Rosenblum: Try 'Respectful Conversations' and be thankful for empathy

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 21, 2012 - 6:29 PM

Hey, everybody! I've devised a game for all of us to play at the Thanksgiving dinner table. It's called the Respectful Conversations Game.

Wait, where did everybody go?

Allow me to explain.

You might have heard about the Respectful Conversations Project, an admirable outreach effort sponsored by the Minnesota Council of Churches. The MCC this year hosted statewide dialogues around what was certain to be a contentious topic: the marriage amendment.

The MCC trained 300 facilitators, then brought more than 1,550 people together for 54 conversations across the state, from Moorhead to Rochester to Duluth to Walker to the Twin Cities.

Results were heartening, but more on that in a minute.

Church leaders drew guidance from similar projects, primarily the Boston-based Public Conversations Project of the 1980s. With that effort, participants managed to find common ground, or at least a willingness to soften their rhetoric, on the equally visceral topic of abortion.

The objective of both efforts was not to change minds. In fact, with the Public Conversations model, "some participants dug in more deeply," said Jerad Morey, MCC program organizer.

"But, at the same time, they felt so much better about the people they disagreed with. They felt more empathy."

With Respectful Conversations, nearly everybody reported experiencing a shift in how they tackle tough topics, Morey said. They felt better about themselves and the people on the other extreme.

So why not give this a try at the Thanksgiving table? What's better than a respectful conversation with the people who matter most to us?

As writer Anthony Brandt said so eloquently: "Other things may change us, but we start and end with family."

That's almost as good as the wisdom shared by the guy behind me in the airport security line Tuesday. "Family," he said. "Valium has been ordered."

These guidelines, influenced by the Respectful Conversations effort, can be helpful whether your family's hot topic over turkey is the recent election, yoga pants, medical care, wolf hunting, violence in the Middle East or whether shopping on Thanksgiving night is smart consumerism or the end of civilized society as we know it.

Speak for yourself. Avoid grand pronouncements about entire groups of people or assuming you know their position. "When someone is sharing his own experience, it takes away the potential for argument," Morey said. "You're helping people get to know you better."

Don't try to win. That's not what this is about. Your mission is not to change the mind of that idiot brother-in-law of yours, but to try to understand where he's coming from. Which leads to ...

Listen more than you talk. "Over and over," Morey said, people in the MCC-sponsored groups reported the same thing. "I need to learn to listen better. I need to shut up."

Love your black sheep. Some husbands and wives, aunts and uncles, and even kids attended the Respectful Conversations, Morey said.

"They usually had one person in mind. They'd say, 'I'm here so I'll be able to have a good conversation with Uncle Charlie, instead of us just screaming at each other.'"

Good for you. Good for Charlie. Good for your entire complicated, adorable family which is, in fact, where we start and end.

So grab your talking points.

And your Valium.

Bon appétit.

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com • 612-673-7350

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