In Times of Disagreement, How to Find Unsticking Points

What would it take to help people to become less prejudiced?

Dave Fleischer has been asking himself that question since he was six years old. He grew up in the only Jewish family in Chillicothe, Ohio, and to make matters even more complicated, he was gay. “If I would have only talked to people who agreed with me, I would have only talked to my mom and dad,” he said.

Now in his sixties, Dave has spent a lifetime trying to reduce prejudice. His firsthand experience as an outsider led him to community organizing, and he’s helped get out the vote for various political causes.

In November 2008, though, Fleischer got a wake-up call. California residents were voting on Proposition 8, a measure that proposed banning same-sex marriage in the state. Given California’s liberal leanings, the polls suggested the measure would be soundly defeated and the pro-LGBT side would win.

But they didn’t. The measure passed.

It was a huge blow to the community. People were shocked and outraged. They didn’t know what to make of the situation or what to do next.

As Dave tried to make sense of the loss, he had an idea. Rather than make assumptions about the people who voted against them, why not ask them directly? Go to the neighborhoods where they had been crushed, seek out the voters who had voted against them, and ask them why they did that.

Working with the Los Angeles LGBT Center, Dave and his team went to the heart of the counties where they lost. Places where people were staunchly opposed to gay marriage or hated gays and lesbians. Canvassers knocked on doors and talked to Prop 8 supporters to understand their perspectives.

Canvassing usually follows a carefully designed script. A political consultant architects a message, and the canvassers’ job is to deliver the pitch. Word for word, spewing facts and figures to try to convince people to go along. The conversations, if you can call them that, are usually one-sided and often feel forced. Like being lectured to. Not surprisingly, many voters rush to end the interaction.

In the aftermath of Proposition 8, though, Dave’s team tried to stop talking and start listening. No script, just asking people why they felt the way they did.

Over 15,000 one-on-one conversations later, Fleischer and his team learned far more than they expected. Not just about people’s preferences regarding gay marriage, but about what it took to change voters’ hearts and minds. They went through seventy-four different iterations of the script before they finally settled on one they liked. They called the new approach “deep canvassing.”

Few things are more resistant to change than prejudice. More than fifty years after the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on race, sex, or national origin, intolerance is still alive and well. Over half of Americans express anti-black prejudice and a third are against gay marriage. In just the past few years a Yale University student called the police when she found an African American student napping in the dorm common room, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents detained two women just for speaking Spanish at a Montana gas station.

Part of the challenge is how deeply ingrained prejudice often is. Kids acquire beliefs from their parents, religion, or other social ties, and these perspectives become part of their worldview, almost second nature.

Not surprisingly, then, when Dave showed videos of his deep canvassing approach to a prominent political scientist, the professor was skeptical that it actually changed anyone’s mind. “There’s no reason to think you’re succeeding,” he said, “because nobody has.”

A single ten-minute “deep canvassing” conversation made voters significantly more accepting . . . and the effect wasn’t just short-lived.

To provide a more rigorous test, in June 2015, Fleischer helped conduct an experiment in Florida. A few months earlier, Miami–Dade County had passed an ordinance protecting transgender people from discrimination. Fearing a backlash, volunteers and staff from the Los Angeles LGBT Center paired with a local organization to go door-to-door. More than fifty canvassers spoke to more than five hundred voters.

The conversations were tough. Raw and fraught with emotion. People against the legislation weren’t just casually opposed, they had strongly held opinions based on religion, culture, and how they had been brought up. Not the easiest audience to convert.

But when researchers tabulated the results, they found something striking. A single ten-minute “deep canvassing” conversation made voters significantly more accepting. They had more positive feelings toward transgender people and were more supportive of laws protecting them from discrimination.

And the effect wasn’t just short-lived. It persisted months after the canvassers had stopped by. It even withstood exposure to attack ads from the opposition.

The notion that one conversation can durably change minds about a controversial issue is heartening—amazing, even. But it brings up an even more important question: Why were these conversations so effective?

Conventional canvassing is a lot like being a mailman. Drop off the information, then on to the next house. Canvassers want to get in and out as quickly as possible.

You can see this in how canvassers practice. A group of trainees will divide in half, form two lines, and pair up. One will pretend they’re the canvasser and one will pretend they’re the voter. And the winner? The canvasser who is the briefest.

Deep canvassing takes longer. The goal, first and foremost, is to get the voter to be honest. To have a frank, candid interaction about a complex and often emotionally charged issue. And that’s not happening in a couple minutes.

Traditionally, when people think about taking another’s perspective, it usually involves putting themselves “in someone else’s shoes.” Getting out of their own heads to see something from someone else’s eyes.

Rather than inhabiting someone else’s shoes, deep canvassing encourages voters to find a parallel situation from their own experience.

This works well when people can easily imagine what that other perspective is like. Say you’re a high school student asked to help a struggling classmate by taking their perspective. If you’ve had academic challenges yourself, it’s a useful exercise. You think back to the time you struggled with calculus, remember how you felt, and you use that to help understand your peer.

But what if you’re a straight-A student? Well, then it’s a much harder perspective to take. If you’ve always done well, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to struggle academically. Which means trying to take another person’s perspective won’t really help you understand their emotional state.

To avoid this issue, rather than inhabiting someone else’s shoes, deep canvassing encourages voters to find a parallel situation from their own experience. Not imagining what it’s like to be someone else, but a time the voter felt similarly.

A straight-A student may have a tough time understanding what it’s like to struggle academically, but they’ve probably struggled at some point in their life. Whether in sports, dating, or some other domain, thinking about how that felt will help them better understand what someone struggling academically is going through.

Deep canvassing uses this to reduce prejudice. It’s hard to imagine what life is like for someone else. Particularly if that person is a different race, gender, or sexual orientation. You can ask most forty-five-year-old white men to imagine what it’s like to be discriminated against, but they’re unlikely to truly get it. Even if they try to take the perspective of a person who has been discriminated against, they’ve probably never wondered whether a waiter was rude to them because of their race or whether they were passed over for a promotion because of their gender.

So rather than asking voters to imagine what it’s like to be transgender, canvassers asked voters to find analogous experiences in their own lives.

Other canvassers asked voters to think about a time they were judged negatively for being different. Then, once the voters shared their stories, canvassers encouraged them to see how their own experiences might offer a window into what transgender people are going through.

Rather than starting with the contentious issue, deep canvassing finds a dimension where people are closer together. An unsticking point.

A military veteran talked about how companies didn’t want to hire him because he had post-traumatic stress disorder. This was only one aspect of who he was, but potential employers couldn’t see beyond it. The story wasn’t about being transgender, but it helped him understand, and connect with, what it might be like for a transgender person to feel discriminated against because of that aspect of their identity.

Deep canvassing works because it switches the field. Rather than starting with the contentious issue, or the field on which people are far apart, it finds a dimension where people are closer together. Where they agree rather than disagree. An unsticking point.

When asked about transgender rights, abortion, or any other complex politically laden topic, it’s easy to shoot things down that fall too far away. Staunch conservatives are sitting on their own ten-yard line, and transgender rights are clearly in the region of rejection, all the way on the liberal half of the field.

But deep canvassing changes the conversation. It’s no longer an abstract debate about how someone thinks they should feel. It’s not even about transgender rights. At least, not directly.

Instead, it’s about love and adversity. About caring. Or about how it feels to be ostracized. To be judged negatively or discriminated against for being different. Something anyone can relate to, regardless of how they feel about this particular issue.

Rather than starting with a tough issue that seems divisive (a sticking point), deep canvassing starts with common ground. Something everyone can rally around.

Then, only after building that connection, do canvassers ultimately bend around and pivot to transgender rights. Switching the playing field from one where two teams are dug in on different ends to one where everyone is on the same team.

Who would disagree about the importance of meaningful love? About reducing adversity and helping the ones we care about? And if you agree with those things, well, you might not have realized it, but protecting transgender rights is pretty close to something you already believe.

Deep canvassing worked equally well regardless of political affiliation or preexisting beliefs.

As Dave put it, “I know what I’m like when I’m my best self. I know what I’m like when I’m my worst self. And I appreciate when other people help me be my best self. That’s what we’re doing at the door. We’re essentially saying, ‘Hey, I see you. I see what you’re like as your best self.’ Is that how you see it? Is that how you want to be? If it is, how are you going to apply that thinking to your next vote?”

Deep canvassing had more than just a small effect. The impact was sizable. While the conversation was relatively brief, its effect was larger than the change in attitudes toward gays and lesbians in the United States between 1998 and 2012. An almost fifteen-year period.

Most interesting, though, was whose minds were changed. It wasn’t just the movable middle, Democrats who shifted a little bit, or people who already supported transgender rights. Deep canvassing worked equally well regardless of political affiliation or preexisting beliefs. It even convinced people initially opposed to transgender rights to warm to the issue.

Have a boss who doesn’t support an initiative because they think it will cost too much? Dealing with a colleague who doesn’t believe in company culture because they think it’s too “squishy”? Catalysts switch the field and find an unsticking point.

Rather than pushing harder down the same blocked path, explore related directions where people aren’t so dug in. Even though someone might seem like an adversary on one dimension, there’s probably more to them than just that. Points of agreement like making sure the company continues to grow or employee retention stays high. Start with that. Start with the areas of agreement and build from there.

From The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind by Jonah Berger. Copyright © 2020 by Social Dynamics Group, LLC. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.