Living Room Conversations on Campus

This fall, Harvard Negotiators was excited to partner with Living Room Conversations to offer structured, facilitated dialogue sessions on the Harvard Law School campus. Harvard Negotiators is a volunteer student organization based at Harvard Law School that aims to provide opportunities for students to explore the theory and skills of negotiation, mediation, and conflict resolution. Thanks to seven enthusiastic first-year students, who hosted the conversations, and a project manager, third-year student Jennifer Garnett, the project team completed a basic training on facilitation skills and held several conversations with groups of students. The team created a detailed report describing how the conversations went, an overview of the adaptations that were made to the standard Living Room Conversations model, and some general feedback about approaching and convening Living Room Conversations on campuses. We were thrilled to have the opportunity to further the shared goal of promoting healthy, civil dialogue about important issues between people whose views differ – and to create conversations that happen too rarely, even on campuses. We invited our hosts to reflect on the experience, and their thoughts are shared below.

“I became interested in hosting a Living Room Conversation at Harvard Law School because although there is a large diversity of experiences and opinions on campus, students often find themselves only having conversations about difficult issues with students who are of the same ideology as themselves. This forms an echo chamber and students are not exposed to the wide breadth of perspectives that exist at the school. When Harvard Negotiators asked for students to partner with Living Room Conversations, I was excited to have the opportunity to host a meaningful discussion with my classmates and break down the barriers that often stop unfacilitated conversations between diverse viewpoints from occurring.
Our conversation was on Women, Leadership, and Power, and although we had a very small group of participants, the diversity of backgrounds and opinions in the room was incredible! We had students from three countries who had all had very different experiences with the topic. Since the goals and guidelines of Living Room Conversations were clear from the beginning, participants seemed to feel very comfortable sharing their stories and views as well as being genuinely interested in the perspectives of others. Although our conversation was only about an hour long (it is hard to schedule longer events for busy students) I feel that I learned more about people I see around campus every day than I do in an average month. The most rewarding moment for me as a host was when we concluded the conversation and, although it was a school night and the participants inevitably had reading and homework to get to, they all stayed around to ask each other more questions.”
-Lisa Dicker ’17 (“Women, Leadership, and Power”)

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“I got involved with the Living Room Conversation project as part of Harvard Law School’s Negotiators student practice organization. I thought it would be an interesting opportunity to expose myself to a variety of views on a topic that I was interested in (in this case, women, leadership, and power) and practice my role as a facilitator.
I think we were really lucky to have three participants with very different backgrounds, which informed their views on the issue and which they were willing to share. It would have been a different conversation had the participants been less open or of similar backgrounds. We did a truncated hour-long version of the standard Living Room Conversation, and I initially thought that an hour might be enough time to have a conversation. However, I quickly realized that you needed at least 20 minutes for the participants to open up and I really had a hard time ending the conversation as scheduled because I felt like we were just getting started. The information that the participants provided about their respective backgrounds helped the other participants get a sense of where everybody was coming from in life and the subsequent discussions built upon what the participants knew about each other. It was an incredibly informative experience, and particularly rewarding when the participants probed into each other’s backgrounds to understand their respective viewpoints and learned things about other cultures that they perhaps had never contemplated before. I am certain that everyone benefited from participating in the conversation. If someone were preparing to host a Living Room Conversation, I would encourage them to keep an open mind, and be prepared to learn some things that you might not have ever expected to learn. And time will fly by much more quickly than you think!”
-Purun Cheong ’17 (“Women, Leadership, and Power”)

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“Overall, the co-hosts were satisfied with the conversation that took place. Everyone participated in the conversation and comments were made in a respectful manner. While there were some disagreements, it was clear that people shared common ground and were genuinely interested in promoting gender equality. Also, different viewpoints were often introduced with anecdotes and specific examples, which seemed to make participants more willing to accept them as arising from differences in beliefs and experiences, rather than viewing them as rejections of others’ views.
Some of our participants suggested that having more focused questions may be helpful. While we had limited time, our topic was very general and the questions set out in the guidelines (e.g. what are your concerns for the future? what is power?) led some participants to keep introducing new ideas or moving on to different sub-topics rather than responding to each other’s comments in a focused manner. Rather than evaluating and arguing about different viewpoints, these general guidelines might lead to participants simply “throwing ideas out there.”
While having a list that is too specific may excessively limit the scope of the conversation and discourage participants from introducing some interesting issues, having a non-exhaustive list of some particular issues that participants can focus on would help guide the direction of discussions. Alternatively, the guidelines may ask the co-hosts to suggest and choose certain issues in the beginning of the conversations based on the participants’ preferences. Here are some examples of issues that came up in our conversation: “women’s representation in the government,” “women’s influence in the field of education,” “the need to respect women with more traditional gender roles,” and “how different countries improved gender equality.””
-Antoine Southern ’17, Michele Spencer ’17, and Naomi Yang ’17 (“Women, Leadership, and Power”)