Our Voice: Community Conversation generates hope for civil discourse

July 23, 2013 

Seven years ago, we tried an experiment. We got a roomful of Herald readers together to talk about immigration. We were hoping for a civil outcome.

It worked, and our Community Conversation was started.

In the years since, we have discussed local issues including the future of Vista Field or racism in the Tri-Cities and broader issues such as gay marriage and global warming.

This week's conversation is inspired by the court cases involving Arlene's Flowers. The topic is: When faith and rights collide. We have every expectation that this discussion will be just as civil as our first.

Our country is full of angry voices. Shouting, name-calling and belittling have become commonly accepted forms of communication.

Sadly, this "communication" produces plenty of heat but little light.

We see it at town hall meetings and political debates. It is especially bad in online forums. Even our own tricityherald.com has policing functions to try to keep the contributors in line and the trolls offline.

At the Community Conversation, that is not the case. People are respectful, or at least they follow the rules that prevent them from being disrespectful.

Our smallest turnout was for the global warming discussion. People who had been jousting online for years using screen names actually met each other and were pleasant.

In our 20-plus events, we have only had one raised voice, which resolved quickly without much ado.

The discussion is moderated by the Dispute Resolution Center of the Tri-Cities. The moderator's presence makes a huge difference. Participants are required to address their comments to the moderator. They aren't allowed to "go after" other speakers.

Also everyone gets a chance to speak. You don't have to shout over the top of someone else for your turn to be heard.

And every person's thoughts are captured by a scribe and posted on the wall.

The conversation also is limited in size. (Sorry, tonight's event already is full, but there will be another one in a few months. Feel free to suggest a topic.)

It would be a huge stretch to expect a couple of hours of discussion to sway anyone to switch positions on the heated topics we select for Community Conversations. The people who volunteer to participate in these events typically are entrenched in their own opinions.

But it still amazes us that almost everyone comes away with a better understanding of the other side's perspective and often a grudging respect. Often opposing participants stand in the parking lot and talk way past the end of the formal conversation.

These evenings don't have any political clout. We don't make or change laws. We don't even channel the discussion. The conversation goes where the participants take it. It really does belong to the community.

But there have been groups that have used this as a springboard for creating political clout or furthering the conversation.

Our format was based off something called a Wisdom Council, which champions the idea that everyone has something of value to contribute.

Our event has been refined over the years into something quite manageable and typically insightful.

We are more than satisfied with the process and outcome.

In fact, it gives us hope.

Hope that we all can get along with people with whom we disagree. Hope that as a society we can learn to express our ideals -- and frustrations -- thoughtfully and to listen to opposing views for understanding.

We are confident that all discussions in our families, communities and nation would be more effective and result in better outcomes if we all could master, or even attempt, good listening skills.

Isn't it time for us all to have community conversations?

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