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Workshops show how to talk politics for greater understanding

ROSEMOUNT — Can you engage in a civil discussion about politics with family and friends in person or via social media?

Are you frustrated by the growing partisanship between Republicans and Democrats?

Two upcoming workshops by Better Angels and hosted at Robert Trail Library in Rosemount are designed to bridge the political divide.

Director of Dakota County libraries, Margaret Stone, said the Better Angels partnership is designed to improve communities. The workshops are part of an effort called "Bridging the Political Divide."

Better Angels

Better Angels is a national citizens' movement to reduce political polarization in the United States.

The grassroots group brings politically conservative and liberal-minded individuals together to listen to each other beyond stereotypes.

The workshops aim to form community alliances and teach practical skills for communicating across political differences while making a strong public argument for depolarization.

The first workshop teaches participants how to best engage in a political conversation with a person who holds opposing views. Each are asked to self-identify as a Red (Republican) or a Blue (Democrat). Each side speaks as the facilitator asks a series of questions.

Each side listens to the other side without any intent to change anyone's mind. Stone said workshops are not a forum for debate, but are intended for teaching and understanding. All participants can share insights to gain mutual understanding.

"The idea behind this is to build community and understanding and have respect for the other side's beliefs even if you don't agree with them," Stone said.

The second workshop is designed to expand a person's listening skills to enable them to have a better conversation with someone about the political divide.

"We do try to make sure there is a balance of Red and Blue (participants) to have a good conversation," Stone said.

Grassroots back story

The Better Angels grassroots group was formed before the 2016 election by two colleagues — Bill Daugherty, a professor, researcher and therapist at the University of Minnesota, and David Blankenship from New York.

Today more than 5,000 Better Angels groups are in place across the nation with people from every state. The workshops are designed to be structured from a moderator standpoint and material is somewhat scripted.

"The conversations are very respectful and very safe in a climate within each workshop," said Kim Martinson, a lead facilitator with the Eagan Alliance, who will act as a co-moderator at the workshops. "As we all know, all relationships whether it is political or professional or in our family or with friends, the best way to form a relationship with anybody is to just listen without judgment."

The workshops encourage active listening and paraphrasing, in addition to the ability to ask probing questions to show interest in understanding.

Stereotypes, no trash talk

The groups from the Red and Blue sides talk about stereotypes that the other side has about their party.

"There is a kernel of truth to every stereotype and we talk about that," Martinson said. "You don't get to talk trash about the other side. It is empowering to observe people talking in a civil, respectful manner because if you are on social media, listening to television or watching the politicians, you think holy cow, I am really concerned."

Farmington Library branch manager Barb Svoboda reported eight people turned out for the Better Angels skills workshop in October.

"We are really trying to understand and figure out how to have a more productive conversation, and at the skills workshop they are giving us the tools to set a tone that is a little bit better for conversations that are difficult," Svoboda said. "The workshops offer suggestions on how to start conversations, de-escalate when things are starting to feel tense, and ways to listen."