Generally, when I consider online conversations, I think of stark polarization and echo chambers — people harshly judging others across differences or just connecting with those who are similar to them and re-affirming what they have to say. I was surprised by my experience of participating in an online conversation through “Living Room Conversations,” as it was neither of those things.
Instead, it was personal, it was respectful, it was nuanced, and it was patient. We delved into deep topics, such as race and religion, and primarily engaged these topics through the entry point of personal stories and life experiences. People were patient with one another, asked open and curious questions, and sought to understand the other more deeply. It was quite marvelous, especially as we were all strangers before the conversation started, and, living in very different parts of the United States, we are unlikely to cross paths again. But for 90 minutes we were a community and connected across so many forms of difference.
I was struck by the diversity of the participants in my conversation group in terms of age, race, religion, gender, employment, perspectives, geographical information and more. The We of us came from I. I was moved by the intimacy and honesty that was shared and how people stayed engaged throughout the time. As it was a video conversation, we were even given glimpses into one another’s homes and workplaces, which was one of my favorite aspects. So rarely do we see inside the homes of those we do not know, and we can glean some aspects of a person’s life just from seeing their surroundings. Time zone diversity was also present, visible in the different levels of sunlight and activities going on in different locations, as a reminder of the physical distance that separated us.
Skillful facilitation had a major impact on the experience. Being invited to speak, having someone who was watching out for group dynamics, and having intentionally phrased, open-ended discussion questions helped to put me more at ease. I was moved to see people listening carefully to one another, leaving time for silence, and asking questions guided by a desire to understand better.
It was also refreshing for me to take part in a conversation where there was not a particular agenda or action item required in the end other than to have thought about the topic and engaged with it across difference. I did feel that I wished there could be some way to follow up with my group; on the other hand, there was something special in having just that short period of time together and letting what was said be enough.
Living Room Conversations is an organization that was formed in 2010 as a “transpartisan partnership focused on revitalizing civil discourse through conversation.” They offer discussion guides for “real life” living room conversations and host many video chat conversations online. I would encourage you to take a look at their website — https://www.livingroomconversations.org/ — and sign up to take part in a conversation.