Deep Canvassing – Changing voters minds through conversation

On March 13th, 2018, LCN held a 90-minute online training event with David Fleischer, on “Deep Canvassing: Changing Voters’ Minds Through Conversation,” for 119 people from 23 countries. David directs the Leadership Lab at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. He began by sharing his experience of losing the 2008 California marriage equality referendum campaign, which led David and his Leadership Lab colleagues to develop the deep canvassing approach to determine why people were susceptible to the anti-marriage equality campaign. They canvassed 100,000 people in door-to-door one-on-ones lasting 10 to 20 minutes each, seeking to speak with marriage equality opponents. Canvassers were trained for 2.5 hours to do 2 hours of one-on-ones in teams of two, asking participants for permission to film the conversations. David and his team sought to learn what does work in changing minds. Their experience showed that being curious, vulnerable and willing to listen allowed canvassers to bring the conversation to a personal level, shifting from opinion to story to understand what underlies the opinion.
David describes opinions as end-products: in his view, to find common ground with those who hold opposing views, we must get people to tell us about their lived experience; then, there is a chance for those opinions to change. David shared two short videos of one-on-one conversations that showed the technique in action. In his experience, differing opinions are not an obstacle to discussion, and most people are both willing to be filmed and hungry to be listened to. He concludes that we are far too pessimistic about our ability to connect with people who are not just like us, and shared his own experience of Trump voters who were eager to talk to a canvasser even when they disagreed. He notes that when a canvasser gets someone to tell their story, rather than providing facts or sharing opinions, it becomes possible to find common ground.
Training participants held a breakout session in pairs to practice deep canvassing, followed by Q and A. The breakout session offered a chance to elicit our partner’s narrative, and to attempt to develop an empathetic bridge. David suggests telling a story of our own with emotional weight in which we expose our own vulnerability, to help people shift from opinion to story. He suggests that when we as canvassers are able to open ourselves to being judged, then others stop fearing being judged themselves. According to David, starting a one-on-one by asking for an opinion in order to elicit a story, without worrying about changing anyone’s mind, is the best way to establish the trust necessary so that opinions can change. David pointed out that once we recognize our own conflicting feelings and inconsistent views, we can help others see the contradictions between lived experience and their opinion on a given issue. He emphasized that the invitation to reflection that deep canvassing provides can lead others to change their opinions in future.
In conclusion, David described a current Leadership Lab deep canvassing campaign in Columbus, Ohio, among a population of people of color with low levels of voter turnout, in which the technique is being used to remind voters that they have the power to correct social wrongs and to protect those they love by exercising their vote.