Five Ways to Have Better Conversations About Immigration

Good suggestions, applicable more broadly than immigration and the USA:

If having a conversation about immigration with people in your life feels hard, frustrating, or scary, you’re not alone.

In recent years, the topic has become increasingly contentious and difficult. You may find that the conversation quickly transforms into a pitched debate, with each side digging in and feelings getting hurt.

After going through this experience once or twice, it’s easy to imagine why people avoid the topic altogether. Yet, as a society, we lose when a charged topic like immigration becomes off-limits or taboo and people stop exploring—and bridging—their divergent opinions. The debate drags on without a solution, with grave consequences for immigrants, their families, and the many Americans whose lives are intermingled with theirs through work and community life. As a result, it’s critically important for us to find new ways to connect and engage on the issue.

Is that possible? We can’t promise that each individual conversation will be productive, but here are five suggestions for making that outcome more likely.

1. Counter the zero-sum mindset

We often hear about the vulnerability of people who fled their home countries, which we might call the “struggle” narrative. We might also learn about the value of educated individuals to our high-tech and medical industries, which is a narrative of exceptionalism.

The trouble with both the struggle and exceptionalism narratives is that they can trigger competitiveness in the minds of many. This is because people often carry the false belief that if immigrants get more of something (safety, jobs, rights, education, etc.), then the American-born would get less of that same thing. If you believe that resources are finite and that any piece of the pie that goes to an immigrant means less for you, then you might feel threatened by immigrants.

To correct zero-sum thinking, we need an abundance mindset that allows us to explore how good immigration policies can benefit everyone living in America. What would an immigration system look like that created a win-win rather than a win-lose scenario in people’s minds? Can we tell stories and have discussions that explore shared struggles, dreams, and aspirations of everyone who calls America home, and avoid some of the pitfalls of immigrant struggle/exceptionalism narratives?

2. Tread lightly around the sacred

“Research shows that when perceived threat and social identity become involved, our policy stances can become sacralized, transforming into absolutist, moralized, non-negotiable values,” write Nichole Argo and Kate Jassin in a recent report from the American Immigration Council. “These sacred values do not operate like regular values, which can be reevaluated if one is willing to make trade-offs.”

As a result, significant numbers of Americans hold their immigration positions so tightly that they wouldn’t abandon them for any amount of money. The issue is so dear to them, in fact, that trying to negotiate around it could backfire. For some, ending the practice of family separation is sacred, while for others it’s the idea of securing a border wall. Both groups are unlikely to be persuaded otherwise.

What’s the solution to such an impasse? Knowing how sacred immigration issues have become for different groups of people helps us understand why conversations on the topic are so hard and sometimes explosive. Thus, when discussing immigration with someone, it’s important to listen carefully and try to understand what they deem sacred—and why.

For example, we can learn what is behind positions like the need for a border wall. Is it safety or security? How do we satisfy those needs? Is that a bridge to helping them understand the desire of so many to migrate to the U.S. seeking a safe place to live?  Perhaps we can connect people across these fundamental feelings and concerns. After all, who doesn’t want to feel safe?

Through this process, you might find where you have the most agreement and common ground—and from there, you can build the trust necessary for deeper and more specific policy discussions.

3. Tell binding, values-based, and emotional stories rather than cite facts

The Nobel prize–winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman says that people are not persuaded by numbers but by stories. Yet we often start with data to make the case for immigration. We cite economic data, crime data, and demographic data. We bring facts to what is a highly emotional issue for many.

This approach usually fails because the lived experiences, prior knowledge, and in-group norms (peer pressure) informing an individual’s views on immigration won’t be undone by a data set.

Rather, sharing stories of your own lived experience with the issue can produce more powerful shifts. Stories that highlight the common identities that foreign- and U.S.-born people share as parents, sports fans, foodies, and coworkers help bind people as they learn about what they have in common with each other rather than what they don’t.

Once these commonalities have surfaced, people are better able to process the facts. That’s why facts should follow, not lead, in an immigration conversation.

4. Consider who the best messengers are

There is a growing body of evidence that shows that Americans are increasingly less trusting of national leaders and more trusting of people closest to them at the community level. In fact, people are most likely to believe what their peers and family members believe. For this reason, “in-group” messengers are often the best to reach people on any topic, but particularly the hard ones.

For example, when a fellow parent, parishioner, or soccer mom shares an opinion or story, we process it differently than when we hear the opinion of a stranger or out-group member. If an in-group member tells us a personal story about an immigrant family they were close to, that might shape our thinking about interactions with immigrants. Members of our own in-groups hold more credibility and they shape our behavior, which is why in-group members can be powerful influencers of thoughts and behaviors.

In the event that a particular group is leaning anti-immigrant in their thinking and behavior, in-group moderates (people with more moderate thinking within the group) can help shift the conversation by showing that opinion is not uniform within an in-group. It’s helpful to lift up those people who share your audience’s values or identities to address immigration issues—and it’s important that we resist attempting to enlist people who don’t have the right level of credibility with our intended audience.

5. Help shift the norms in your local community

Social norms are what we perceive to be a typical or desirable behavior. While national norms exert influence, of course, there is evidence that localities can carve out their own distinct norms.

By telling stories, engaging in discussions, and acting in ways that exemplify your values and hopes for how your community should treat your foreign-born neighbors (as well as your U.S.-born neighbors), you shape the social norms in your community, which in turn may shift the views of some of its members—or influence their public-facing behavior at the very least.

Beyond the level of one-on-one conversation, it’s important to connect neighbors, both immigrant and American-born, and bring them into community with one another. Find the safe and welcoming spaces where those interactions would be the most organic and most likely to recur. They could be houses of worship, worksites, playgrounds, sports leagues, volunteer projects, food programs, job training, schools, and universities where people can come together for themselves and for the good of their community. We can build bridges and relationships through activities that leave politics behind and help us to find common ground.

While these tips for how to have productive conversations seem pretty simple, we know it’s hard to navigate contentious topics in a polarized environment. The point is to try new approaches that are more likely to get us there than what we’re doing now.

We know it’s possible. In 2018, the Kettering Foundation hosted 86 conversations about immigration in local communities across the country. The forums brought people together who agreed, disagreed, changed their minds, and challenged one another’s thinking on immigration. They were able to have respectful, nuanced conversations on a complex and emotional area of public policy.

If we can reimagine our conversations on immigration, we’ll create a new way forward on the immigration question, but we’ll also strengthen our civic bonds, increase social trust, and take one more step toward building the pluralistic democracy that we want to live in.

Source: Five Ways to Have Better Conversations About Immigration

Stopping Online Vitriol at the Roots: With the election upon us, we’re awash in misleading and angry information. Here’s what we can do.

Some useful pointers, not just applicable to the USA post-election:

America, it’s one day before a pivotal election, and we’re awash in a lot of garbage information and online vitriol. It comes from strangers on the internet, scammers in our text messagesdisreputable news organizations and even our friends and family.

Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor in the department of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University and an author on polluted information, says that all of this is making our brains go haywire.

With the U.S. election ginning up misleading information and the nonstop political discussions online wearing many of us out, I spoke to her about how we can individually and collectively fight back. Here are edited excerpts from our discussion:

You’ve written that angry conversations online and misleading information essentially short circuits our brains. How?

When our brains are overloaded, and we’re confronted constantly with upsetting or confusing information, it sends us into a state in which we’re less capable of processing information. We say things we probably shouldn’tPeople get retweet happy. It’s not productive, even when people have good intentions and think they’re helping.

How do we stop that process?

I’ve been researching how mindfulness meditation processes can help us navigate this information hellscape. When you see or read something that triggers that emotional reaction, take a moment to breathe and try to establish some emotional space. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say the critical thing you’re thinking, but you should first reflect on the most constructive thing to do next.

But we don’t tend to think that we’re the ones acting irresponsibly or irrationally. We think the people who disagree with us are irrational and irresponsible.

Most people think if they’re not setting out to do damage or don’t have hate in their hearts, then they don’t have to consider what they do. But even if we aren’t vicious ourselves, we’re still fundamentally a part of what information spreads and how.

We all affect the ecology around us. Bad actors like high-profile influencers can scar the land, but everyone else does, too. The more information pollution there is in the landscape, the less functional our democracy is. If you feel that everything is terrible and everyone lies, then people don’t want to engage in civic discourse.

This imposes a lot of personal responsibility on a problem that is much bigger than us as individuals.

Yes, individual solutions are not enough. We all can make better choices, but that means nothing if we’re not also thinking about structural, systemic reasons that we’re forced to confront bad information in the first place.

What are those structural forces? What can be done to make the information environment better at the structural level?

For us to understand how bad information travels we have to think about all the forces that contributed to it — decisions made by the internet platforms, broader capitalist forces, local and national influences. And it includes you. All of them feed into each other.

Part of the problem is that people haven’t understood how information works or recommendation algorithms of social media companies that influence why we see what we do online. If people understand, they can imagine a different world and they can fight to change the system.

I’m tempted to unplug the internet and go live in a cave. Should I?

We need to find a way to balance between evacuating from the hurricane and running toward the hurricane. If we only evacuate, we’re not doing our part as citizens, and we force people on the informational front lines to bear that burden. If we only run toward the storm, we’ll burn out.


How to find the right words for your next chat about diversity

Some useful insights that all can benefit from, including the point regarding grace and forgiveness (to which I would add humility):

In these polarized times, we need conversations that span differences within our organizations, building trust and uncovering solutions. But fear and grievances from past injustices get in the way.

In her work as a diversity and inclusion consultant, Mary-Frances Winters sees people struggling to find the right words for such chats. “It’s not that most people do not want to engage in inclusive conversations; they do not know how. They do not know what to say so as not to offend or be accused of insensitivity or worse,” she writes in her just-published book, Inclusive Conversations.

She divides those in an office into two sets: Those who have historically found themselves in dominant power (even if they never saw it that way) and those who have traditionally been subordinated and marginalized because of their identity – race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation or some other dimension of difference. We don’t normally view the organization in those terms; we’re all supposed to be on the same team. But it’s a vital description to keep in mind if you want to bridge differences.

Many people who have long been part of the dominant group fear that a slip of the tongue – one wrong word – might lead to a verbal attack or worse by colleagues and superiors. And while those in power have for a long time promised an equitable and inclusive working environment, many in the same workplace still feel excluded.

It therefore takes more than good intentions and a desire for equity to bridge those divisions. Indeed, Winters lists eight conditions necessary to allow inclusive conversations to occur: Commitment; cultural competence; brave and psychologically safe spaces; an understanding of equity and power; the ability to address fear and fragility; grace and forgiveness; trust and empathy; and belonging and inclusion.

Don’t slide by commitment too quickly. Many leaders would argue they have always had a commitment to equity, but in her 35 years as a consultant, Winters doesn’t feel we have fundamentally changed the structures and systems that either maintain or worsen the conditions for historically subordinated groups. Think through how dedicated you truly are to changing things and where that desire stems from. As well, think of how you can improve your own knowledge and understanding of the differences in culture within your workplace, so that you can be competent enough to help make change.

It’s routine to talk about the need for psychologically safe spaces for touchy conversations, but the consultant says we need to move beyond that to create brave zones, where deep truths can be expressed without fear of retribution. She argues that for dominant groups discussing race, “safety” means, “You will not make me feel uncomfortable.” But for those who have historically been marginalized, “safety” often means, “I can make you feel uncomfortable (even if that is not my intention) and you will listen without defensiveness, dismissiveness, and ‘whitesplaining,’” which Winters defines as a situation in which a white person explains to a Black person the true nature of racism. So expect in these brave spaces that there may be discomfort and discord, but everyone will feel safe enough to be brave.

Winters asks you to distinguish between equity and equality. Equality means treating everyone the same way. Equity is treating people according to what they need and deserve. That assumes some groups have historically been denied what they need due to entrenched inequitable systems. How do you achieve equity given that situation? She warns that attaining equity will involve conversations about power – not a normal or easy topic in the office.

You will also need to face up to the fear and fragility that exists these days. “Many people are afraid of talking about diversity and inclusion topics for fear they might get it wrong and not be forgiven. Acknowledging these fears is an all-important step in engaging in inclusive conversations,” the consultant says.

She urges you to literally talk to yourselves about these issues – in quiet contemplation but also out loud – as part of the self-understanding needed to then talk with others. The idea is for you in your reflection to bring unconscious thoughts into the foreground, where they can be challenged. Where are you clinging to behaviours that are inequitable?

Winters also warns that race is a dynamic in all cross-race conversations. If you are white, you need to realize the Black person you speak to is aware of that dynamic, even if they might not admit it. So if you are white, reflect: What role does my whiteness play in the conversation? How might someone with a different identity might feel?

Inclusive conversations are a beguiling concept, but they are highly challenging for managers. They require moving beyond traditional power dynamics in the office that many managers have taken for granted and benefited from. But if you aim for inclusion, such conversations are now something more you need to learn. And as with all learning, that will involve periods of incompetence before it becomes more natural. You’ll only learn by trying.