When was the last time you had an enjoyable, heartfelt conversation with someone whom you disagreed with? A large crowd of 75 – representing 25 congregations in the Diocese of El Camino Real – gathered for “Living Room Conversations” at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salinas on Saturday, May 21. What they took home were tools to overcome incivility and division through listening and respectful dialogue.

Hosted by the Diocesan Partnership Commission, the conference addressed the increasing divisions within our society, across the nation, and within our communities and churches. Joan Blades, co-founder of Living Room Conversations, and Lewis Brown Griggs led conference attendees through the “ground rules” (see below). Then attendees were turned loose to engage in their own small group conversations. They were also given the materials to host living room conversations within their own churches.

In a Living Room Conversation, up to six people gather to get to know one another in a more meaningful way. Guided by a simple and sociable format, participants practice being open and curious about all perspectives, with the goal to learn from each other instead of trying to debate the topic.

The “ground rules” include the following: be curious and open to learning; show respect and suspend judgment; look for common ground and appreciate differences; be authentic, and welcome that from others; be purposeful and to the point; own and guide the conversation.

Following the conference, co-founder Joan Blades shared some thoughts about the process, the benefits to congregations, and the need for civil conversation.

What is your goal for Living Room Conversations?

“We’re trying to help people have meaningful conversations, especially around topics where they’re not comfortable.  It’s a really simple structured process where friends, often with different viewpoints, agree to ground rules about respect and listening . . . they then go thru a set of conversation rounds that start with them getting a sense of who’s in the room. So by the time they get to the third round, they like who they’re sitting with.  They’re able to hear new voices and begin to appreciate how the differences in the room might actually help them get better solutions than they otherwise would.”

What’s the benefit of learning these tools?

“We’ve been working in a world where we’ve got used to win-lose or even lose-lose outcomes . . . if we work to get all our needs met, we can come up with win-win solutions.  Even when you don’t get everything you want, you’re ready to do it, because I care about you, and vice versa. It means we get the best possible solution when we work with that connection.”

Why is the need so great today?

“We’ve seen so much bad behavior modeled in the media, and in even our leadership, that we need to start modeling the kind of behavior we want to see with each other, and having the kind of relationships that allow us to have a healthy community. This is about healing relationships. Sometimes it’s about finding common ground or figuring out new opportunities . . . it’s fun and beautiful stuff.”

What made the spring conference unique for you?

“This was the first event in a diocese. Because this has been a pilot project, I’ve tried it in political spaces and issues spaces, but this is something that is so heartfelt it belongs in faith communities. I’m overjoyed to see a faith community take it and make it their own. In this event, the committee took the Living Room Conversations and found the questions they really wanted to deal with, and they made it unique to the community. This is an open source project, so people are invited to take it and use it … all we ask is to get the feedback from the people who use it, so we can share it and this can become a better practice for everybody.”

For more information, visit the Living Room Conversations website here.