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

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


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



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


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


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