Non-Judgmental Listening and Story Sharing Can Durably Change Attitudes Around Contentious Issues

September 21, 2020

Ushering in a more just and inclusive America can seem like a daunting prospect in a time of heightened conflict and division. Polarization creates incentives for each camp to hunker down, look inward, and activate its in-group or base. The self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing nature of this oppositional cycle makes it hard to transcend and see another path forward. So too does the in-group policing that creates the pressure to stay in a silo of the like-minded rather than connecting with skeptics or those who hold conflicting or even opposing views.

For those courageous enough to engage with people beyond their in-group, there are significant personal barriers to overcome, especially the harsh judgment or dismissiveness of fellow in-group members and the fear of encountering people who hold views that are dehumanizing and invalidate core values, identities, and lived experiences.

In addition, crossing these perceived and real divides requires training, discipline, a willingness to make oneself vulnerable, and a fundamental belief in the universality of human dignity. It requires the ability and willingness to listen, deeply and without judgment, to connect at a human level, and to respect all people we interact with in this intentional way.

But even though this is difficult work, especially in this polarized environment, there’s reason for optimism. Deep canvassing – a technique that involves listening and sharing personal stories in a 15-20 minute encounter – can lead to durable shifts in attitudes about controversial issues like transgender rights and access to health care for undocumented immigrants. First used experimentally by the Los Angeles LGBT Center to shift attitudes on transgender rights in the mid 2010’s, deep canvassing has been rigorously planned, tested, and analyzed by political scientists Joshua Kalla and David Broockman and is now recognized as an effective strategy to change hearts and minds. 

Ella Barrett and Steve Deline of the New Conversation Initiative have further refined the approach and advise national organizations like People’s Action, as well as state groups like Michigan United, California Immigrant Policy Center, and Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, on the design of deep canvassing initiatives tackling a range of issues.

Most deep canvasses follow a specific structure: the canvassers introduce themselves, ask the person they are canvassing to rate their support for something on a scale of 1 to 10, connect the issue to a personal story the canvasser shares for 2-3 minutes, then pivot to the person being canvassed to share a story as well. The intent is for the canvasser to speak less than the person being canvassed (in contrast to a traditional canvass, which is a mini-lecture). The deep canvass concludes with the canvasser asking again for the person to rate the question on a 1 to 10 scale and then assessing whether there has been movement in the views of that individual. 

Deep canvassing is most successful as a two-way exchange of ideas, where the canvasser expresses understanding even when there is disagreement, and both participants feel like they are able to share their stories and be heard without judgment. It is significantly more effective than traditional one-way canvassing in shifting public opinion.

The COVID pandemic has made it challenging to do canvassing of any kind, let alone 15-20 minute conversations involving a story exchange. But it turns out that in-person encounters are not a requirement for effective deep canvassing. The reason deep canvassing works – in person or over the phone – is that it responds to a fundamental human need to be heard and affirmed. That unconditional affirmation of humanity and dignity is what opens the door to persuasion, not the medium used to have the conversation. 

Deep canvassing is grounded in love and radical empathy, in a belief that all people deserve to be seen and heard and have a stake in building a better future in America.

These empathy-driven conversations create transformational experiences, for both the canvassers and the persons being canvassed, and are key to fighting the polarization and othering that are tearing our communities and our nation apart. 


Science April 8, 2016
Durably reducing transphobia: A field experiment on door-to-door canvassing

TED Talk, January 25, 2017
David Fleischer, Los Angeles LGBT Center

How to talk someone out of bigotry: These scientists keep proving that reducing prejudice is possible.  It’s just not easy.
By Brian Resnick, VOX, January 29, 2020

American Political Science Review, February 2020
Reducing Exclusionary Attitudes through Interpersonal Conversation: Evidence from Three Field Experiments
Joshua Kalla and David Broockman

Building a Bigger We: Changing Hearts & Minds on Immigration in Rural and Small-Town America (People’s Action Strategy Document)

We Get There First or White Supremacists Do: How These Rural Canvassers Disrupt Racist Narratives
By Jordan Green, In These Times, July 13, 2020

Building a Bigger We, One Conversation at a Time
By George Goehl, Medium, July 15, 2020