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Deep Canvassing and The Power of Active Listening

By Chuck Doran and Megan Winkeler

When we train people in influence and negotiation skills, we preach the following mantra: if you want to change someone’s mind, you need to know what’s in their mind first. With the 2018 mid-term elections upon us, it’s fitting that we back up this mantra with research on the success of political canvassing techniques that promote active listening.

If you have ever been visited by a door-to-door canvasser, you probably know the traditional technique they use: read a script, ask for your vote, and move on. However, a modern technique of deep canvassing developed by David Fleischer at the Leadership LAB encourages canvassers to engage in one-on-one conversations with the intention of gaining understanding, building empathy, and finding common ground.

In his TEDx talk, Fleischer sums up the theory behind deep canvassing succinctly: “Think about the last time you changed your mind about something really important. Did it happen because someone told you to hurry up and change?” Rather than telling people what to think, deep canvassers ask questions, listen to the answers, summarize what they heard to confirm understanding, and ask follow-up questions. Then, canvassers tie the voter’s experiences with their own to build empathy and find common ground. Partnering up with two researchers from UC Berkeley, Fleischer’s deep canvassing techniques were evaluated in a randomized control trial. This research found that deep canvassing had a measurable, positive impact on reducing voters’ prejudices and affecting their opinions moving forward.

To anyone trained in mediation skills, this all sounds very familiar. In many of our own mediations, we have seen the impact documented in this research. Watching the video of a deep canvasser in action in Fleischer’s TEDx talk, the similarities of our approaches stand out:

  • Shift your purpose to one of understanding:   Before canvassers start talking about themselves or their cause, they spend time learning more about what the voter thinks and feels. They provide ample time for the voter to speak, and their follow-up questions reserve judgment and open up the conversation. Even when canvassers hear something offensive from a voter, they withhold judgment and continue to listen.
    As mediators, we adopt this mindset too. Our goal, especially at the beginning of a mediation, is to learn more about what parties care about and need. To do this, we give parties ample time and space to talk and drive the conversation so that we can focus on their specific interests and needs. We also do our best to be neutral and manage our biases, letting our judgment take a backseat while we focus on understanding a different point of view.
  • Confirm understanding and draw out interests:   Deep canvassers do more than listen. They show that they are listening by summarizing what they heard to confirm understanding. In particular, the canvasser in the TEDx video was able to identify one of the voter’s key interests in opposing transgender protections – specifically, that he finds comfort knowing that there are only men in the bathroom with him. Once the canvasser identifies the interest of comfort, two important things happen. First, the voter is visibly excited that someone understands the real concern behind his opposition. Second, the canvasser is able to focus the conversation around the voter’s specific concern, allowing them to more effectively influence the voter’s opinion.
    Similarly, one of a mediator’s most powerful tools is reframing parties’ statements to identify their interests. The has a few effects: it shows parties that the mediator really understands them, it helps parties reframe their concerns from negative to positive (“I feel uncomfortable when I think there might be women in the bathroom with me” vs. “I want to feel comfortable in private spaces”), and it redirects the conversation towards interest-based problem solving. It also allows parties to identify shared interests they might not have known they had in common – just like the canvasser was able to do in the TEDx video.
  • Ask open-ended follow-up questions:   After listening to the voter speak and reframing what they heard, deep canvassers give the voter space to continue speaking by asking another open-ended question that follows what the voter talked about. For instance, after the voter in the TEDx video describes how his love for his disabled wife helps him take care of her, the canvasser asks, “How does that make you feel?” The canvasser is opening up the conversation and providing the voter with an opportunity to continue talking about something he clearly cares about deeply.
    Mediators utilize this technique as well, asking a follow-up question that allows parties to expand upon the things they care about most. Not only have we seen the positive impact of this in practice, but it is also backed up by research as one of the best ways to build relationships with people. A question that follows up directly on what someone just told us shows that we were listening, and providing a question that requires more than a yes-or-no response lets them know that we really do want to hear more. Even when mediations do not end in agreement, parties often express gratitude to the mediator for truly listening and let us know how meaningful the experience was.

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Deep canvassing is clearly powerful, although the need for well-trained volunteers can stand in the way of campaigns effectively implementing the technique. Active listening skills aren’t learned overnight. As mediators know, improving this skill requires practice and effort in order to fully experience its benefits in your professional and personal life. Keep practicing your active listening skills by following research-backed advice, and seek to understand before you seek to be understood.


Want to learn more about active listening skills? MWI offers negotiation skills workshops as well as forty-hour mediation training focused on improving participants’ communication and influence skills. Reach out to Chuck Doran, Executive Director, for more information at 617-895-4026 or cdoran@mwi.org.

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