up her friend and asked to sit down and hear her perspective.
“I just went in to listen,” Munson said. “I did not have any intention of changing her mind on anything, and we didn't part with agreement. But we parted with our friendship intact.”
Munson was “so glad” they had the conversation. Otherwise, she said, bad feelings could have festered. “It can really ruin relationships.”
She said these conversations are important as tensions rise during the election season.
“Seeing people as human beings is going to protect our democracy,” she said. “Just seeing people not as evil — which is what a lot of people are doing.”
Munson’s co-coordinator with Utah’s Braver Angels is Casey Jorgensen, and they’re on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Even though Jorgensen is a conservative living in a very Republican state, she said trying to understand the other side is even more important here — where it can be an “echo chamber” and result in blind spots.
“We're reds among reds, talking to reds, learning from reds and teaching reds,” Jorgensen said. “It would be really easy to miss some things. They're going to be able to share some things with you that you may not have thought of.”
To facilitate these conversations, Braver Angels teaches the LAPP approach: Listen to the other person, acknowledge what you hear, pivot and ask if it’s OK to share your point of view and then offer your perspective.
It’s important to go into the conversation expecting to listen to the other side — not expecting to be heard. Jorgensen said showing humility can go a long way.
“We are more likely to be understood eventually,” Jorgensen said. “It helps them relax and want to engage. They know you're a safe person.”
Sometimes people are too closed off to engage in a civil conversation. In those situations, Jorgensen said, choosing to walk away can leave that person with a good impression.
“You never know. Eventually, the next time they have a conversation, they may remember that.”
Braver Angels puts on workshops in Utah to practice these conversation skills. It also has workshops where Republicans and Democrats are separated to list stereotypes they think the other group has about them. Then they share and talk about why those stereotypes are unfair — or perhaps grounded in some truth.
“If you can acknowledge, ‘Yeah, maybe my side does sometimes do this thing,’ you really gain the trust of the other side,” Munson said.
Jorgensen has seen previously hostile people leave a workshop more open minded.
“I see them being curious and humble,” she said. “And expressing things about the other side that they hadn't realized were positive and wanting to know more.”