A new program creates friendships—and hope for a divided America.
Who hasn’t been affected by the divisive nature of our political discourse these days? Friends, neighbors, and family of different political persuasions won’t talk to each other about controversial issues for fear of causing offense or being shunned. Meanwhile, the national dialogue increasingly takes place within social media silos, leaving us feeling disconnected from our fellow citizens.
What’s to be done about this? According to Joan Blades, co-founder of Living Room Conversations, you can’t solve this problem by simply tuning in only to your political tribe’s messages. You need to find ways to reach out and listen to people with different viewpoints in a respectful manner.
Living Room Conversations is one way for people to not only communicate with one another about their values and viewpoints, but to find connection and learn to care about each other as people. From caring, she argues, comes the willpower to tackle our most pressing problems together.
I sat down to speak to her in her Berkeley home about how the program was formed, what it has accomplished, and where she hopes it will go.
Jill Suttie: Why did you become interested in starting this program?
Joan Blades: I started working on this because of my concerns around climate change. I live in Berkeley, and it’s a politically progressive city. But we all live on this planet, and I wanted to hear about how conservatives thought about this issue. So, I went out into the world and had these wonderful conversations with conservatives that were very formative back in 2004-2005, and all of the people in these conversations—including me—we all learned things. It changed our relationship to the topic.
JS: What did you feel that you learned from engaging in that way?
JB: I learned from conservatives about how they view the problem. For some, it was not on their radar, and it became on their radar because we had a conversation and became friends. One of these friends basically said to me, “You know, I care about you; so, I started to care about the things you care about.”
I also met people who were techno-optimists. They believed that we’re just going to figure out the solution to climate change through technology. Others had heard a very different narrative about what’s going on with climate change. And that’s part of what I learned, too: We’re all living in very separate spheres and hearing very different narratives.
By 2008 or 2009, it was much harder to have a thoughtful and curious conversation about climate with folks on the right. This inspired me to partner with a group of dialogue experts and we co-created Living Room Conversations. I started it with a conservative partner, because you’ve got to walk the walk when you do this sort of thing. Amanda Kathryn Roman, who had worked with Grover Norquist [head of Americans for Tax Reform] was a founding partner. Now she’s working with Conscious Capitalism. So, we had a full spectrum with this founding group.
An important part of these conversations is really hearing the other person fully share their story or their viewpoint. It’s about understanding, not persuasion. It’s about having a relationship. When you have six very different people—we’re talking age differences, gender differences, cultural differences; our world is not just about politics—sitting in a group talking about an issue, you have a chance to make new connections. You learn how different people see things.
JS: What are some of the basic principles of Living Room Conversations?
JB: It’s actually very simple. Two friends with different viewpoints each invite two other people for a conversation, which is structured with a certain set of agreements—basically, what you learned in kindergarten: Be respectful, take turns, be curious, take responsibility for your part of the conversation. It works great when there are conversation rules that allow you to really listen to each other and to share your deeper values. By the time you get to the topic you’ve chosen to discuss, you’re thinking, “I like this person or these people.”
We don’t recommend more than six or seven people for a conversation, because this is not a facilitated process, and one of my core goals was to have this be massively reproducible. Facilitators are great; but they become a bottleneck if you want to have tens of thousands of conversations in a week. The biggest obstacle we have now is that people don’t think they have the time to spend an hour or two just sitting and talking. They’ve gotten so busy.
JS: What kinds of topics do people talk about in Living Room Conversations?
JB: We have over 70 topics to choose from. There are ones that are particularly popular right now—like refugees and immigration. Wedge issues are hot, though there are some people that would rather not go there. In that case, people may choose to talk about money and values, or some other less polarizing topic. Those can be good conversations, too. The main goal is to get people talking with people who have different viewpoints.
Now that we’ve got video technology, we can hold Living Room Conversations with people from other parts of the country. That’s pretty cool, because getting conservatives to show up at a place like Berkeley for a conversation is difficult. If you are a conservative in this city, you don’t let people know it, and for good reason. It can be bad for you, bad for your kids, bad for your business. I’m sorry to say that; but it’s true.
JS: It seems like it would be a pretty select group of people who’d be willing to engage in this way. How do you get people to participate who otherwise wouldn’t want to listen to each other?
JB: At least one person has to decide they want to reach out. The folks you invite agree to stay within the structure and abide by the agreements. You answer from a set of questions and participants have a responsibility to listen. That lets people feel safe.
Also, you start with the personal. So, let’s say the conversation is about guns and responsibility. The conversation guide offers questions that get people to talk about their personal relationship to guns. “Where did you learn about guns?” Or “What role have guns played in your life?” To close, the conversation moves to reflection. Bottom line, because there is no right or wrong personal story, you listen and often expand your understanding of a topic.
You may or may not get a lot out of just one conversation. But there are places where people are making it a regular practice. I just recently learned about a town in Texas where thousands of people have had living room conversations. There are living room conversations as far away as East Africa. Because it’s all open-sourced and everything is available online, anyone can participate.
Of course, it doesn’t always go perfectly, but the vast majority of people find it valuable and most even find it fun. The most common mistake is that someone talks too much. And some groups just click more than others. But everybody owns the conversation, and collective ownership means that it’s up to you to get back on track as a group. Our goal is to provide the tools and then see it spread organically. If even just some relatively small percentage of the population learned how to do this, you could change the culture. You could create new expectations for how we communicate with each other In a respectful way.
JS: Do you think that living room conversations can really be effective in such a divided political climate?
JB: I’ve seen so many people that have relationships lost or harmed by politics right now. There’s a quality to our public discourse that’s angry and accusatory in a way I haven’t seen before. And somehow, we’ve got a system that is basically pushing us towards polarizing leadership.
That’s the sort of thing we can have a whole set of conversations about, though—the structure of our government. Respectful engagement becomes the door to a democracy that feels real, that feels like the government represents your values. Living Room Conversations is part of the Bridge Alliance—composed of over eighty different organizations—all working on bridging the divide, one way or another. We all bring different pieces to the ecosystem—AllSides.com, Village Square, Listen First, Essential Partners—but the main thing is convening this large group of people to listen to others talk about issues from different perspectives.
It’s a form of community building. Sometimes you find there’s common ground, too. I co-hosted a conversation with Mark Meckler, of the Tea Party Patriots, and we discovered, much to our surprise, that we were in complete agreement on a few things—like the justice system is in need of reform, there are way too many people in prisons, and the war on drugs was not a success. That allowed us to speak together in many public places, and in 2014, Living Room Conversations helped bring together a group of leaders on the right and left in Washington, D.C., to talk about justice reform. This gathering ultimately led to the formation of the Coalition for Public Safety. That organization was funded by the MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Arnolds, and the Koch brothers, by the way.
The tough thing right now is that we’re in an election season, and people are focused on winning the battle. As a founder of [the progressive organization] MoveOn, I’ve seen how the partisan swings from left to right can become a wrecking ball. I’d really like to see a progressive candidate for President that conservative friends could trust and feel good about, even if that person wasn’t their top choice, and vice versa. I think we have to get together and find a way to meet each other’s core needs. So far, I haven’t seen things getting fixed by one side overwhelming the other.
JS: How can Living Room Conversations contribute to the solution?
JB: I started on this path because I was deeply concerned about climate. I believe we can’t come up with really great approaches to solving climate issues unless we’re working collaboratively. Even if everyone in D.C. agreed today that climate is a top concern, it wouldn’t solve the problem—look at health care; look at the budget. The government is in an adversarial stance that doesn’t allow them the agility of shifting when they learn something new. We don’t have everyone’s best ideas in the mix. It’s just not a good problem-solving situation.
It’s been disturbing to me to hear people working in countries that are falling apart look at the U.S. and say we are starting to have some of the same characteristics as those countries. Our narratives are becoming increasingly separate; we don’t have shared facts. And we’re thinking that “those people” are less than in some ways. More and more progressives I know won’t talk to the other side and vice versa. The intent to have people leverage their diverse friendships with co-hosts has become less possible. People have lost relationships in the last couple years, and they don’t want to take the risk of losing or damaging their relationships more…which means they really aren’t talking to each other.
I consider LRC to be a domestic peace-building initiative. We have a project with one of my partners, John Gable, who runs All Sides—an outlet that provides news from the left, right, and center side by side. We need to have sites like that, relationships like that, to see that people on the other side are not so different from us, that we share more than we are different.
So, we’re a peace building initiative, but we’re also working on this very interpersonal human level. There’s a lot of loneliness in the U.S., and suicide rates have gone up—these are tied to one another. Many people in the U.S. feel they don’t have time to form real relationships—to be with each other in deep ways. One of the folks I met through this work, a vegan woman in the Mormon Church, told me that she had a living room conversation and loved it, not just because she got to meet new people, but because the conversation was deeper than conversations she normally has in her everyday life with friends.
People forget the importance of listening. Our work is so gratifying, because people leave living room conversations with useful conversation tools. I’ve had people say things like, “You know, I had this conversation with my dad or my nephew or a family member who thinks very differently on some topic, and this helped me to have a conversation with them.” They learn how powerful it is to listen and to ask good questions. Because when you care, it shifts everything.