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The power of conversation to change minds about people seeking sanctuary

City of Sanctuary UK’s Hannah Green reflects on the power of conversation to change minds about people seeking sanctuary, to normalise compassion and to shift our culture to one that prioritises compassion, fairness and dignity for all.

One of the most powerful tools we have to make change is free and available to everyone: conversation.

If we are to build a UK that is a true place of welcome for everyone, then it is going to take all of us. Having more conversations is a simple and hugely effective way to get started…

Conversations play a crucial part in shifting public attitudes towards people seeking sanctuary. So we all need to be having a lot more of them. Right now politicians pander to divisive ideologies as they think it will win them votes, we need to create a culture where that is unacceptable. Similarly, right now the ones who shout the loudest are the ones who are heard – the voices of normal compassionate people are not being heard. What we all think isn’t unique, but if we don’t state our position, talk about why we care, then others who think the same as us will think they’re outliers rather than the norm. So we all need to be talking way more than we are.

For many people, the only stories they hear relating to people seeking sanctuary will be on the news or social media, which are often unsympathetic. So it’s up to us to actively talk about refugee rights and to actively present the alternatives of compassion and welcome.

People are not hugely trusting at the moment, but we do trust the voices of the people we know. So the small conversations we have with people can make a big impact.

There are different movements around the world who are now focusing more and more on conversations as one of the most powerful tools in changing attitudes. In fact, the biggest factor in the seismic shift in US attitudes on equal marriage was people having gay friends or family members and directly hearing their perspectives, and worldwide its been seen that children are changing their parents’ minds on climate change by simply talking about it, probably over the dinner table.

It’s clear that when done well, conversations can bridge divides. 

Polarised societies hurt everyone, so this is about making change but leading with the values of compassion and kindness – compassion and kindness directed towards everyone.

You’re not going to win everyone over. Trust your gut. If someone feels very set in their ways, leave them to it. You can roughly split society into three categories:

1) There’s the people who are engaged and care, people who are already on side.

2) There’s the people who are very opposed to asylum and are very set in their ways – these are the people we may really struggle to get on side

3) And then there’s who we call ‘the persuadable middle’, the people currently on the fence. These people probably have believed some of the hostile messaging pushed by the government but they can be swayed. These are the people we should focus our energy on.

When we come across people who push against what we’re saying, it’s worth reminding ourselves that whilst it’s tough, it’s good to have debates about these things. There are no right responses, but there are good responses. 

When talking to people who’s opinions differ from your own, don’t dismiss their concerns. It might feel frustrating, but meet them where they are rather than where you want them to be. 
Listen and try to understand where they are coming from.

A 2016 study in the journal Science, and more recently a new peer-reviewed study, have proved that by actively listening to a political opponent’s concerns, finding common humanity and essentially giving grace, it was possible to change minds and reduce bigotry. The research shows that if you want to change someone’s mind, you need to have patience with them, ask them to reflect on their life, and listen. It’s not about calling people out or labeling them a racist. This technique is called Deep Canvassing. We’re not canvassers, but the techniques apply to our contexts too.

In 2016, two US scientists showed that, remarkably, just one 10-minute conversation which is led by empathy and active listening, could reduce prejudice for at least three months – in their instance they were looking at prejudice towards transgender people. But the tools they used would work with refugee rights.

The study showed the best way to respond to bigotry was to first listen non-judgmentally. Then to ask if the person knows anyone in the affected community. If they don’t, and even if they do, they’re then asked a question like, “When was a time someone showed you compassion when you really needed it?” this question is to get them to reflect on their own experience when they might have felt something similar to the people in the marginalized community. It’s also effective to share own stories: about being an immigrant, about seeking sanctuary, about being a member of the LGBTQ community, or about just knowing people who are.

Our sense of sense is extremely malleable, so when we can find common ground with the person we are talking to, they are less likely to focus on any differences we might have.

This technique offers us a new way of dealing with people in our lives who hold prejudicial opinions – about people seeking sanctuary or anything else. That’s refreshing and useful.

We know that speaking up isn’t easy. That’s why we’ve designed the Speak Up for Sanctuary programme.

This new programme is designed to support people who may have little or no previous campaigning experience to recognise their power in making change, to speak up for refugee rights and to supercharge efforts to build welcoming and compassionate communities.

The course is perfect for people involved in City of Sanctuary groups and awarded organisations or anyone else hoping to turn their compassion into action.

The next session is on September 25th at 6pm. Register your free place now

This programme consists of a 1.5 hour webinar and a handbook jam-packed with information, resources and exercises. The webinar will include breakout rooms in order for people to share ideas and plan with other organisers and campaigners.

Join us to learn how to:

  • Counter hostile rhetoric
  • Engage with MPs and candidates
  • Mobilise your friends, family and the wider community
  • Safely challenge misinformation

Click here to download the handbook. 

If you want to harness the power of conversations to change minds about people seeking sanctuary, sign up today. I’ll be there to support you along the way!

Hannah Green is the Communications and Campaigns Manager at the City of Sanctuary UK.