Real Big Living Room Conversation at the San Diego Museum of Man

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By: Delphine Pastiaux-Murphy

Saturday, March 31st was marked on many calendars as a weekend for Passover, Easter, or simply Spring Break. It was also humankind’s first shot at a multi-table Living Room Conversations event, held at the San Diego Museum of Man in Balboa Park.

This event was the brainchild of Bogdan Matuszynski, who has been leading humankind’s work with the Living Room Conversation format since last October. For additional background on humankind’s work with Living Room Conversations, have a look at this blog post.

Following the Las Vegas shooting, Bogdan felt a deep need to do something to change the way we talk about guns in our communities, to allow the conversation to strengthen how we live together, how we explore polarizing topics such as this one, together, instead of creating more divisiveness and anger.

He invited people from his varied networks to two different small-group gatherings and decided to try the Living Room Conversation format.

From there, he and others from the humankind network organized more small-group conversations using the same format but with various topics, and we started talking about how we could support people outside of the humankind to host their own Living Room Conversations, on a topic of their choice.

Bogdan had a brilliant idea: host a larger event, with several conversations happening at the same time, that would give volunteers an experience of what it is like to facilitate a conversation with this format, without having to organize the whole event. It starts by getting a taste of it!

On that Saturday morning, 21 people attended the event at the Museum of Man, and chose the topic that was most interesting to them that day. This gave us 4 different conversations, with 4 to 7 people at each table. The topics were: Guns & Responsibility, American Culture, Talking Politics and The Opportunity Gap.

I got to experience the event in three ways. I was one of the hosts for the event, with the “big picture view”, and I was also a facilitator and participant at one of the tables, immersed in a specific conversation. Combining these vantage points, one thing I found particularly stimulating was to realize how different people’s experiences were at the various tables.

Some participants felt deeply touched by a moment of true connection with a fellow human being at the event; paradoxically, this was brought about by the mutual sharing of attendees’ unique, personal approaches and experiences with respect to a polarizing topic (and not by agreeing/disagreeing on facts or rhetoric).

Others felt stimulated and inspired, with ideas flowing as to how they could use Living Room Conversations in their own communities, incorporating the format and insights they got from the event into other events. Many of these participants volunteered to host future Living Room Conversations.

For others yet, the main backdrop was one of raised blood pressure, in spite of sharing good intentions to learn to listen and understand others’ point of view. So far, after attending three past Living Room Conversations, I have always found myself in the first headspace: marveling at the possibility of connection beyond differences.

For this Living Room Conversation, I sat at a table where the topic was Guns and Responsibility. The main feeling shared around the table was one of difficulty--specifically, how difficult it is sometimes to find common ground and relate to other people’s ideas. I learned a lot…

I learned that good intentions are absolutely necessary to get past the kind of divides that make difficult conversations difficult. However, good intentions alone are not enough. I learned that opinions have an obstinate way to creep back into our discourse, however wholeheartedly we might have agreed--just moments before--to speak from our own experiences and not from opinions. Therefore, I would add that good intentions, self-awareness, and discipline are absolutely necessary to have difficult conversations that are positive and mutually beneficial.

I learned that, sometimes, especially when the conversation has veered towards opinions and viewpoints, it may seem like feelings do not belong in the conversation. The pattern that’s most familiar to us, wired by a culture of debating and speaking from our mind rather than our hearts, comes back as the only way we know to talk about things.

And yet… as we explore new ways to be in and manage conversations, one thing becomes clear once and again: how we feel about something (especially the fears we harbor underneath our “rationale arguments”), the deep emotional roots of our current perspectives on topics are the very thing that can help others see our point of view.

If I can bring myself to connect with and then share how I actually feel about something, in a small circle of people who agreed to listen, then they can feel it too for a moment, and start valuing it. Then we go from there.

I’m so glad I came to the Museum of Man that Saturday in March and genuinely grateful to those who joined me there!