A liberal and a Tea Party Patriot enter into a conversation. What happens next? A screaming match? A bitter Twitter feud?
With the proper parameters, they just might find common ground.
Six years ago, Joan Blades, a progressive political activist and co-founder of Moveon.org, and Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, sat in Blades’ living room. Instead of hurling insults at each other, they discovered that they shared similar ideas — so much so that they ended up launching the Coalition for Public Safety, i.e. the largest bipartisan group working to reform the justice system.
That meeting was part of a series that Blades co-founded in 2010 called Living Room Conversations. Today, Living Room Conversations is a California-based nonprofit that works to support civil discourse in spaces that have traditionally played host to such conversations: our living rooms.
The living room has traditionally been a place where people could gather and discuss politics and culture. With Living Room Conversations, the actual physical location is irrelevant — a “living room” might very well mean a coffee shop, park or library. And the purpose of these conversations is not to solve a problem but to try and humanize one another via thoughtful dialogue.
“The goal is to have a rich conversation where the intent is to understand and to listen, and not necessarily change somebody’s mind but to find a connection with them as a human being,” Mary Gaylord, the managing partner of Living Room Conversations, told NationSwell.
In our ever-more-connected world, many people feel that society is actually growing more disconnected, as people turn to screens instead of engaging in face-to-face interactions. Sherry Turkle, director of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self, found that people who spend more time connecting online are more isolated in their everyday lives than people who are largely unplugged. Turkle found that life online often leads to emotional disconnection, mental fatigue and loneliness. In this way, Living Room Conversations functions as a corrective to the above, providing a chance for people to connect in real life.
Living Room Conversations isn’t the first group to support such civic dialogue. Ron Gross, who joined a recent Living Room Conversation, founded Conversations New York, a local group that hosts free public gatherings. Democracy Cafe, National Conversation Project and Better Angels all have a similar goal to spark conversations and find common ground among diverse groups.
“Our country is in a crisis right now with the disconnection and the discord and the really toxic sort of way that people are lining up on sides and feeling really disconnected,” Gaylord said.
A group of six people, mostly strangers to one another, joined a Living Room Conversation on a recent Tuesday evening at the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit dedicated to building community in public spheres. The group sat around a coffee table with hummus, cookies and sparkling water, and launched into a dialogue centered on the topic “The America We Want to Be.”
“The world we live in is incredibly stressed and incredibly disconnected, even though it’s incredibly connected — digitally — but that doesn’t mean connected human-wise,” said Jay Williams, the sales and partnership head at a mediation company. That disconnection is what led him to Living Room Conversations, he said.
Each Living Room Conversation uses a conversation guide that anyone can find on the nonprofit’s open-source site. Living Room Conversations offers more than 100 guides on topics like gun violence, healthcare, tribalism and forgiveness. The nonprofit suggests finding a group of four to seven people with different backgrounds, religious beliefs, political views or perspectives to engage in a conversation.
Each meeting starts with “general value” questions, such as, “What sense of purpose guides your life?” (It’s Living Room Conversation’s version of an ice-breaker.) “These core values, it doesn’t matter where you fall in a political or racial spectrum, those are things that almost everybody cares about,” Gaylord said.
Williams said creating a positive future, one where his two children could freely travel to any part of the world, guides his life. For Chandler Simmons, a video editor, he looks to honesty and authenticity. Meg Walker, the senior vice president at Project for Public Spaces, wants to leave the world a better place than how she found it — a sentiment that the entire group agreed with.
The discussion then turned to harder-hitting questions like, how does your ideal modern America reflect its founding aspirations and past? Or what role, if any, do you experience our history playing in America today?
The group also discussed the country’s founding rhetoric around the concept of “the pursuit of happiness.” A pursuit that Morey Bean, a community architect, felt that many should reassess. “You keep hearing that there’s the pursuit of happiness, and my thing is that maybe we should stop pursuing and know that we’ve got this abundance [of happiness] right here and right now.”
Chandler Simmons, a video editor, agreed, adding that at some point, someone will suffer for the gluttony of another. “Without any awareness of where the limit is, then what can we expect? Someone at some point in some part of the planet is going to suffer if we’re pursuing happiness nonstop.”
Although conversations start in the metaphorical living room, the skills, ideas and new perspectives reverberate outside of any one dialogue.
For example, these conversations have given Gaylord the chance to practice the art of listening. With a seven-member family that bridges the political spectrum, her practice with strangers has shaped her approach to family dinners, Thanksgiving meals and holidays.
“I’ve developed the capacity to be curious and not so reactive,” Gaylord said. “I practice all those skills and then when I’m out in the world … I can bring those skills to those relationships.”
Walker, who tends to lean left politically, said her first Living Room Conversation gave her new strategies to approach conversations with her right-leaning cousins. As her family heads to a birthday dinner later this month, she said she plans to use these newfound skills.
Blades started Living Room Conversations in 2010 when she noticed her friends all held similar political beliefs. Blades, a progressive and passionate climate change advocate living in Berkeley, California, found it challenging to find people on the other side of the table. She wanted to better understand what was motivating people on the right side of the political spectrum to think and vote the way they do.
So she sought out friendships with more conservative-leaning people and had genuine conversations with them. “She decided her passion was to work in a space of building bridges between people,” Gaylord said. From there, Blades and Amanda Roman formed a bipartisan friendship and came up with the idea to create structured guides that anyone can use.
“There are enough players in this space now of bridge-building that I think a movement is forming,” Gaylord said. “It’s not about ‘kumbaya, we all have to agree,’ but it is about, ‘Hey how do we disagree but do it a little bit more agreeably.’”