A Novel Experience in Zebulon, Georgia, recently invited customers to take part in a post-election conversation using guidelines from Living Room Conversations, a website that offers resources for hosting civil discussions on difficult topics.
Owned by Chris Curry, Karen Lacey, and Susan Formby, A Novel Experience is located in a town of 1,200 people in an electoral district that went 83 percent for Donald Trump, and, as was common at many bookstores across the U.S., the 2016 election was a frequent topic of conversation among customers.
“Even before the election we had incredible conversations over the counter at the bookstore, and we realized that people really wanted to talk about the election and its aftermath,” said Curry. “We thought that as the bookstore in our small community, we could facilitate that.”
In the months after the election, Lacey discovered Living Room Conversations (LRC), a nonprofit organization founded in 2010 with a focus on revitalizing civil discourse. The LRC website offers instructions for having civilized discussions about such complex topics as war and peace, culture and society, finance and money, media and entertainment, politics and government, and religion and faith in a way that results in increased understanding of the various issues, allowing new relationships to form, and clearing a path toward collaborative and inclusive problem-solving.
For the first in a planned series of Living Room Conversations, A Novel Experience chose the topic “The Election Is Over …What’s Next?”
Curry, who moderated the conversation, is a former psychotherapist and has been facilitating therapy group discussions for more than 30 years, but, she said, LRC is designed so that it doesn’t take any special skills to run a group.
“If you can run a bookstore, you can run one of these conversations,” Curry said. “All I did was take the template that they offered on the website for this particular subject and adapt it into a one-pager for the store with our logo on it. It was then sent out to people, who were asked to RSVP.”
For its inaugural conversation, A Novel Experience limited the event to 12 people, since LRC suggests that groups remain small, but there was a sizeable waiting list, Curry said. The breakdown of the group was divided evenly down the political spectrum — half conservatives, half liberals. All participants were white, ranging in age from their 40s to 60s, and the gender makeup was half men, half women. Before the next discussion, Curry, who would like to host a more racially diverse group, plans to reach out to the local black community.
“The conversation was civil, fun, and at times serious,” said Curry. “Everyone left feeling very optimistic and that our community has a lot of commonalties and a lot of common values, even though we have a wide range of political views.”
To ensure that the conversation was politically balanced, Curry said A Novel Experience made a special effort to reach out to the more conservative members of the community.
“We were thinking that we wouldn’t have trouble getting conservative folks but we did at first, so we made an effort to reach out through our customers,” said Curry, adding that the conversation ended up branching off into a range of related topics, including public health, welfare, public education, the role of America in the world, the refugee crisis, and immigration.
Though people started out a little gingerly, by the end of the conversation everyone was interacting heartily and making eye contact; at no time were there any mean-spirited personal attacks, Curry said.
“The neat thing about Living Room Conversations is, the nature of the questions does not invite dissertations because they are very personal,” she said. “The first questions are: What are your values? Why did you want to come to this discussion? So it took it out of the realm of people making speeches. I think all the questions are set up so that no one comes and presents a diatribe. They were very thoughtful. We ended up touching on different subjects within the big topic, and people were very thoughtful and very personal about it.”
Curry said she actually had to call time on the discussion at the end of the two hours. Guests were then treated to apple pie, and many stayed around for another half hour just to talk among themselves.
The next Living Room Conversation at A Novel Experience — this time on the topic of the media — is scheduled for Sunday, March 5, with a new conversation planned for every month thereafter, said Curry. Before the discussion, the store is asking those who sign up to consult at least four different media sources, from Breitbart to NPR, to fuel the conversation.
A list of questions, a feedback form, and conversation guidelines for “The Election Is Over…What’s Next?” are available, along with resources on a wide range of other topics, on the Living Room Conversations website.