Time to boost conversations that create local and national connections

Blades is co-founder of Living Room Conversations, which organizes gatherings designed to increase understanding and reveal common ground.

Thought experiment: What if all the leaders in Washington decided tomorrow that climate change was the No. 1 issue to address? Evidence suggests this would not be as helpful as many people think. Consider health care, a No. 1 issue for decades. How does the U.S. health care system stack up? It is the most expensive in the world per capita and it isn’t even in the top 10 in terms of outcomes. The fact is, importance isn’t the determining variable for achieving success. We need to be able to work together.

Weaving the fabric of our democracy locally and nationally is a massive challenge. The people behind Living Room Conversations are meeting that challenge by offering an open-source project that can be used by mobile users at the beach as easily as in a living room or library.

Sometimes we worry that our name may confuse people. Living Room Conversations aren’t limited by location, geography or time zone. They are happening every day in churches, libraries, schools, book stores, city community centers and virtual conference spaces. These six-person, structured conversations are designed to be self-directed, easily accessible, and welcoming to a broad array of perspectives. The structure includes conversation agreements that support comfort and safety.

The intent is to make it possible for 10,000 Living Room Conversations to happen in a weekend. The purpose is to help people better understand each other, build relationships and, when possible, find common ground for agency to act together for the good of the community, the nation and the world.

Initially envisioned in 2010 as two friends with different viewpoints each inviting two friends for a conversation about a political issue, this vision has evolved with the changing dynamics of our times. We share over 80 conversation guides, reviewed by our diverse team of partners, that offer an opportunity to talk about:

  • Shared aspirations. American Creed; Politically Correct and Healthy Conversations.
  • Cultural conversations. American Culture: Melting pot or salad bowl or something else?; Women, Leadership and Power
  • Local concerns. Affordable Housing; Homelessness; Police-Community Relations
  • Faith community concerns. Politics in Faith Communitie;, Religious Freedom and Non-discrimination
  • National concerns. Free Speech; Health Care; Opioid Addiction
  • Democratic structure conversations. Money in Politics; Ranked Choice Voting; Gerrymandering.
  • Reflective conversations. Forgiveness; The Search for Purpose; Empathy; Digital Dialog.
  • Hot topics. Race and Ethnicity; Guns and Responsibility; Immigration; Climate Change.

These conversations provide a wonderful opportunity to listen deeply to people we don’t necessarily agree with. Many participants have discovered that these conversations improve their listening skills, and Living Room Conversations have become a monthly practice in numerous communities.

The sad thing is, many people are no longer comfortable inviting a friend or neighbor with a different viewpoint to co-host a conversation. We are working to overcome this obstacle by leveraging our connections to support faith communities, cities and schools talking online across the country. We will soon be able to offer a new technology, Mismatch, to help folks find a political other.

Living Room Conversations works with other bridge-building organizations around the country. What better way to scale! AllSidesVillage SquareListen FirstBridge AllianceBetter AngelsNational Conversation ProjectFairVote and American Indivisible are our partners in this work. We are better together!

It appears that people think that they can win political arguments – that they can change someone’s mind. Yet how many of us remember seeing that happen? People are much more likely to dig in or stop talking when they argue. One of my favorite conservative friends is a hypnotist. We talk about people being in a political trance. Once the talking points come out, it is pretty clear that the trance has taken hold and nobody is changing their mind about anything. The unexpectedly amazing thing is that listening is so much more powerful than attempts to persuade. When we hear someone’s experience of an issue, we tend to soften and even begin to care about what is important to our friends. That caring is a meaningful starting point.

We need everyone’s best ideas in the room. We need to be agile, learning from what we try and adapting to find the best way forward. This agility and adaptation doesn’t happen when distrust reigns and fighting is the primary engagement form.

The bottom line is that we need to talk and we need to listen. We need to care about each other and to respect each other’s perspectives. When we learn to do this, we just might begin to get on the path to addressing the big issues that we need to solve – together.