Opinion: Training helps Berkeley liberals communicate with Trump supporters

Can a workshop impart skills that could help defuse the next Berkeley extremist standoff? My answer is a qualified yes.

By Erica Etelson

Erica Etelson is a Berkeley writer and member of Indivisible East Bay.

This spring saw the arrival in Berkeley of Trump supporters, hate groups, an empathy tent and even a sky banner imploring anti-fascists, “Don’t take the bait. Fly above the hate.” Odds are we haven’t seen the last of such confrontations much though we wish otherwise. What’s a free speech-loving, hate group-hating community to do?

As one of the Indivisible East Bay organizers of an upcoming communication workshop on how to talk to Trump supporters, people have been asking me whether the workshop will impart skills that could help defuse the next Berkeley standoff. My answer is a qualified yes.

As I said in my last opinion piece, I believe the best way to discourage hate groups from returning to Berkeley is to ignore them. They come to provoke — the more violent the provocation the better. Antifas give them what they want (a fight), so they come back. As a bonus, they get to portray themselves as victims whose freedom of speech is being trampled by hypocritical Berkeleyans. When we play into their hands in this way, we give them power.

Is the alternative to engage in respectful dialogue with them? It’s preferable to fisticuffs but still falls into the trap of giving the hate groups a reason to be here, though not as compelling a reason as violence.

Given who we’re dealing with, attempting to engage in peaceful dialogue runs the risk of violent escalation, a potentially dangerous situation especially for non-whites and Muslims. After the horrific incident in Portland last month, where a white supremacist is charged with murdering two men who tried to protect two young women of color being racially harassed by the accused, our first concern must be safety, and sometimes the safest course is avoidance.

That said, I recognize that there are people who feel compelled to engage with members of hate groups and, if that describes you, then yes, the workshop will be valuable. The workshop features Sharon Strand Ellison, creator of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication (PNDC), a method of conversing designed to defuse defensiveness, even in high conflict situations.

PNDC is a process of asking questions out of genuine curiosity rather than a desire to entrap. These curiosity questions can then be followed by statements of our personal beliefs rather than assertions of absolute truth aimed at convincing the other person to see the light.

In practicing and teaching this method, Ellison has found that people often shift their positions in unexpected ways. When people have an opportunity to reflect on their beliefs, they’re open to insights that adversarial dynamics tend to foreclose.

When we’re in debate mode, we cling to our position, trying to score points and one-up our opponent. When confronted with information that contradicts our position, we dig in our heels. We behave, in other words, defensively and, in such a mental state, our minds are closed to the possibility that our “opponent” might say something worth considering.

It’s horrifying to see white working class Americans lured into the white supremacist fold by Trump’s scapegoating rhetoric. But name-calling and shaming them only increases their defensiveness.

When we call Trump supporters deplorable, stupid, ignorant, racist rednecks, we drive them deeper into the arms of the people who accept them and give them a sense of belonging. It doesn’t matter how loathsome we find Trump and how reprehensible his supporters, the reality is that when we treat them with contempt or try to convince them of the error of their ways, we intensify the polarization and make them defensively double down on everything we condemn.

As we know all too well in Berkeley, political polarization has reached a dangerous extreme. Restoring our democracy and putting a principled adult in the White House without igniting a civil war requires a defusing of the nastiness that imbues our discourse. That doesn’t mean compromising our values but, rather, communicating them more effectively, without superiority and without the desperate urge to persuade and convince that, if I’m not careful, taints every other sentence out of my mouth post-Nov. 8.

The workshop is geared toward resistance activists who plan to canvass swing districts where they’ll come in contact with Trump supporters. More generally, it’s for anyone with a Trump-sympathizing friend or family member they’ve been avoiding for the past seven months. The communication skills on offer can also be applied in other settings—family, workplace and yes, maybe even the next Milo Yiannopoulos rally.

Having taken several workshops with Ellison and written about how to apply PNDC to our current political nightmare, I know that this work is hard, and it is necessary. It will be easier to put PNDC into practice if more of us are doing it, so please consider attending the June 17 workshop. I’d flunk my final exam in PNDC if I tried to convince you to come, so let’s just say, you’re cordially invited.