Deep Canvassing: a better way to persuade in our divided times
Non-Judgmental Listening and Story Sharing Changes Attitudes Around Contentious Issues and Heals our Divides
Ushering in a more just and inclusive America is 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 and avoid connecting with skeptics or those who hold conflicting 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 desire to listen, deeply and without judgment, to connect at a human level, and to respect all people canvassers interact with in this intentional way.
This multilayered context speaks to the potential power and emotional strain of pushing through these headwinds, which deep canvassing requires.
I had the privilege to participate in meetings with deep canvassers at People’s Action and several of their member groups in 2020. I was moved to tears by the reactions shared by these brave canvassers: how they tackled their own fears of being dismissed and their identities attacked; how they overcame those fears through radical empathy with the people they were canvassing, even if they held opposing views; how affirming and powerful it was to share a personal story and have an authentic exchange of ideas with strangers across real and imagined divides; and how they felt they were healing themselves and the country through this vital, challenging work. One canvasser described deep canvassing as a spiritual practice akin to providing therapy to Americans who are hurting.
Especially when so little seems to bring us together in this polarized environment, deep canvassing — both the philosophy that animates it and its effectiveness — gives me hope. It’s a conversational and engagement technique that involves listening and sharing personal stories in a 15–20 minute encounter. It also produces 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 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 canvass initiatives tackling a range of divisive issues.
Most deep canvasses follow a specific structure: the canvassers start by introducing themselves and asking the person they are canvassing to rate their support for something on a scale of 1 to 10. The canvasser then draws from experience to connect the issue to a personal story for 2–3 minutes. Finally, the canvasser pivots and asks 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 lack of judgment is essential. As Erica Etelson explains in her book, Beyond Contempt, if you have contempt or scorn for the person you are trying to persuade, persuasion will fail and your attitude will harden the difference of opinion rather than erode it.
COVID 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.
I always wondered whether the canvassers, often themselves committed activists most likely to hold strong views on policy and politics, would be affected by the technique itself, particularly in the context of high-stakes electoral campaigns. The results are now in. Using deep canvassing reduced the affective polarization of canvassers by promoting perspective-getting, thereby humanizing those being canvassed in the eyes of the canvassers. This decreased the hostility the canvassers felt towards out-group members who didn’t share their views.
While this result may seem counterintuitive, it stems from deep canvassing’s grounding in love and radical empathy. The empathy-driven conversations at the heart of deep canvassing create transformational experiences, for both the canvassers and the persons being canvassed. They are key to fighting the polarization and othering that are tearing our communities and our nation apart.
In short, deep canvassing is ideally suited to our polarized times. Listening to and engaging actively with people who may not share your views can help usher in a more just America and reduce polarization at the same time. That’s why People’s Action and The New Conversation Initiative are launching a Deep Canvass Institute to scale training for activists and organizers in this promising approach.
This piece was adapted from a blog written for the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the American Immigration Council.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Durably reducing transphobia: A field experiment on door-to-door canvassing Science April 8, 2016 By David Broockman and Joshua Kalla
TED Talk, January 25, 2017 By David Fleischer, Los Angeles LGBT Center
We Get There First or White Supremacists Do: How These Rural Canvassers Disrupt Racist Narratives By Jordan Green, In These Times, July 13, 2020
Reducing Exclusionary Attitudes through Interpersonal Conversation: Evidence from Three Field Experiments American Political Science Review, February 2020 By Joshua Kalla and David Broockman
Voter outreach campaigns can reduce affective polarization among implementing political activists Working paper June 18, 2021 By Joshua Kalla and David Broockman
Building a Bigger We: Changing Hearts & Minds on Immigration in Rural and Small-Town America By People’s Action
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
Stand Up for Racial Justice 2021 documentary on deep canvassing: Reckoning with Whiteness: Conversations