Minneapolis consultant sees Living Room Conversations as a way to rebuild respectful discourse

Original Publication: Star Tribune

By GAIL ROSENBLUM

Jessica Shryack grew up in a “liberal Minneapolis bubble,” but she busted through it pretty quickly. By high school, she already was playing “devil’s advocate,” seeking out conservative points of view, including those in her own family. Today, Shryack has pulled about 1,000 people out of their bubbles as a local facilitator for the national nonprofit Living Room Conversations (LRC). Founded in California in 2010, LRC encourages people of all colors, ages and faiths to sit down (or Zoom) together and listen without judgment. Shryack, an organizational development consultant, talks about the importance of sharing our stories, what we learn when we talk respectfully about race, and the good kind of conflict.

Q: What’s the mission of Living Room Conversations (LRC)?

A: To get beyond polarization, you need to see each other as human beings in the deepest sense. Every one of us succumbs to surrounding ourselves with people who agree with us and who won’t challenge us. It’s too easy to live in our small groups and individual identities. I love seeing both sides.

Q: Do LRCs follow a structure or is it more organic?

A: There’s definitely a structure. We start with introductions, then each participant talks about something personal. Only then do we move to the topic at hand. And all of that is done after having read through the conversation agreement.

Q: Oh, a conversation agreement?

A: The agreements are more of a ground-setting than something formal. After you say who you are, where you live and what drew you to the conversation, you read the agreement which, in part, asks participants to be curious and listen to understand, show respect, suspend judgment … Right after George Floyd was killed, we did an online LRC on police-community relations. Sixty people signed up in less than 24 hours. They work because everyone reads the agreement.

Q: Why tell a story about yourself?

A: Stories about ourselves are more complicated than we probably let on. Telling them makes you a bit more vulnerable and presents the three-dimensionality of yourself to others and to yourself. You want to hear other people’s stories because you realize this isn’t easy.

Q: And there might be a breakthrough?

A: I once described how my family of origin comes from small, really insulated, towns and they probably don’t know anyone who isn’t white. I had a friend who shared that she lived in an insulated Black community in Florida with some stereotypes about white people. She told me, “Here’s what we call white people sometimes.” She let me in on some secrets. Through sharing, and discovering our similar religious faiths, we learned we have so much more in common.

Q: But are you preaching to the choir? How do you get to those who might most benefit from a LRC?

A: We all need to be in the living room because we all have people that we lump into buckets, like “entitled white guy” or “bleeding-heart liberal.” One woman who participated in three conversations said it made her a different and better person. It’s not always like that and some people have a less-than-ideal experience, but most people really enjoy it.

Q: Despite our collective Zoom fatigue, you’ve said that virtual LRCs have advantages.

A: Yes, because people can participate from anywhere in the country. I met my friend Quaiser Abdullah, a Muslim imam from Philadelphia, in an LRC and interestingly, he and I have so much in common! I would never have met him without LRC.

Q: When is conflict good? Are we too afraid of conflict?

A: Conflict that has a goal of connecting people more deeply is good. If you and I have a difficult conversation and we understand each other better — that’s good. Conflict that is about ego and power isn’t good. I think people are afraid of conflict going awry. But when there is a container for it, like a structured conversation, conflict may be present but it isn’t going to swamp the conversation and break whatever tenuous threads connect us.

Q: Do you think there’s a “tipping point” toward understanding?

A: According to Erica Chenoweth at Harvard Kennedy School and her colleague Maria Stephan, when 3.5% of the population takes part in a social movement, it’s likely to be successful; 3.5% of the American population is a lot of people, but 3.5% of people in Minneapolis being invited to participate in a civil dialogue is not impossible.

Q: Do you see the model expanding?

A: K-12 and higher education, and employers interested in creating genuine, deep relationships in the workplace, could take up this practice to get more divergent views and experiences into the room. People who might be reluctant to jump into a conversation with complete strangers on a difficult topic like race might participate in the practice at school or at work and hear some new stories that contradict stereotypes. Little by little, personal stories of people who live and work right next to us, people that we only know by title or demographics, change our minds about who is “in” our circle and who is “out.”

Q: How can people join an LRC?

A: There are more than 100 LRC conversation guides available and veteran facilitators to host a conversation for you or your team, your neighbors or organization. Go to livingroomconversations.org.

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