By Mary Gaylord. Reprinted from The Huffington Post.
One of my favorite books is What Was I Scared Of? by Dr. Seuss. The story is about a person afraid of a pair of empty, quivering, pale green pants that coincidentally, are scared to death of the person... the very same person who is scared to death of the pants.
What Was I Scared Of? reminds me of the misgivings my friends had about joining me in a recent Living Room Conversation. Because they wanted to support me, they agreed to turn up at my house and face the scary pale green pants, aka the conversation. One of my friends recently wrote about the experience in her blog, I Choose the Benefit of the Doubt. We used the ground rules and structured process that Living Room Conversations provides; avoiding the “free-for-all” soapbox conversation one friend was fearing.
Some of the reasons my friends were afraid before participating in a Living Room Conversation:
- Things today are always so divisive and political that it makes me not want to have in-depth conversations with people who don’t know me and my views about the world.
- I was worried about offending people or being harshly judged by others.
- I was worried I may not stay true to how I feel on various subjects, making concessions so I would be more likable.
- I felt unsure about what I was going to say. I tend to size myself up against others feeling that they are more educated, more intellectual, more sophisticated, etc., and then I feel small.
- I am a religious person and am private about my faith and my views. It is my tendency to take things very personally and I feared this experience would be uncomfortable for me.
And on the flipside; reasons people found value after participating:
- I see great value in what Living Room Conversations is doing and the way you are doing it.
- The small group environment felt very safe.
- I love the format. I love the rules. I love the thought-provoking questions and the structure of the conversation.
- I feel closer to the people as a result of the conversation and better understand where they are coming from.
- I see more common ground and really like the people I got to experience this with.
- The experience was very informative, enjoyable and comfortable. It was great to be a part of this. It was more enjoyable than I expected and absolutely worth doing.
So, it seems that the scary pale green pants were not so scary after all! The truth of the matter is that we need to have these conversations for many reasons. There is collective wisdom and better decision-making when we come together and include a variety of voices as seen in the Jelly Bean Experiment:
“A classic demonstration of group intelligence is the jelly-beans-in-the-jar experiment, in which invariably the group’s estimate is superior to the vast majority of the individual guesses. When finance professor Jack Treynor ran the experiment in his class with a jar that held 850 beans, the group estimate was 871. Only one of the fifty-six people in the class made a better guess.”
If that doesn’t convince you to get outside of your bubble, and face the scary pale green pants, a recent research project at the University of Colorado suggests that when we only talk to like-minded people, our views get more extreme. Does anyone think we need more extremism?
I get that it’s scary to talk about things like politics, immigration, gay marriage, etc. So here’s the fix: start with a topic that’s less scary, look up the questions and process on the Living Room Conversation website and have a go at it. It only takes a couple of hours (although once you’re in it most people want it to go on for longer) and it’s fun and rewarding. The conversation format is deliberately designed to build relationship and understanding, not provoke a war of words. While Living Room Conversations provides a structure, make this process your own; bring wine, have dinner, meet at a coffee shop, try it out with your faith community, the PTA, whatever. Just start facing the scary pale green pants - they really aren’t scary at all (truth be told, they don’t really exist). Your life, your relationships, and your community will be richer because of it.
I never heard such whimpering
And I began to see
That I was just as strange to them
As they were strange to me!
I put my arm around their waist
And sat right down beside them.
I calmed them down.
Poor empty pants
With nobody inside them.
And, now, we meet quite often,
Those empty pants and I,
And we never shake or tremble,
We both smile
And we say
(Excerpted from Dr. Seuss, What Was I Scared Of? Random House, 1961)
Mary Gaylord is a Program Development Partner with Living Room Conversations, an organization committed to bringing together people with differences in a friendly, structured, conversational format. She has worked as a community mediator, victim-offender reconciliation specialist, and facilitator of bully prevention programming for school-aged children. She lives in the Rocky Mountains and is passionate about spending time outdoors with family and friends.