National effort aims at social depolarization
In an era marked by political and social polarization, where it can be easy to make assumptions about others, some people are looking for ways to defuse tensions and discover common ground.
Methow Valley residents interested in understanding more about themselves — and where their friends, family and neighbors are coming from — can develop valuable skills at a free workshop in Winthrop sponsored by the organization Braver Angels.
Braver Angels’ “Depolarizing Within” workshop is Saturday, Feb. 17, from 2-5 p.m. at the Winthrop library. In the workshop, people will learn and practice listening and speaking skills in a safe and highly structured setting.
Braver Angels started after the 2016 presidential election with the following mission: “Bring Americans together to bridge the partisan divide and strengthen our democratic republic.” One of their fundamental tenet’s is “We treat people who disagree with us with honesty, dignity and respect. We welcome opportunities to engage those with whom we disagree.” Participation in the group’s workshops quadrupled after the 2020 election.
Methow Valley resident Janice Dickinson got involved in Braver Angels after the 2020 election, as she became increasingly aware of assumptions she sometimes made about people with different views. She was looking for a different approach.
As she learned Braver Angels’ techniques, Dickinson noted changes in herself — and in her relationships. She became a passionate advocate for the group and the insights and tools it gave her. “For me, it’s a way to do something to contribute to the positive, rather than being stressed and angry,” Dickinson said.
Dickinson helped form Braver Angels’ Central/Eastern Washington Alliance, which runs in-person and online workshops and now has 300 people on its mailing list. The national organization has more than 12,000 participants.
All Braver Angels’ workshops teach skills to help people listen and speak to someone with a different perspective or point of view. A fundamental precept of Braver Angels is that you’re not trying to change people’s minds or convince them you are right, Dickinson said. The workshops help people gain skills and awareness, all part of the process of bridging the divide.
The “Depolarizing Within” workshop is an introduction to the Braver Angels concepts and techniques. It helps people begin to identify their own biases and explore how those biases may lead them to make assumptions about other people.
These techniques help people understand that most situations are more complex than we realize, Dickinson said. It’s easy to assume other people are “bad” or “wrong” without understanding how they came to hold those views. With greater understanding, we can appreciate and respect where they’re coming from, Dickinson said.
On the other hand, when you try to change someone’s mind, the person can easily become defensive and the situation can escalate. Eliminating the notion that someone is “wrong” can alter the whole relationship, Dickinson said.
Learning skills from Braver Angels and developing a deeper understanding of how we interact with people completely transformed Dickinson’s relationship with her father. Rather than try to convince each other of a particular viewpoint, they were able to simply relate one-on-one, she said.
Valley resident Byron Odion has taken several Braver Angels workshops over the past few years and found the skills he’s learned have produced beneficial results in his interactions with others. “People can sense when you’re judging them,” he said.
Learning to listen, open up, and understand his own biases transformed one of his family relationships. “She didn’t change — I did. And since I changed, she did,” Odion said.
The “Depolarizing Within” workshop will introduce participants to Braver Angels’ fundamental skill sets for depolarization. People will learn to recognize their “inner polarizer,” to challenge stereotypes they hold, and to distinguish between positions and the people who hold them.
Participants will learn the LAPP skills — Listen, Acknowledge, Pivot, and Perspective. Listening helps people understand where others are coming from, based on life experiences. After listening, people acknowledge that they’ve understood what they’re hearing. Pivoting can help introduce another perspective without attacking those who think differently.
The workshops are very structured to avoid misunderstandings and ensure that everyone feels safe, Odion said.
Advocates for this approach see it as vital to our future. A foundation of democracy is the ability to disagree and still work out a compromise, Dickinson said.
As the participant guide for the workshop says, “Being a depolarizer is not just being high-minded. It’s also being pragmatic about the future. Many of our differences today have been around in some form since the founding of the country — and they are not going to disappear. Our current whipsaw approach to polarized policy-making leads to undoing each side’s policies every four years. The result is paralysis, and cynicism about government.”
Although Braver Angels was structured around tensions between people who identify as conservative or liberal (the organization uses the terms “red” and “blue”), the “Depolarizing Within” workshop does not require anyone to identify with a particular group or viewpoint. It teaches skills that will be beneficial to everyone.
“I know I was making assumptions based on someone’s political leaning. One of the main things I learned is that we’re complex creatures, with different life experiences, which bring us to where we are in the present moment,” Dickinson said.
Participate in the workshop
“Depolarizing Within” is free and open to everyone 16 and older. People must be prepared to participate and can’t simply observe. The workshop will be led by a trained Braver Angels moderator.
The workshop is Saturday, Feb. 17, from 2-5 p.m. at the Winthrop library.
Registration is required. Go to https://www.eventbrite.com/e/depolarizing-within-central-eastern-washington-alliance-registration-789884595087. You can also register by going to https://www.eventbrite.com and searching for Braver Angels.
More on Braver Angels
For more information about Braver Angels, visit their website at https://braverangels.org. There are many videos on the site, including the 50-minute documentary “Braver Angels: Reuniting America.” The are also e-courses available on the website.
The organization has launched what it calls a Civic Renewal Movement, which it describes as follows: “Our movement was born in response to the crisis of polarization — a growing crisis that destroys trust, degrades public discussion, fosters isolation, and harms personal relationships. Polarization progressively undermines trust in our public institutions, distrust of one another on the basis of politics continues to climb, and troubling trends in race, social, and class relations point to increasing conflict.”
The podcast “A Braver Way” features discussions and interviews “from across the political spectrum to unearth tools, insights, and messy real life stories that can guide you over the divide in your everyday life.”