Sedona’s Living Room Conversations Project

SEDONA'S LIVING ROOM CONVERSATIONS PROJECT
a blog post by Paul Friedman, Ph.D.

I am a long-term believer in the value of dialogue. I was on the Communication Studies faculty at the University of Kansas for 35 years. Nearly 10 years ago, I retired and moved to Sedona, Arizona, a town with about 10,000 residents, nestled in an attractive locale, which attracts many tourists and retirees. There, I coordinate a free community mediation center and am active in a local, member-run, adult education program (OLLI--the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute), among other volunteer activities that engage my communication values, knowledge, and skills.

I feel dismayed every fall when I see the bitterness of verbal attacks in election advertising, the news of political gridlock in Washington, DC, and acerbic comments in our local newspaper's Letters to the Editor page by supporters of the left and right. So I try to initiate something positive and constructive to enrich community transpartisan dialogue, assisted by a supportive team of like-minded Sedona residents. For example:

• In 2011, we organized a program of constructive idea-based talks modeled on the TED program (called Sedona iTalks).
• In 2012, we set up a program called Bridging Political Divides, at which leaders of the Democratic and Republican Party (speaking together for the first time ever), shared their views about hyper-partisanship in government.
• In 2013, I petitioned the Sedona City Council to join the Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR) in proclaiming Conflict Resolution Day on October 17 and led several workshops on that topic.

This year, we decided to bring Living Room Conversations (LRC) to Sedona, since its small group, in-home, warm-hearted process seemed especially well-suited to our community. We thought our neighbors would welcome being involved in a positive, enjoyable, community-building dialogue experience that would help them: a) get to know other residents better and b) talk with them respectfully about issues of common concern.

We chose to hold it during the month of October, around Conflict Resolution Day and during the usual, hyper-contentious political campaign season. We also wanted to gift Sedona with a piece of "good news" that would focus local attention on peoples' willingness to dialogue beyond partisanship. So I called to ask the LRC leaders, Joan Blades and Debilyn Molineaux, if we could declare the number of LRCs we would hold that month to be a "world record." They kindly agreed.

I began by asking several local dialogue-encouraging organizations to be co-sponsors of this event. All of them--OLLI, the Sedona Public Library, SpeakOut Sedona, and Great Decisions--agreed.

I also met with about a dozen community-leader friends to share my plans and elicit their suggestions. (They are such busy people that I chose not to ask them to serve on an on-going "Advisory Committee.")

For most people, the LRC process was unfamiliar, and, at first glance, seemed more demanding than they felt capable of handling, especially while discussing a controversial topic. omfortable trying. Therefore, during the first half of October, I offered three "try it to see if you like it" public workshops to introduce the LRC process to people. so they could "test drive" it before committing to host or attend one in a home.

I distributed handouts and fliers about the LRC project at meetings I attended, spoke to a few community groups, and submitted a press release to the local newspaper. I also emailed invitations to participate to everyone on my contact list who I thought might be interested, and I asked them to forward my letter to their own networks.

We held 10 LRCs in those public workshops (involving about 60 people). I led five of them myself. Five other groups, after my briefing, conducted LRCs on their own, without me or any other pre-designated host or leader.

An ample number of those people enjoyed the experience and volunteered to co-host or participate in at-home LRCs. We scheduled 11 of those at homes across Sedona during the last two weeks of October. Participants varied in background, beliefs, and age. They even included city officials: our incoming Mayor and three City Council members.

The in-home LRCs were organized in several different ways:
1) two people asked a friend with a different background to co-host, and the collaborated to invite the other four participants (close to the method recommended on the LRC web site),
2) two LRCs were co-hosted by a married couple who invited four varied guests to participate,
3) three pairs of people co-hosted and asked me to recruit the other four participants for their group,
4) four people offered to host a LRC in their home and wanted me to recruit a co-host and four participants, and
5) four offered to co-host, but didn't want to do it in their own home, so they were paired up with other hosts.

This variety of approaches made for quite a group organizing task

Every Living Room Conversation was unique, of course, but each shared the usual LRC ingredients: 5-7 group members, circle seating, a common purpose, dialogue guidelines focused on respectful listening, agenda questions, a rounds process, and affirmations at the end. This formula yielded a common outcome: people in every group felt pleased about having participated and believed Sedona would benefit from having more conversations like this.

Fewer people signed up to participate than I had hoped for at the start. The citizen engagement processes with which people are most familiar call for either attending a public meeting or signing on to a web site. Rarely are people asked to host a group of friends and neighbors in their own home, especially if that conversation is intended for a diverse group that will be encouraged to talk about a topic on which they are likely to disagree.

Partisan bickering in the U.S. capitol, in state houses, in the media, and on the internet has filtered down into conversations within local communities and among family and friends, turning many of them into debates and tension-producing, even alienating, arguments. To avoid this kind of experience, many residents now feel uncomfortable discussing controversial issues--they tend to avoid talking with people who might disagree. Most prefer socializing with people within their circle of trusted friends. They feel reluctant to invite unfamiliar people into the privacy of their home for a conversation that could decline into bickering. So they hesitated to risk engaging in this potentially edgy process, more easily imagining what could go wrong than what personal benefit there would be. (Clearly, the Living Room Conversation project calls for a very different kind of engagement than MoveOn.org.)

Despite varied misgivings, over 100 residents took the risk to host and to participate in LRCs, to try an unfamiliar process, to speak openly about themselves and about community issues, to listen respectfully and to inquire, even when they disagreed. I did not seek to form groups that divided along left-right lines, like the original and most prominent LRCs. I found that most participants are either independents and don't identify with either partisan position, or they don't wish to be known from the get-go for their political orientation. Therefore, I just assumed that any group of six Sedona residents would have enough variety of viewpoints to make for a lively, illuminating discussion. For the most part, this was true. However, if we do this again, although I won't seek to create groups split between conservatives and liberals, I will work harder to include a wider mix of our town's population.

Participants who gave it a try were asked to follow a set of dialogue guidelines and an agenda involving penetrating questions they all would answer. This approach felt unnatural at first. The first questions asked them to speak more frankly and deeply about their personal values than people usually do. But this phase of the LRC almost uniformly turned out to be deeply gratifying. During the personal sharing, people listened avidly and got to know each other better than typical small talk ever allows. They heard about unique learning experiences they wouldn't otherwise know.

The groups moved on to discuss community issues. Some groups chose to address a specific Sedona issue. Examples were a noise control controversy, civility during the recent political campaigns, economic inequality, trends in the town's economic development, and local implications of climate change. Others used an exercise I had prepared that asked them to identify and share the aspects of community life that are most important to them.
This topic-centered phase of the LRC process was less satisfying to some of the participants, especially those who wanted to plunge deeply into a dialogue about the most divisive left-right controversies of our time, or to accomplish something substantive at the gathering, to seek consensus, or even to decide upon a joint follow-up political action. These goals could not be achieved in the limited time period allotted for our one-time LRCs, especially with participants who hold diverse views. Decision-making was not presented as a LRC goal, but many people have task-oriented habits of mind that are not readily set aside.

Some people, on the other hand, were reluctant to sour the good will created during the personal sharing period by drilling deeper into the issues on which they differed. Since they weren't labeled as left or right at the start, they would have to choose points on which to question each other. The community-spirit valuers chose either not to go there or to probe in a tactful, congenial way.
In short, starting by getting to know each other better warmed the group atmosphere and softened the subsequent discussion. Most participants liked this softening; a few didn't.

The shift from the internal, subjective focus in the first half of the LRC to the more external, objective approach of the second half was challenging. One group, whose members were embroiled in a neighborhood controversy, was delighted with the LRC approach to personal sharing, but then found themselves slipping back into customary modes of discussing their local complaints. One of the co-hosts wrote, "It was interesting that the minute we formally finished our conversation and the guidelines that framed it, we went directly to the issues without benefit of the same listening format, and the dynamics totally changed. These are real issues that need to be discussed, but the lesson for me was how quickly the 'feel' of the conversation shifted to our frustrations. We no longer were in listening mode."

In other words, the groups moved from a topic ("Me") on which each individual is indisputably the sole expert, to an issue on which everyone had a pre-existing opinion. Their listening posture inevitably shifted from the first stage to the second, from a first-person, self-disclosure mode to a somewhat third-person, opinion-based mode. The agenda questions helped with that transition by asking them to address the community issue in as first-person a way as possible (sharing their "personal history" and "desired future" related to it. This helped sustain open-mindedness and non-contentious listening. But not every group stuck to the agenda.

An additional possible cause of some dissatisfaction regarding the discussion of controversial topics was my decision to ask people to commit only two hours to a LRC. I wanted to encourage participation by asking as little of their time as possible, and I suspected that most people think that's as long as a good conversation will last. Actually, many LRC participants in this project, when the two-hour point arrived, were quite willing to talk for a longer period of time and felt their group was breaking up sooner than they would prefer.

The in-home atmosphere added intimacy to the experience. But those who participated in the public workshops also valued it and found that the LRC approach works anywhere. All of the groups, those both in and out of homes, experienced similar positive results: stronger connections among neighbors and improved ability to deliberate on community issues.

At the end of the month, we invited all project participants to a "Celebration" of our achievement. It included sharing by participants from different groups about their LRC experience, a cake inscribed with our "record," a rough cut of a video describing the project being made by Ron Melmon of Zippo Productions, which is accessible at https://vimeo.com/111069769, a Skype conversation with Joan and Debilyn, and a short, inspiring singalong.

We wanted to provide an enjoyable and worthwhile experience during this contentious campaign season and to plant a promising seed for the future. We seem to have done both. Where do we go from here? Most participants suggested continuing and expanding LRC use in our community. Here were some suggestions:

• Hold LRCs monthly, using a consistent date and place, but change the topic and mix the groups each time.
• Hold an annual month-long LRC project and try to beat our own record each year.
• Convene LRCs spontaneously as controversies arise in town.
• Urge our local school district to use LRCs in classrooms, using our project's LRC veterans as mentors.

Participants proposed a wide range of topics for future LRCs, including solving traffic problems, increasing water conservation, reducing the cost of running for office, improving local schools, slanted media reporting, immigration reform, improving human rights, and increasing inmate re-entry programs instead of building a new jail. We are still pondering what our next steps will be. We want to keep the process going without over-burdening the people who organized this initial one-month marathon.

We hope the LRC process is now part of the Sedona community's culture. We also hope our achievement will inspire other communities around our state and nation to surpass our "21-Living-Room-Conversations-in-a-month" record. We would be happy to help them launch similar projects. I am attaching to this blog post a booklet which includes copies of several letters, handouts, press releases, and forms I created to carry out this project. I hope they will be useful as starting tools for engaging citizens elsewhere in dialogue, so they get to know each other better and discuss civilly and enjoyably the issues that concern them all. If other projects are launched, we will feel very gratified that, besides doing something worthwhile in Sedona, our actions provided leverage for disseminating civil dialogue more widely in other communities.