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Minnesota professor pushes for national unity, to speak next week in Cottage Grove

Whether it's someone writing from a church in Leesburg, Va., or a mayoral convention in Maryland, Bill Doherty says most of his weekly emails boil down to the same thing:

"I think there's increasing fatigue with the polarization and a hunger to find some ways past it," he said. "There's just a lot of concern out there in the country."

Since 2016, the University of Minnesota family social science professor has co-led the group Better Angels, which aims to bridge political divides in communities nationwide through workshops on civility. The group has provided more than 400 workshops across the country, including 40 in Minnesota. Next week at Cottage Grove City Hall, Doherty will speak about what he's learned since co-founding the organization and share tips for healthy political conversations.

The free, public event is hosted by the Woodbury and Cottage Grove chapter of the League of Women Voters, a national, nonpartisan group focused on informing and engaging citizens.

"I learned how perfect it would be for the league because in order to be nonpartisan, we really have to understand all sides," said Betsy Stites, who organized the event as the local chapter's vice president.

She said she asked Doherty to speak after attending several Better Angels events.

"We learned the principles of having really good conversations. And it really flows into learning how to seek information, to be able to listen with an open mind, to seek understanding," she said.

Strengthening these skills not only helps citizens connect with each other and participate in their government, Stites said, but also provides a path for political leaders to follow.

"I think we can make some huge impact if we start being good role models and demanding it from our legislators," she said.

Tips from the pro

Much of Doherty's advice centers on active listening. The first step to a productive conversation where participants walk away learning, he said, is for everyone involved to commit to not trying to convert others to their beliefs.

"Hardly anyone changes their mind about politics, but they're worried about their country. If you create the right structure, where people can listen to each other and not argue with each other, people learn that the other person on the other side is not so unreasonable," Doherty said.

Next, he says, embrace commonalities.

"If you listen first, and if you find anything — something — even if it's just, 'We agree that this is a big problem.' If you listen and agree on something in common, people are much more open to your point of view," he said.

When it comes to expressing your perspective, Doherty said to stick to "'I' statements."

"Do it with your expression of your view, rather than making what we call 'truth statements,'" he said. "'This is the case — the wall is racist' ... or 'the wall will save us.' Those are dogmatic."

In the end, it's about connecting with others — not about gaining support for your own policy views, he said.

"What we can (strive for) is if people didn't change their mind about the issue, but change their mind about each other," he added.

If you go...

What: A talk from Better Angels co-founder Bill Doherty

When: 7 p.m. Monday, April 22

Where: Cottage Grove City Hall, 12800 Ravine Parkway S.

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