By Sarah Berg. Reprinted from Huffington Post.
We are living in a cultural moment in which this basic thing about what it means to be human—face-to-face conversations—feels like a fading art. And it feels urgent to recover it.
As President Obama said in his farewell speech in January, “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.”
So the simple but profound elements that make up Living Room Conversations—the same ground rules we used in Kindergarten, and questions that get at our hearts and values and personal experiences—seem to offer us a way back into meaningful conversations with each other.
A client of mine, Climate One at the Commonwealth Club, wanted to engage professionals who work on water issues in the state of California. We decided to see what would happen if we had experts who work on different aspects of water—policy, research, technology, agriculture, environment, etc.—spend time together talking not about policy, but about personal experience.
And how are we going to solve the big, meaty challenges we face if we aren’t talking? Especially when there’s piles of research to suggest that the more perspectives and voices we hear from, the better chances we have of coming up with good, new solutions. Trust is the crucial glue that connects us and allows us to hear and take in what we are seeing and saying when we talk. And understanding and compassion build trust. And the right kinds of conversations build understanding and compassion.
So we tried an experiment. We invited a wide-ranging group of 23 California leaders to spend a half-day at Climate One. There were farmers, regulators, environmentalists, scientists, policy wonks, funders, activists, journalists, and entrepreneurs, all of whom are working in their own ways to address the urgent water challenges the state faces. We didn’t select based on politics, but—being the Bay Area—there were probably a lot of liberals in the room; there were plenty of conservatives, too.
We created diverse groups of six, and each group had Living Room Conversations, sharing their hopes and fears, the experiences that have shaped their views and values about the water challenges facing our state, and talking about the problems they saw as most vital to address. Several questions prompted the group to think about ways to collaborate—such as “What’s a water challenge we could solve better together than any of us could on our own?” The groups were given basic ground rules, and asked to intentionally not go down the path of discussing specific policy issues.
While it was uncomfortable for some people used to engaging in policy discussions, it did seem to deepen understanding. In just a few hours, 2/3rds of participants felt they understood their fellow participants more, were more open to collaborating, and liked them more. In the words of one participant: “I heard many perspectives I had not heard before. I had a conversation that I would not have been able to have anywhere else.”
Looking around the room, the body language, level of engagement, and energy were far different than most professional gatherings—people were engaged, bringing their personal experiences into the conversation.
Turns out, a very simple social technology that is as old as humankind – small groups talking and listening authentically – is a potentially powerful professional tool for building the relationship foundations that are necessary for all of us to work together across differences to solve today’s thorniest problems.
Trust and compassion form the “glue” that enables us to hear new things and test what’s true and what isn’t. And the best way to build trust where it doesn’t exist is people-to-people, face-to-face. What would happen if we began to weave this kind of thing into more of our meetings, communities, and interactions?
We’re certainly seeing what happens when we don’t talk to each other.