a horizontal rule made up of hand illustrated red and blue stars.

Just Like Us: #ListenFirst Tips for Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving! Thanksgiving is a day with turkey, stuffing, family, and—perhaps unfortunately—politics.

What should we do when politics pops up, sometimes out of nowhere? When something like a blueberry vs. cherry pie could start a debate, or when some cousin makes a remark comparing the sweet potatoes to our president’s skin color? Of course, the answer is to Listen First! But, what does that really mean for Thanksgiving?

I’d actually start by listening to what we already know about how similar we are. Just like us, the people with those different views have wants. Just like us, they have needs. And just like us, they have personal stories, filled with sorrows and regrets, but also of joys and triumphs. Just like us.

By listening to them, we can start hearing their humanity and even their character—how just like us, they take care of their kids and their family; how they’re often a good friend; or how they contribute to their community as a volunteer, a cop, a teacher, etc. Then we can listen for what conversation could be helpful. Maybe we could do something in the community together. Maybe they are curious to learn more about how the other side thinks. Or maybe it’s just best to connect on something totally different and talk about baseball, or movies, or music, or dogs – whatever. After all, there’s a lot more to life and family than politics.

It’s unfortunate that we live in a world where pies or side dishes can escalate into political battles. But remember we're dealing with not just positions but people who in many ways are just like us. They have needs and wants and stories, and they are probably just like us in that they care for those around them. With that perspective, we can really be thankful to share a meal and time with family and friends this Thanksgiving.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving! 

James Coan is a Strategic Advisor for Listen First Project

Also see: Top 10 Tips for a #ListenFirst Conversation

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What's Next U.S.? Conversation Event Brings Republicans, Democrats, Independents and others together across America to address our nation’s challenges (Press Release)

This #ListenFirstFriday—the International Day for Tolerance—National Conversation Project with its 150+ partner organizations joins civic groups around the world for global #TogetherWeSpeak campaign of conversations across divides. Domestic focus is "What's Next U.S.?" following another socially polarizing election. New conversation guides equip Americans of all stripes to richly engage.

National Conversation Project—a collaborative platform powered by 150+ partners to mainstream conversations in which all #ListenFirst to understand—is partnering with civic organizations around the world for a global #TogetherWeSpeak campaign November 16-18 around the International Day for Tolerance. Following socially polarizing midterm elections, the conversation theme in the United States is "What's Next U.S.?" encouraging Republicans, Democrats, Independents and others to come together across America to address our nation’s challenges in virtual and in-person conversations. Leading partner Living Room Conversations has created two new conversation guides for the event—What's Next U.S.? & Tolerance—and is hosting six virtual flagship conversations over this weekend.

"The tide of rising rancor and deepening division that has frayed the social fabric of the United States is not a uniquely American crisis. Personal animosity across myriad divides increasingly infects cultures around the globe," said Pearce Godwin, Executive Director of National Conversation Project and Founder of Listen First Project. "We're excited to broaden the scope of National Conversation Project this weekend as part of an international event and invite Americans of all stripes to join people around the world in taking advantage of fun, rich, and all-too-rare conversations in which we listen first to understand."

Debilyn Molineaux, Inspiration Director of National Conversation Project and Co-Founder of Living Room Conversations, adds, "Everyone in the United States has an opinion about what’s next for our country. But when we only talk with people who are like us, we become more deeply divided instead of figuring it out. The new conversation guides created by Living Room Conversations are for everyone—a way to connect across our differences and have a fun and meaningful conversation. I always learn something new—sometimes about people I’ve known for years. This event offers a little incentive to reach out, because it’s easier to do scary things when we do it all together. This weekend, let’s figure out what’s next for our country and have some fun along the way."

Describing #TogetherWeSpeak, international campaign developer CIVICUS says, "Never before has the world been so connected. And yet, as many of us look around our communities and countries, we seem increasingly divided... It's no longer enough to speak to those who already agree with us; if we want real change, we need to speak with those who don't agree with us."

Sample Questions from What's Next U.S.? & Tolerance Conversation Guides

  • What does the outcome of the midterm elections mean to you?
  • Despite partisan division, what core values do you think Americans fundamentally agree on?
  • On issues where values are aligned, what common ground solutions would you like to explore?
  • Have you had any relationships damaged by politics? How might you begin to repair them?
  • What does tolerance mean to you?
  • Is tolerance a quality you value in yourself and others? Why or why not?
  • What, if anything, causes you to be intolerant?

What is National Conversation Project & #ListenFirstFriday?

There is growing, even violent, division in communities across America. The problem is that we increasingly don't just disagree with one another. We dislike, distrust, even despise those who see the world differently. We’re withdrawing from conversations—eroding relationships and understanding—fraying our social fabric. 75% of Americans say this problem has reached a crisis level.Experts say the solution is to cultivate more positive social connections.Thankfully, 75% of Americans are willing to practice conversations across divides, and 36%—more than 100 million people—want to see a national campaign to that end. National Conversation Project—powered by 150+ organizations—is the platform for that movement.

National Conversation Project seeks to mend the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides one conversation at a time. We promote National Weeks of Conversation, #ListenFirst Fridays, and any conversation inviting people of all stripes to revitalize America together. NCP aggregates, aligns, and amplifies the efforts of more than 150 hosting partners to mainstream conversations in which we #ListenFirst to understand. www.nationalconversationproject.org #ListenFirst

Every Friday, National Conversation Project elevates the #ListenFirst spirit and practice, encouraging all to be extra intentional about positively connecting with folks they encounter on #ListenFirstFriday. Friday is a great day to foster new connections, share stories of conversations earlier in the week, and consider opportunities to #ListenFirst over the upcoming weekend. Please share stories, pictures, and video + #ListenFirstFriday, encouraging all of us to #ListenFirst to understand.

References

Weber Shandwick, Civility in America VII: The State of Civility

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

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Candidates Nationwide Commit to #ListenFirst to Understand; Comment on #ListenFirstFriday (Press Release)

Candidates NationwideIncluding Duetting Opponents in Vermont—Commit to #ListenFirst to Understand. Also Comment on #ListenFirstFriday.

Listen First Project Recognizes Cultural Influencers Who Join the #ListenFirst Movement as #ListenFirst Leaders. Dozens of Federal, State, and Local Candidates—Republican, Democrat, and Independent—Have Stepped Up to Help Mend the Frayed Fabric of America. 4 Days Before Election, Statements Support #ListenFirstFriday. 

As Election Day approaches, many political candidates—including two opponents for Vermont State House who recently made national headlines singing a duet—have joined the #ListenFirst movement alongside other cultural influencers by committing to “Listen First to understand,” earning recognition as #ListenFirst Leaders. While welcoming all candidates to join thousands of others in the growing #ListenFirst movement, Listen First Project and National Conversation Projectthe shared movement platformare strictly nonpartisan and do not endorse or campaign for any individual candidate or issue.

"Cultural influencers, especially those seeking elected office, have a special opportunity to lead in turning the tide of rising rancor and deepening division in America. We are experiencing a dark moment as a societypolitical opponents targeted with bombs, Americans slaughtered in a place of worship, people gunned down in a grocery store due to the color of their skin, all amidst another socially polarized election," said Pearce Godwin, Founder of Listen First Project and Executive Director of National Conversation Project.

"The words and actions of our civic and cultural leaders play a role in shaping attitudes, speech, and behavior among society at large," adds Godwin. "We appreciate those leaders who have made a commitment to engage with fellow Americans as human beings worth understanding rather than as enemies with bad intentions or threats to be destroyed. Their example inspires others to move from a corrosive mindset of 'us vs. them' toward 'me and you.' Revitalizing America and finally achieving its promise as 'indivisible, with liberty and justice for all' will require all of us, together."

#ListenFirst Leaders in final days of campaigns offer comments for #ListenFirstFriday

Zac Mayo & Lucy Rogers—candidates for Vermont State House who sang a duet following debate: Zac said, "I was honored to be recognized as a #ListenFirst Leader, along with my opponent. I believe strongly in mending the wounds of division and de-escalating the hyper-partisan culture we live in. The fire and fury of today doesn't lead to solutions, but instead breeds distrust and a further breakdown of our culture. My belief has always been that all voices need to be heard, regardless of which side of the aisle you are on." Lucy added, "I'm proud to have been recognized by the Listen First Project as a leader who pledges that 'I will listen first to understand.'"

Nick Thomas—Congressional candidate in CO-2: "People across the spectrum recognize that we're facing a cultural and political crisis. Surveys report that most of us see fewer things that bind Americans together today and have few or no friends from the other side. Experts warn of a 'soft civil war.' The current trend of vilifying people rather than honestly discussing positions is a disaster for our society and governance. I'm proud to champion and practice #ListenFirst. Listening first to understand others, especially those with whom we disagree, is the only way we move forward together and address the greatest issues of our time."

Cooper Nye—Congressional candidate in MI-11: "Make no mistake: Tribalism is unraveling the fabric of our free society. I signed the #ListenFirst pledge because America's greatness and our shared prosperity demand we listen first to understand one another and bridge divides now—not later."

Joe Pinion—Candidate for New York State Assembly: "We are the most connected society in the history of the world, and yet today we find ourselves more divided than ever before. In these times of great uncertainty and community upheaval, it is more important than ever to remain committed to the eternal moral quest for common ground and common purpose. I’m proud to stand with #ListenFirst and all those committed to the work required to help resolve our differences."

Ryan Watts—Congressional candidate in NC-6: "I’ve committed myself to listening to the people throughout the campaign. Our future is dependent on #ListenFirst Leaders willing to set aside party affiliation to truly represent the people."

Frank Ward—Candidate for Austin, TX City Council: "Many Americans are currently questioning whether we are and can still be a nation of the highest ideals. The #ListenFirst movement is a direct response to the frustration many are feeling about our frayed public discourse. It is a particularly American sensibility to endlessly pursue common ground. We can and must do just that. Listening first in our public discourse should be the standard, not the exception. Both the beautiful idea and reality of America continue to march on because we have always striven to appeal to ‘the better angels of our nature.’ There’s no time like the present to get back out there and engage with voters and neighbors of all political stripes and perspectives. Imagine what we could all learn if we simply listened first.”

Emmanuel Wilder—Candidate for North Carolina House: "Being a #ListenFirst leader is a responsibility. We have real problems in our society and if we are going to solve any of them, we are going to have to understand one another. That starts by listening, having a truly honest dialogue about where we are, how did we get here, and where we want to go. By encouraging others to listen first, we can bring a generational change to our society."

Karen McCormick—Congressional candidate in CO-4: "I'm running to restore government that's of, by, and for the people again. That requires listening first to the people—showing up to gain greater understanding of the issues we face. That's why it's always been my priority to build a close relationship with the people of our district."

Jamie Schoolcraft—Congressional candidate in MO-7: "A true representative should be the voice of the people, which requires listening first to them."

Former Presidents Bush and Obama have also spoken to the problem and solution. President George W. Bush has decried, “discourse degraded by casual cruelty,” observing that “argument turns too easily to animosity; disagreement escalates into dehumanization.” In opening his Foundation Summit, President Barack Obama said, “Why don't we practice what we preach and listen first.”

Other cultural influencers championing #ListenFirst include former party chairs (Donna Brazile & Michael Steele), journalists (Bret Baier), athletes (Dominique Wilkins), business leaders (Stephen M.R. Covey), activists (Susan Bro & Christian Picciolini), musicians (Peter Yarrow), mayors (Robyn Tannehill), superintendents (Dr. Catherine Edmonds), doctors (Dr. Brian Williams & Dr. Mark Goulston), and religious leaders (F. Willis Johnson & Cissie Graham Lynch).

What is National Conversation Project & #ListenFirstFriday?

There is growing, even violent, division in communities across America. The problem is that we increasingly don't just disagree with one another. We dislike, distrust, even despise those who see the world differently. We’re withdrawing from conversations—eroding relationships and understanding—fraying our social fabric. 75% of Americans say this problem has reached a crisis level. Experts say the solution is to cultivate more positive social connections. Thankfully, 75% of Americans are willing to practice conversations across divides, and 36%—more than 100 million people—want to see a national campaign to that end. National Conversation Project—powered by 150+ organizations—is the platform for that movement.

National Conversation Project seeks to mend the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides one conversation at a time. We promote National Weeks of Conversation, #ListenFirst Fridays, and any conversation inviting people of all stripes to revitalize America together. NCP aggregates, aligns, and amplifies the efforts of more than 150 hosting partners to mainstream conversations in which we #ListenFirst to understand. www.nationalconversationproject.org #ListenFirst

Every Friday, National Conversation Project elevates the #ListenFirst spirit and practice, encouraging all to be extra intentional about positively connecting with folks they encounter on #ListenFirstFriday. Friday is a great day to foster new connections, share stories of conversations earlier in the week, and consider opportunities to #ListenFirst over the upcoming weekend. Please share thoughts, pictures, and video using #ListenFirstFriday, encouraging all of us to #ListenFirst to understand.

References

Weber Shandwick, Civility in America VII: The State of Civility

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

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Pre-Election Conversations Help Mend Frayed Social Fabric (Press Release)

In Final Week Before Election Day, New Conversations for Americans of All Stripes Help Mend Frayed Social Fabric

Part of Growing #ListenFirst Movement Driven by 150+ Organizations, New Pre-Election Conversations Focus on Matching Personal Values to Votes and Keeping Family and Friends Above Politics.

Following a week in which political opponents were targeted with bombs and Americans were slaughtered in a place of worship, organizations coast to coast have joined forces on a new National Conversation Project to turn the tide of rising rancor and deepening division that 75% of Americans say has reached a crisis level.

One of the leading organizations behind National Conversation Project, Living Room Conversations, has created powerful and timely conversations for the days leading up to next week’s Midterm Elections. The two new conversation guides—Before the Election & Relationships over Politics: Connecting with Friends and Family—are designed to cut through the shrill cacophony playing on our fears and instead help us reflect with others on how our votes can best match our personal values and hopes for the future, as well as how family and friends can successfully navigate the tension of our differences and repair any relationships severed by politics.

75% of Americans say the way we interact with each other across differences has reached a crisis level, and more than 100 million people want to see a national campaign to fix it. The new, collaborative National Conversation Project—encouraging all of us to #ListenFirst to understand—is fueling that movement,” said Pearce Godwin, Executive Director of National Conversation Project and Founder of Listen First Project. “At a moment in American history when heinous violence and another socially polarized election threaten to push us to new lows, there is hope that we can turn the tide of rising rancor and deepening division by starting new conversations that bridge divides—move from 'us vs. them' toward 'me and you.' I’m thankful that change-makers such as Living Room Conversations are stepping up in this moment to create the positive social connections that we desperately need.”

Joan Blades, Co-Founder of Living Room Conversations and Moveon.org adds, “The media and politicians are too often rewarded for focusing on our differences. Citizens stepping up to restore connections locally and nationally and refocus us on our shared hopes and dreams are our best hope of creating the kind of future we all want. And, what is really wonderful is how fun and rewarding these conversations are!”

The pre-election conversation guides include questions such as:

  • What is motivating you to vote this year?
  • What or who are you casting your vote to promote? To protect?
  • What do you fear as a result of the election?
  • What do you hope for as a result of the election?
  • What are your early memories of talking politics with family or friends? What things went well?  Was there anything difficult?
  • How could you prepare yourself to listen with genuine curiosity to your family and friends?   
  • When does love supersede politics (and when does it perhaps not)?

What is National Conversation Project?

There is growing, even violent, division in communities across America. The problem is that we increasingly don't just disagree with one another. We dislike, distrust, even despise those who see the world differently. We’re withdrawing from conversations—eroding relationships and understanding—fraying our social fabric. 75% of Americans say this problem has reached a crisis level. Experts say the solution is to cultivate more positive social connections. Thankfully, 75% of Americans are willing to practice conversations across divides, and 36%—more than 100 million people—want to see a national campaign to that end. National Conversation Project—powered by 150+ organizations—is the platform for that movement.

National Conversation Project seeks to mend the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides one conversation at a time. We promote National Weeks of Conversation, #ListenFirst Fridays, and any conversation inviting people of all stripes to revitalize America together. NCP aggregates, aligns, and amplifies the efforts of more than 150 hosting partners to mainstream conversations in which we #ListenFirst to understand. www.nationalconversationproject.org #ListenFirst

References

Weber Shandwick, Civility in America VII: The State of Civility

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

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Rather Than Argue Over 'Civility,' Let’s Listen First to Understand

In the midst of last week’s National Week of Conversation, a renewed debate broke out among top political leaders including two former First Ladies over the merits of 'civility.' While I don’t use the word ‘civility’ in encouraging Listen First conversations across divides, the ‘civility’ debate hits close to home for our more than 150 #ListenFirst Coalition partner organizations who are driving the new National Conversation Project to bridge divides and mend the frayed fabric of America. 

This debate on the merits of ‘civility’—occurring between and within ideological camps—epitomizes the hyper-polarization and tribalism that has gripped American society. Increasingly, we don’t just disagree; we distrust, dislike, even despise those who see the world differently. Animosity for positions is becoming contempt for the people who hold them. Difference and disagreement are deeply personal as we both rage against and recoil from those we see as enemies across widening divides—political, racial, religious, economic, educational, generational, and more. 

We frequently find ourselves talking past those with whom we disagree, dismissing them as enemies with bad intentions, threats to be destroyed, rather than fellow Americans—human beings—worth understanding. We often make very little effort to understand people outside our many increasingly narrow camps. We’re withdrawing from conversations—eroding relationships and understanding—which threatens the foundational fabric of America, creating a cultural crisis. 75% of Americans say the way we interact with each other across differences has reached a crisis level, according to Weber Shandwick’s Civility in America survey.

Part of the challenge is that many of the words we use mean very different things to different people. ‘Civility’ is no different. There is the formal definition of the term (politeness and courtesy) and then more toxic connotations. Calls for ‘civility’ are understandably threatening to some who’ve been disproportionately silenced over time, and still today. The abstract concept of ‘civility,’ however understood, is a distraction from what we believe America needs right now—fresh conversations including all voices, not about terms or behavior but with each other, sharing our diverse perspectives, experiences, hopes, and fears.

The many organizations behind National Conversation Project are interested in encouraging a shift in attitude and behavior—beginning with ourselves—that can turn the tide of rising rancor and deepening division in this country. We humbly suggest that an effort to listen first to understand each other, especially those with whom we disagree, would move us toward a stronger and more equitable future for all—one built on relationships created by conversation. Whether in personal relationships (in which being heard and understood is part of being loved) or on the front lines of activism (where conversations can galvanize support and increase understanding of resistance), we believe listening first to understand has the power to make all of us stronger.

As experts see America “at the beginning of a soft civil war” and say the solution is “more positive social connections,” we are committed to encouraging conversations that move ‘us vs. them’ toward ‘me & you.’ All are welcome and necessary. This unprecedented collaborative effort to bridge divides won’t work if only a portion of Americans join the conversation. We recognize that for much of America’s history, many have been excluded from the conversation. That must change now.

75% of Americans say they're willing to set a good example by practicing conversations across divides, according to Weber Shandwick. 36%—more than 100 million people—want to see a national campaign promoting such conversations. That campaign is the new National Conversation Project which is promoting in-person and virtual conversations that prioritize listening first to understand on any topic during semi-annual National Weeks of Conversation, on the first Friday of each month (Listen First Fridays), and throughout the year—inviting people of all stripes to revitalize America together.

Leaders from both sides of the aisle similarly recognize the problem and solution. President George W. Bush has decried, “discourse degraded by casual cruelty,” observing that “argument turns too easily to animosity; disagreement escalates into dehumanization.” In opening his Foundation Summit, President Barack Obama said, “Why don't we practice what we preach and listen first.”

As for other national leaders, we invite them to join the many thousands of Americans who have committed to "listen first to understand." Dozens of current candidates for office—across the ideological spectrum—have signed the Listen First Pledge and are campaigning as Listen First Leaders. Other influencers championing #ListenFirst include former party chairs (Donna Brazile & Michael Steele), journalists (Bret Baier), athletes (Dominique Wilkins), business leaders (Stephen M.R. Covey), activists (Susan Bro & Christian Picciolini), musicians (Peter Yarrow), mayors (Robyn Tannehill), superintendents (Dr. Catherine Edmonds), doctors (Dr. Brian Williams), and religious leaders (F. Willis Johnson & Cissie Graham Lynch).

Revitalizing America and finally achieving its promise as “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” will require all of us, together. Let’s get started.

Pearce Godwin is Founder & CEO of Listen First Project, Executive Director of National Conversation Project, and leader of the #ListenFirst Coalition of 150+ partner organizations. He catalyzes the #ListenFirst movement to mend the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides one conversation at a time. Godwin can be reached at Pearce@ListenFirstProject.org.

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Response to the Heated Debate on ‘Civility’ (Press Release)

You may have heard about the renewed debate over 'civility' taking place among top political leaders over the last couple of days. While National Conversation Project does not use 'civility,' this discussion is highly relevant to our mission of encouraging conversations across divides. Therefore, our team has written and released the statement below. We welcome your feedback, and thank you for being part of this work. It's never been more important. -Pearce

Amidst Heated Debate on ‘Civility,’ A National Focus on Listening First to Understand Each Other

National Conversation Project and National Week of Conversation (Oct 5-13)—Driven by 100+ Partner Organizations—is Based on a Shared Commitment to #ListenFirst to Understand in Effort to Bridge Divides and Mend Frayed Fabric of America

During this National Week of Conversation, a renewed debate has erupted among public figures and commentators regarding the merits of ‘civility.’ Pearce Godwin—Executive Director of the new National Conversation Project and CEO of Listen First Project—offers the following response:

The current debate on the merits of ‘civility’—erupting between and within ideological camps—epitomizes the hyper-polarization and tribalism that has gripped American society. We frequently find ourselves talking past those with whom we disagree, dismissing them as enemies with bad intentions, threats to be destroyed, rather than fellow Americans—human beings—worth understanding. We often make very little effort to understand people outside our many increasingly narrow camps.

Part of the challenge is that many of the words we use mean very different things to different people. ‘Civility’ is no different. There is the formal definition of the term (politeness and courtesy) and then more toxic connotations. Calls for ‘civility’ are understandably threatening to some who’ve been disproportionately silenced over time, and still today. The abstract concept of ‘civility,’ however understood, is a distraction from what we believe America needs right now—fresh conversations including all voices, not about terms or behavior but with each other, sharing our diverse perspectives, experiences, hopes, and fears.

The 100+ organizations behind National Conversation Project are interested in encouraging a shift in attitude and behavior—beginning with ourselves—that can turn the tide of rising rancor and deepening division in this country. We humbly suggest that an effort to listen first to understand each other, especially those with whom we disagree, would move us toward a stronger and more equitable future for all—one built on relationships created by conversation. Whether in personal relationships (in which being heard and understood is part of being loved) or on the front lines of activism (where conversations can galvanize support and increase understanding of resistance), we believe listening first to understand has the power to make all of us stronger.

As experts see America “at the beginning of a soft civil war” and say the solution is “more positive social connections,” we are committed to encouraging conversations that move ‘us vs. them’ toward ‘me & you.’ Americans of all stripes are welcome and necessary. This unprecedented collaborative effort to bridge divides won’t work if only a portion of Americans join the conversation. We recognize that for much of America’s history, many have been excluded from the conversation. That must change now.

Leaders from both sides of the aisle similarly recognize the problem and solution. President George W. Bush has decried, “discourse degraded by casual cruelty,” observing that “argument turns too easily to animosity; disagreement escalates into dehumanization.” In opening his Foundation Summit, President Barack Obama said, “Why don't we practice what we preach and listen first.”

75% of Americans say they're willing to set a good example by practicing conversations across divides, and 36%—more than 100 million people—want to see a national campaign promoting such conversations. That campaign is National Conversation Project.

Revitalizing America and finally achieving its promise as “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” will require all of us, together. Let’s get started.

Pearce Godwin
Executive Director, National Conversation Project
CEO, Listen First Project

What is National Conversation Project?
National Conversation Project seeks to mend the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides one conversation at a time. We promote monthly conversation opportunities as well as National Weeks of Conversation inviting people of all stripes to revitalize America together. NCP aggregates, aligns, and amplifies the efforts of more than 100 hosting partners to mainstream conversations in which we #ListenFirst to understand. www.nationalconversationproject.org #ListenFirst

References

1 Bloomberg, What Democratic Rage Would Look Like
2 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
3 MarketWatch, George W. Bush decries ‘forces pulling us apart’
4 Obama Foundation, Summit Opening Session Video
5 Weber Shandwick, Civility in America VII: The State of Civility

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Why #ListenFirst

In a very simple sense, conversations boil down to speaking and listening. On one side of the equation, you have an individual who is disclosing, sharing, laying bare his soul. When we open up to another, we become vulnerable, trusting that on the other side of the equation is a person who is genuinely trying to understand our perspective. When this ideal is met, not only are conversations more productive but meaningful relationships form. As the theologian Karl Barth once said, “If I give you my time, I give you everything I have, I give you all that I am.” When we take the time to really listen to others, we are helping to build a foundation for a lasting relationship. And it is in relationships that we learn to work together, regardless of divides.

National Conversation Project wants to highlight the power of listening because of what speakers often find on the other side of the conversation equation, an adversary who seems to go to great lengths to tear us down. It has become more than simply disagreeing with opinions, something that effective listeners can do. As an excellent example of this, take the podcast, Conversations With People Who Hate Me.

In Conversations, Dylan Marron records Skype calls with people who have posted hateful messages about him on the Internet. As he explained in a Wired interview, “I wanted to put in the world an example of two people talking, without the goal of agreeing with each other, but also without the goal of shutting each other down.” Indeed, there is not much agreement that happens in the 30-minute episodes of Conversations, especially about policies or social issues. There is, however, quite a bit of opening up, especially about why each person believes what he or she believes.

The kind of change we find in Conversations involves a change of heart, a connection between two people even if they might be divided in their beliefs. In the introduction to episode four, Facts and Feelings, Dylan reminds listeners that “there is a person on the other side of the screen.” What is so amazing about this statement is that the person to whom Dylan was referring was at one point posting inflammatory personal attacks!

To humanize “people who hate me” involves a large dose of empathy, what scholars define as our ability to understand another person’s perspective, their point-of-view. Colloquially, empathy is the ability to walk a mile in another’s shoes – something that is neither literally nor figuratively possible, but something toward which good listeners strive. Good listeners suspend judgment, not to say “I know how you feel” but to ask questions and prompt extended disclosure from the other in order to get the full story. Dylan gets this full story by asking why, the kind of why that is less about “why could you do such a thing” and more about “why do you believe what you believe.”

If empathy is about a genuine curiosity of other people and the reasons behind their beliefs, acceptance is about hearing these reasons as legitimate, at least from that person’s perspective. The power of acceptance comes from being heard on our own terms, in our own language and our unique ways of seeing the world. In episode four, Dylan responds to Ann’s comment that she is nervous by saying, “Don’t be nervous. Just be you. And I’ll be me. And that’s all we can agree to.” In this way, Ann is not forced to be a stereotype or how Dylan wants her to be. Instead, she is free to be her, to open up on her own terms and be heard as a person rather than a position. Ann is accepted and thus able to be herself; and Dylan is interested in that self, to listen to Ann as she is, not as how he wants her to be.

And so the purpose of a Listen First mindset is to connect with others, not on positions per se but on a fundamentally more interpersonal level. If listening is about relationships and relationships begin with connection, then listening to connect is the first skill that NCP tries to foster. Listening to connect is about exhibiting empathy in the form of perspective taking and acceptance of the individual. Indeed, it is much easier for us to agree with a person’s position on himself than we are with his position on some controversial issue.

As Conversations illustrates, the connection we get from listening has little to do with agreement (or even agreeing to disagree). In episode 2, for instance, Dylan did not suddenly realize “being gay is a sin” after his conversation with Josh, and neither did Josh suddenly accept Dylan’s lifestyle. Both did, however, feel more understood, and both had a better understanding of the other. Each also felt accepted for who he was. When based in empathy and acceptance, conversations create powerful connections, something each person can build on if they so desire toward a deeper and more meaningful relationship. These desirable outcomes are only possible if we listen first to understand. So, #ListenFirst.

Graham Bodie, PhD is Chief Listening & Operations Officer at Listen First Project and a recognized listening expert

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April's National Week of Conversation - A Beacon of Hope

In April of this year, thousands of Americans took part in the first National Week of Conversation (NWOC). More than 130 schools, libraries, faith communities, activist groups and nonprofits hosted conversations coast to coast in 32 states. These conversations were grounded in a pledge to listen first and seek understanding. The official #ListenFirst hashtag reached millions during NWOC and continues to be promoted by celebrities and journalists to millions more. NWOC events gained media attention across the nation including in the New York Times.

Majorities of NWOC participants walked away feeling more tolerant, understanding, appreciative and curious toward people with different perspectives. Two-thirds rated the value of their conversation as a 9 or 10 out of 10. More than three-quarters now feel better equipped and more likely to listen first to understand, as well as more likely to participate in conversations across divides. A survey of all Americans found 75% willing to set a good example by practicing conversations across divides, and 36%—amounting to more than 100 million people—want to see a national campaign promoting such conversations.

Building on the tremendous success of National Week of Conversation and the momentum it generated, we are now launching an ongoing National Conversation Project to mend the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides one conversation at a time. National Conversation Project (NCP) will engage increasingly more partners and participants through synchronized monthly conversation opportunities (on or around the first Friday of each month) as well as semi-annual National Weeks of Conversation. National Conversation Project is built in the spirit of collaboration, innovation, and shared ownership. NCP will be powered and driven by a broad diversity of Americans in their communities. It’s designed as an open platform for all participants to adapt and shape to be their own. Participants and hosting partners will be welcome to use the conversation model and topic of their choice, or simply have a casual conversation, while NCP will offer tools and potential topics.

National Conversation Project seeks to mainstream conversations across divides in which we listen first to understand. NCP will invite people of all stripes to connect with one another, develop relationships, and revitalize America together.

Pearce Godwin is Executive Director of National Conversation Project and CEO of Listen First Project

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America in Crisis

The United States is facing a cultural crisis. Increasingly in America today, we don’t just disagree; we distrust, dislike, even despise those who see the world differently. Animosity for positions is becoming contempt for the people who hold them. Difference and disagreement are deeply personal as we rage against and recoil from those we see as enemies across widening divides—political, racial, religious, economic and more. Most of us see fewer things that bind Americans together today and have few or no friends from the other side. The rate of loneliness has more than doubled to nearly 50%, creating a public health epidemic. We’re withdrawing from conversations—thereby eroding relationships and understanding—which threatens the foundational fabric of America. 75% of Americans say this problem has reached a crisis level, and 56% believe it will only get worse. Our condition is rapidly deteriorating into what’s now being described as a soft civil war.

But there is hope even in today's hyper-polarized and tribal society. Experts say the solution is to cultivate more positive social connections. We can turn the tide of rising rancor and deepening division by starting new conversations that bridge divides—move from 'us vs. them' to 'me and you.' Each person who listens first to understand tips the scales toward a stronger future for our nation, one built on relationships created by conversation. This is what the new National Conversation Project is all about! I hope you'll join us. 

Pearce Godwin is Executive Director of National Conversation Project and CEO of Listen First Project

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