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Rachel Nielsen: How to Talk about Extremism with Your Friends, Family, and Colleagues

Rachel Nielsen: How to Talk about Extremism with Your Friends, Family, and Colleagues
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<v ->Hi, I’m Rachel Nielsen.</v> And I am here to talk about how to have difficult conversations around violent extremism and targeted violence. While we are getting more research and data about the different movements and groups that have been active in our nation, there’s not a lot of information out there about how to prevent acts of violent extremism to begin with. So hate crimes, aggression, intimidation, and violence that are in the name of a political or social movement or sometimes a personal grievance that is played out in a public way that hurts others. So usually friends and family members are the first people to notice that something is changing with their loved one.
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They notice behavioral changes, maybe some more intense language that people are using around things that they’re upset about. Their anger and aggression is more palpable. And so really friends, family and the people in one’s daily life and their immediate circle have the most power to influence and get people off the pathway to violence. So if you were to hear somebody hailing past attacks,
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suggesting that nothing short of violence is going to make a difference, or otherwise talking in ways that feel concerning, then we suggest that you have a conversation. And so not unlike suicide prevention, it’s important to have the conversation and not shy away from it to find out how serious a person is about acting. Whether there may be on the lighter end of involvement where some of the ideas are attractive to them versus somebody who is planning an attack and maybe collecting weapons or looking for targets.
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And so just like suicide prevention, you could have someone who is sad, sometimes just wishes they had never been born, is struggling but talking about it, that would be the space for mental health and family to circle the wagons and support that person and help them.
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However, just like in suicide prevention, if somebody is on the verge of hurting themselves or hurting someone else or committing a criminal act, then oftentimes we just have to get in there and stop them. And we need to know the difference between whether it’s a low level prevention issue versus stopping someone. So if we are going to have a difficult conversation with someone and we’re trying to figure out how bad is this, what is happening with this person? We wanna come in with a tone of curiosity. So things like, “I’ve noticed you’ve been different lately. “I was wondering what’s going on.” Or “You’ve said some things “that I’ve never heard you say before. “Could you tell me more about that?”
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Or “Is there a reason that you’re saying more about this “that you see more upset by it?” By coming in and siding with the person and trying to understand their feelings and their intentions and their motivations, and honestly just like a human connection to what is going on with them personally that works much better than trying to argue with ideology. In fact, although it’s pretty common to think that it would be helpful to try to provide opposing facts or to try to talk someone out of the way that they’re thinking or the rationale, in fact, that tends to make things worse.
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Then the person doesn’t think that you understand or they think that you’re judging them, or that you’re trying to make them change. And we don’t really have to stop someone from thinking whatever they think. We have freedom of speech in this country, and it’s one of the best things about the US. However, somebody can’t hurt another person in the name of their beliefs. So usually people who find violent extremist
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rhetoric appealing are in a bad place themselves. They need a sense of connection, purpose, belonging, identity, which are all very normal human needs. But what is going on in this person’s life that they’re not getting those needs met in more positive ways. So we wanna find out about what’s important to them, who they have in their life, what their struggles are, also what do they have that is a strength that could be used for good, something that could pull them out of that way of feeling and really give them something positive to be living for. And possibly other avenues to resolve some of the things that they’re upset about, they may have real grievances.
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It’s important to be clear about any liability that you might have. So if this is a professional contact, then be clear from the get go about your reporting duties. But really people need to be given limitations on their behavior. So be clear about your expectations. What is welcome behavior, but while maintaining this tone of wanting to support and understand the person, because they’re probably suffering below it all. Thank you for your time and reach out if you need anything answered.

In this step, Rachel Nielsen talks about why it is important to have conversations with friends and family who may be thinking about using violence as a way to address an issue. She talks about key approaches to initiating these difficult conversations. For example, Rachels suggests using a tone of curiosity and empathy to begin dialogue. She also encourages people not to debate or push back against an ideology, but rather to open up lines of communication to talk about what is going on.

Discussion What resonated with you from this segment? What tips do you think are the most valuable from Rachel’s suggestions?

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