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News / Life / Clark County Life

Braver Angels bridging the gap between blue & red in Clark County

Organization teaches participants to discuss politics respectfully

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian Managing Editor for Content
Published: January 23, 2022, 6:02am

You don’t have to follow politics very closely to feel the polarization in our country right now. Conflicts over the Capitol riot, pandemic safety rules, vaccinations, policing and other hot-button issues scream at us from media feeds and tear apart families and friendships.

A growing movement called Braver Angels hopes to mend the rift by teaching people to apply skills from marriage counseling to their discussions of politics.

“You’re not going in to change people’s minds, but to better understand the other side,” said Dan Sockle of Vancouver, a retired civil and criminal investigator. He’s among 123 residents in Clark County — where a majority voted for President Joe Biden, a Democrat, while also electing many Republicans to local offices — who participate in Braver Angels through its Oregon chapter.

The volunteer-run organization has 636 members in Washington and 402 in Oregon, according to its national office. The $12-a-year dues give members access to such online courses as “Depolarizing Within” or “Skills for Social Media.” Not all require membership, however, and Braver Angels chapters around the country offer many workshops virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Better, braver

The nonprofit was initially called Better Angels, after a passage in Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 inauguration speech. “Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection,” Lincoln said, calling upon “the better angels of our nature.”

The Angels’ founders, David Blankenhorn, Bill Doherty and David Lapp, believed the United States needed those “better angels” more than ever after the 2016 presidential election. They were disturbed that many Americans no longer see their political opponents as merely wrong but as enemies. The founders organized a gathering of 10 Donald Trump supporters and 11 Hillary Clinton supporters in South Lebanon, Ohio, for the first “Red-Blue Workshop.”

The goal was to see if Americans could disagree respectfully and even find common ground. In that room, at least, it worked. And it has since then in similar workshops all around the country, according to the group.

A trademark dispute led the organization to change its name to Braver Angels, but according to its website, the new name is even better because “what we’re asking Americans to do today requires bravery.”

Counseling red, blue

Doherty, a family therapist and social-science professor at the University of Minnesota, designed the Braver Angels’ workshops and trainings and incorporated some of the same communication techniques used in marriage counseling.

Newcomers often are surprised that an organization seeking to bridge the political divide asks them to identify as “red” or “blue,” said Lorraine Howell of Seattle, a retired communications consultant who leads Braver Angels workshops.

“It’s a shorthand. Braver Angels knows that no one is red or blue all the time. There’s a spectrum on both sides,” she said. “It’s a way of saying, ‘This is where the divide is, but the lines move all the time.’ ”

Howell, who identifies as “blue,” spotted a reference to Braver Angels in a column by conservative columnist David Brooks and decided to join.

“After that tumultuous 2016 election, I was so upset. I kept yelling at my television set,” she said. “I was tired of being angry all the time. I was looking for something positive to do.”

Sockle, editor of the essay collection “American Jihad,” about extremism on both ends of the spectrum, identifies as “red.” He blames national media for warping our sense of perspective by disproportionately highlighting the fringes.

“Once both sides realize that’s going on, they realize the people on the other side aren’t quite the monsters or simpletons they’ve been led to believe,” he said.

Jeff Spitzer of Portland, state coordinator for the Oregon chapter, also leans “red.” A market researcher who also holds certifications in nutrition and life coaching, Spitzer joined Braver Angels in the summer of 2020 as protests raged in downtown Portland every night.

“Believing that the core of the problem is that people don’t talk to each other and get to know each other’s common interest, I looked for an organization focused on dialogue,” Spitzer said. “It’s not just our politicians who can’t get along. It’s in our families.”

The “Red-Blue Workshop,” a keystone of Braver Angels’ offerings, puts an equal number of “reds” and “blues” in a room together (virtually since the pandemic started) to talk through issues.

“The first time I attended as a participant, at the end of the day I came away feeling that we have so much more in common than what our culture is saying about us,” Howell said.

Another key Braver Angels workshop, “Skills for Bridging the Divide,” begins with how to listen.

Tips for difficult political conversations

Braver Angels teaches the LAPP technique:

 Listen to understand.

 Acknowledge what you heard and find any areas of agreement.

 Pivot by asking if it’s OK to offer your view.

 Then offer your perspective.

When you share your view, remember that it’s your opinion, not a universal fact, said Jeff Spitzer, state coordinator for Oregon Braver Angels.

“Use ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you’ statements,” he said. “That goes a lot farther in not putting people on the defensive, instead of, ‘All you liberals are this or that.’ ”

Also, try not to assume the worst, Spitzer said. “Just sort of hold back from jumping to conclusions or assuming the worst from somebody’s words or action. Look for another possible way to interpret it — that they’re not an idiot or evil.”

Before you share your perspective, Braver Angels teaches to first ask permission.

“What you’re giving them is the opportunity to say ‘no.’ If they respond with, ‘I don’t care what those jerks have to say,’ there’s no point in continuing,” Spitzer said.

That’s another important skill — knowing when to end the conversation.

Spitzer advises saying something like, “It seems like we’re not going to find something to agree on here, so perhaps we can pick this up another time.”

“It’s built that way for a reason — so we can start listening to each other and pay attention and not be thinking of what we want to say next,” Howell said. “That’s a skill we don’t learn automatically growing up.”

She said even though she worked in broadcast journalism asking questions for a living, she didn’t listen in the way Braver Angels teaches. “I was always listening for, ‘Where’s the story?’ Not, ‘Where is this person coming from?’ ”

She said one of the questions Braver Angels teaches people to ask is, “ ‘What in your experience has brought you to that point of view?,’ instead of, ‘Why the hell do you think that way?’ ”

“The second part is then about speaking your own truth and your own point of view and doing it in such a way that it doesn’t make the other person wrong for what they think,” Howell said. “Those two skills make it possible for people to sit in the same room even though we disagree.”

Information

The Braver Angels Central-Eastern Washington Alliance is offering the workshop “Skills for Bridging the Divide” via Zoom from 10 a.m. to noon Feb. 12. The workshop requires Braver Angels membership ($12 a year) and completion of an e-learning module in advance. Find out more at braverangelswa.org.

Oregon Braver Angels is offering the “Red-Blue Workshop” from 5-8 p.m. Feb. 15 and 17. Find out more at braverangels.org/oregon and click on the events list or sign up to receive email updates.

She, Sockle and Spitzer all said they have witnessed transformations occur in Braver Angels workshops.

“People come into our workshops skeptical and even angry sometimes. I can tell by their body language even on Zoom — arms crossed, scowls on their faces, the tone when they introduce themselves. The same people end up leaving the workshop expressing hope for the future,” Spitzer said. “One of the things I’ve heard multiple times is, ‘I didn’t think there was any way we would find common ground, but it turns out we are much closer together than we are far apart.’ ”

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