Living Room Conversations: Using Compassion and Understanding to Bridge Divides

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Think about something you’re passionate about. Now think about having a conversation with someone who has a very different opinion from yours. How are you likely to respond? Living Room Conversations is a non-profit organization that focuses on “revitalizing respectful discourse through conversation” and provides insight as well as opportunities to practice having these sorts of challenging discussions.

In late 2010, Joan Blades partnered with dialogue experts, Walt Roberts, Debilyn Molineaux, Amanda Kathryn Roman, and Heather Tischbein, to create a structured, intimate conversation format that would empower everyday citizens to discuss important issues with friends who have differing opinions and backgrounds. The theory was that if two friends with different points of view, each invited two friends to join a conversation, with full disclosure about the intent and structure of the conversation, they could create a safe space for a respectful and meaningful exchange of ideas, develop new relationships and perhaps find common ground. This was the Living Room Conversations pilot project.

In the short amount of time that I talked with Dr. Beth Raps, the Development Partner at Living Room Conversations, I learned a lot about myself. I went into the conversation interested in the organization, and while I came out with a much greater understanding, I also learned quite a bit about the importance of looking at life through a lens of curiosity, empathy, and open-mindedness.

This week (October 5-13) is the National Week of Conversation, and we encourage you to take this opportunity to practice respectful conversation and open your hearts and minds to ideas that may be different than yours.

You can find our interview with Dr. Raps below.

1. How did Living Room Conversations get started?

Beth: Living Room Conversations is a non-profit organization founded in 2010.

Major disagreement on important issues is a fact of life, but it doesn’t have to create insurmountable divides. We hope for a world in which people who have fundamental differences of opinion and backgrounds learn to work together with respect – and even joy – to realize the vibrant future we all desire for ourselves and our families. Through applying and adapting our conversational model, we hope participants will build relationships that generate understanding and enable collaborative problem-solving.

Our living room is wherever we find ourselves connecting with others.

2. Why do you believe Living Room Conversations are essential for society?

Beth:  The biggest reason is bringing people together across what they might think are immense, enormous, unbridgeable differences and letting them see that they can like and respect each other. We’ve seen it happen over and over. So often in our culture, we’re trained to see differences as unbridgeable and terrible and to think we must have to slog through this democracy of ours hating each other.

It’s pretty hard to have a participatory democracy and make progress on pressing social issues if you hate each other.  It doesn’t make any sense – it’s not a model that works. But we notice that in Living Room Conversations, people talk to each other and more importantly – they listen to each other. A Living Room Conversation is ideally six people. So when you’re talking, five other people are listening to you. And they’re not doing anything else. And each of you listens 5X more than you talk.  It’s just the right size, we feel. Too small and there’s not enough diversity, plus you kind of feel like you’re on the spot. Too big and you don’t get enough chance to listen and talk. This is one of the most important aspects of Living Room Conversations, our format.

3. How do they work? What’s the ultimate desired outcome at the end of a Conversation?

Beth: Living Room Conversations work through three rounds of questions, plus our Conversation Agreements, which you can find online. It’s not a debate. We don’t even call it “dialogue,” because dialogue implies back and forth, like you and I are doing, Kara. A Living Room Conversation is reflective, thoughtful, speaking and listening. The minimum amount of time we recommend is an hour – which in our culture is huge. But two hours is common – people barely notice 2 hours go by if they have two hours to give to a Living Room Conversation.

In the beginning, there’s an introduction (that’s part of the first Round), and then the first round is about our values, for example:  “What sense of mission, purpose or duty guides your life? What would your best friend say about you? What’s important to you about our community/country?” These are “getting to know you” questions. Round One is the same for every single one of our over 70 conversations, and the same is true of Round Three, which is the reflection round. What changes for each topic is Round Two, the topic round.

This is because you may not know the people in your Living Room Conversation. You may have signed up for one through our website via video-conference; you may be hosting it in your living room—but you might be doing it in your church or mosque or temple, your library, community center, or campus. And because you don’t know them, you may not trust the people in your Conversation at first. You may be nervous. So the initial round of conversation allows you to kind of drop all that uncertainty and just listen and think “oh, I have a lot in common with that person and that person and that person” – and you don’t try to make that happen. It just happens.

Then in the middle round – once people are more relaxed and trust each other –we talk about topics. We have topics that range from gun violence to forgiveness to personal relationships to societal relationships. There’s immense variety in our topics. Here are the topics link and every one of our Guides lays out for you a conversation in a box – Rounds One, Two, and Three for every single topic. You can even click on a downloadable PDF for each Conversation topic. It’s all free. We ask for donations  – we are totally driven by donations, but we give away everything so that it will go viral.

So the focus of our Guides is your personal experience – what do you think and how did you come to those beliefs? But it’s not that pointed, and we don’t put you on the spot. Let me just pick the very top topic on our website at this moment, Kara, and walk through it with you.

For each topic, there’s an intro paragraph that tells you where the Conversation will take you, in general. The one I clicked on is “To vote or not to vote?” Here’s the intro: “….2018 is a midterm election year, and 2014 was the lowest midterm election turnout since WWI. People are wondering what type of turnout this year will bring. What is it about voting that inspires us to participate or turn away – feeling it’s not worth our effort.  Is there some other reason? In this conversation, we will talk about what leads us to vote or not to.”

So that’s very low-pressure. Again, there’s no debate there. In that Conversation, the questions include: Are you registered to vote? What led you to that decision? What was your experience in getting registered to vote? What are citizen’s voting rights and obligations? How important was voting in your family?” We’re not making anybody wrong, and we make it clear that you can choose to answer one, some, all or none of these questions.

Round 3 is all about reflection and next steps. Again, you’re invited to answer one or more:  “What was most meaningful or valuable? What new understanding or common ground did you find? Has this” – and this is my favorite question – “Has this conversation changed your perception of anyone in the group including yourself?” I love that question! And then you’re invited to name one important thing that was accomplished. The last question is “Is there a next step you would like to take?” So “is there a next step?” is just one of many questions – we don’t expect anybody to take any particular next steps.

The point of the conversation is to have a conversation because the art of conversation needs to be reinvigorated – especially across differences and especially among people who don’t normally talk to each other.

4. Do you feel that engaging in respectful structured discourse is an impetus for personal growth?

Beth: 100,000%. It is a huge impetus for personal growth.

BEing WELL: Can you elaborate on that?

Beth: It depends on how a person wants to grow. I can’t really think of a way that isn’t helped by structured, reflective listening and speaking. You’re speaking from a very deep place. You’re listening from a very deep place, and the amount of compassion that is generated is unbelievable and it’s totally a byproduct. It just happens that that’s how we seem to be wired. Another thing is: we listen, and our minds are opened.

These Conversations help us to understand our own ideas better. They help us know what we think and why we think what we think to clarify our own positions. It’s heart-opening, and it’s also mind-clarifying.   

Respectful, structured discourse grows us politically, it grows us intellectually, and it also grows us emotionally. I’ve heard people say “I didn’t know what I thought about  ‘x’ until this Conversation.” It’s a safe space for disagreement – you don’t ever have to say to somebody “I disagree with what you’re saying,” and you don’t have to agree either – you’re just listening, and that’s part of the structure. The structure is very protective.

The other way it’s protective are the Conversation Agreements. They’re basically what you learn in kindergarten, and they are very important. Very often, participants read them out loud one by one –that’s actually how a conversation starts – so that we make these agreements with each other. They include things like: be curious and open to learning, be authentic and welcome that from others, be purposeful, own and guide the conversation, find common ground and note differences.

5. How do you define a healthy conversation?

Beth:  I can tell you personally that for me, a conversation is marked by a lot of listening.

BEing WELL: No, I definitely agree with you. Before I started talking with you I didn’t realize that Living Room Conversations were more slow and intentional – I didn’t realize that it’s not talking back and forth. It’s more about listening and trying to understand other points of view.  I thought that a Living Room Conversation would be just like a regular conversation, but that’s not the case.

Beth: No, it’s very structured, very specific. Format and agreements are truly what define us and set us apart. The thing we’re really good for is what we were just saying – opening your heart, clarifying your positions, learning why the other side feels the way they do for example. It’s about learning and trying to understand other people and where they’re coming from. Predominantly as individuals.

Living Room Conversations are much more about breaking down barriers by helping people relate to one another. Individual to individual.

The diversity is fascinating – the diversity we have is amazing. But you start to not even think in stereotypes anymore – it’s really kind of cool.

6. Do you have any tips on how to consciously engage in respectful, structured discourse around a viewpoint you don’t believe in? It seems like with our polarized society it’s easy to come across as unintentionally arrogant or condescending. How do you prevent that and disagree in a respectful, open-minded manner?

Beth: Oh, fabulous question We do have a Guide for people to have “non-Living Room Conversations” conversations – like Thanksgiving – which is the Friends and Family Conversation Guide. (The subtitle is “how to talk to your family and not kill each other.”) It’s a popular thing especially as the holidays come:  “How can we listen to each other and hold the tension of our differences?” That’s actually in the wording of the Guide.

So your question is about a conversation we find ourselves in about something we disagree about — how can we have a respectful conversation? 

Clarifying common ground, listening, and not being afraid to have your own views.

It’s hard to fake it. If you don’t necessarily respect what the other person is saying, it’s hard to pretend that you do. One thing that can help is to ask them how they got their views – what experiences led to them feeling like that? “Why” is not really a great question. It’s too short all by itself. But try: “What led to you feeling that way?”

Another tip is, to be honest with yourself. Ask yourself if you actually want to be in the conversation. Are you open to learning or are you more concerned with being right? People can tell. If your goal is to be “right,” you probably shouldn’t be in the conversation.

BEing WELL: I think that I and so many other people become so passionate about things that they believe in and it’s easy to be blinded to the other side of things and not take into consideration how other people might view things, and I think that may come across as condescending.

Beth: That’s where I love our Conversation Agreements. Be curious – ask yourself: are you really curious? Being genuinely curious makes it almost impossible to come across as condescending. I have great conversations with people I disagree with. I’m super-curious: how on earth did they get that way? Sincerely. And people usually have a reason. They have a story- it’s amazing. If you want to know – it just opens your heart, and you’re like, “Oh sure – I might be the same way if I had that experience,” you know?

7. How do you think engaging in Living Room Conversations, or healthy conversations in general, affect wellness?

Beth: I think it lowers stress so much to learn to trust across some divide that you were told was unbridgeable. It makes us feel safe. And these are basic physiological responses– when we do mindfulness meditation, when we do any kind of breathing practice, one of the first things we’re tapping into is the body’s response.  The body says “Okay, I’m safe. I can calm down now.” So the whole fight-or-flight response is replaced with feelings of stillness. Personally, Living Room Conversations make me curious, make me more open, make me less stressed and make me know my own mind better – and my gosh – I could keep going, but those are the big ones.

To join in the conversations, go to https://www.livingroomconversations.org/events/.

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