Grassroots Diplomacy: How to Make Dissent Stick.

Why we spend weekends seeking out Trump supporters.

The historic turnout at marches across the country and jammed congressional phone lines may give legislators the political capital to resist the Trump administration. But progressives should not be satisfied: on their own, these actions are wasted energy. Trump supporters are watching this dissent on Fox underscored by perfectly targeted spin. They view those who dissent as the enemy; all actions pass through a lens of us-versus-them.

Trump supporters can’t hear you — and you can’t hear them. This stalemate is America’s most significant obstacle. The result is a nation strenuously spinning its wheels — at protests, in petitions, on phone lines — meanwhile, the structural conditions that led to Trump’s election remain unchanged. We have to address the communication blockade with the same vigor we bring to protest because for dissent to be functional, we need discourse. Effective discourse demands intentional, energetic, immersive, and thoughtful listening.

During the summer of 2016, we — Matt and Hal, siblings living in Austin TX and Washington DC — were so confused by the rise of Trump, that we took an Amtrak trip across America. We traveled through red America and spoke to Trump voters, intent on understanding their perspective. During this trip we engaged a population of empathetic, multi-faceted Americans. There was Daisy, who didn’t want to lose her gun rights:

“We thought he (Obama) was going to take our guns away. Gun sales went through the roof around here.”

Jay, who was terrified of our national debt:

“Can we afford another war? I don’t know.”

Bert, who was pissed that the government was forcing her to pay for healthcare while she struggled financially:

“I’m making the same amount as a new hire. I’m making the same amount now that I was 7 years ago. That’s not right.”

We approached individuals with curiosity, self-reflection and without judgement, intent on understanding their points of view. This allowed us to bridge the political divide and build trust. While there were certainly differences of opinion in our conversations, those differences were outshined by an unfamiliar and refreshing ideological frankness. In each conversation, we were crafting an America where ideas could be criticized and good ideas could be improved.

Dissent without discourse is like stacking bricks without cement. Nothing holds. You can work your booty off laying bricks but without a binding agent, exertion is futile; the stack will collapse. Discourse is that binding agent. Effective discourse generates an environment of psychological safety necessary for you to hear others who similarly will be more open to hearing you. Using cement makes all your bricklaying worthwhile.

We believe a new form of activism is needed: one aimed at developing a citizenry that listens to each other. We propose a grassroots coalition of listener activists, engaging in listening as a political act.

Why is it so essential? Because effective discourse makes dissent sticky.

Five ways Listening Activism makes dissent sticky:

  1. Understand how to frame your argument through others’ beliefs. Currently, “(Americans) don’t persuade so much as we rehearse our own reasons for why we believe something,” says Rob Willer, a sociology professor at Stanford. “If you want to move conservatives on liberal issues like same-sex marriage and national health insurance, it helps to tie those arguments to conservative values like patriotism and moral purity. Likewise, if you want to move liberals on conservative issues like military spending, you’ll be more persuasive if you find a way to tie those policies to liberal moral values like equality and fairness.” We would extend this further and argue that understanding a person’s lived experience allows you to tailor your arguments more effectively, which makes them more convincing.
  2. Become a real person in the eyes of others. Human beings have a tendency to not feel empathy for abstract concepts such as ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’ Without a human reference point, the notions of conservatism and liberalism become untethered from reality. This is how the feeling of ‘them’ is created. If you become a friendly face that a person can reference, then you will buffer whoever you talk to from the dangers of diving deeper into divisive hatred. As the initiator, you will also be buffered.
  3. Model the behavior you want to see in the world. People learn through modeling the actions of others. Be an example of what political conversation could be like. You’ll act as a role model not just for your ‘side’, but for the other ‘side’ too. One by one, day by day, with each of our actions, we can build an environment for change and a more unified future.
  4. Build the trust required for deep dialogue. If you don’t trust someone, then you will never believe them. Mindful listening produces the environment needed to create the trust necessary to have a deep and respectful exchange of ideas, with the possibility of changing someone’s mind.
  5. You may be wrong. Which is dope! Through this process you may actually discover the gaps in your arguments, or be able to find common ground that doesn’t come into conflict with your moral values. Being wrong doesn’t make you a loser; it can be a moment of growth where you become a better citizen. Do you really understand Obamacare? Can you explain what the public option is without going to Wikipedia? Do you know what programs welfare includes? What should we do about the economy? Through these conversations, you will have your thoughts challenged. But if you play it right, your world view will inevitably be more complex, and your friendships more diverse.

So how do we do it? Through our daily choices we will either descend into a world built by our reaction to anger, or purposefully build a world through compassion and kindness. It starts with you, and every individual we can muster. A coalition of listener activists can serve as grassroot diplomats, engaging in listening as a political act. We can be citizens purposefully seeking difference and vigorously advocating for communication; we can knock on doors not to push a cause, but to understand the point of view of the person behind the door. It is only having conversations with our political opposites that we can begin the process of making America whole again.

Want a Guide to Listening Activism? Keep a look out, we will be publishing it very soon.

Follow us on Facebook and share in our efforts to make our democracy work at home and abroad. You can also listen to our podcast, A Foreigner at Home, to hear the stories of some of the American voters behind Trump.

Agree with us? Disagree? Need a sholder to cry on? Send us an email at

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