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Listening Locally: Three Conversations

Earlier this year, I participated in training through which I learned to facilitate community discussions. Our library received a related Libraries Transforming Communities: Focus on Rural and Small Libraries grant, paying for book kits and other library materials to promote healthy discussion of issues that divide us.

We’ve held three book discussions in our “Listening Locally” series, built around these three titles:

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss the Things that Really Matter by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project

Choosing Civility: the Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct by P.M. Forni of the John’s Hopkins Civility Project

This Book is NOT a Safe Space: the Unintended Harm of Political Correctness by Corinna Fales. This book was recommended by the organization “Braver Angels,” (formerly “Better Angels”) who are dedicated to encouraging honest, constructive dialog in a divided world.

I’d like to share a summary of the broad topics covered, and try to express the consensus of the group as I understand it. I invite participants in the discussions to correct me if they catch me voicing a misunderstanding! (Respectfully, of course!)

Our discussion group has been small but lively. Each session had five or six participants, with a few people who were part of all three discussions, and a few who attended one or two meetings. Through reading and discussion, participants became more aware of active listening skills and the need for understanding the perspective of others. The group agreed that there will be differences of opinion, but that respectfully agreeing to disagree on those issues allows us to continue to live peacefully in community and work together in those areas where there is disagreement.

There was strong agreement that, while there shouldn’t need to be a book about how to be civil, our society has reached a point where there is a need for people to remember or learn how to treat one another with respect. Some members really found helpful advice in a chapter which offered suggestions on how to react to criticism.

There was also general agreement that political correctness can be carried to extremes. It is good to be mindful of people’s sensitivities and triggers, and to be kind to all and aware of injustices and oppression. However, when well-meaning speech triggers attacks because people inadvertently phrase something in a way that’s not “politically correct,” meaningful dialog can be cut off. In order to bridge divisions, the group believes dialog is essential, and would like to see more emphasis on a speaker’s intent and less on the imprecise language used.

As we had these discussions, we did encounter real-world topics where there was disagreement. The group members generally handled them with respect and honesty.

The group is ready to move on from books about how to have respectful conversations. For the next few months, we plan some more varied reading and conversation.

Grant acknowledgment: “Libraries Transforming Communities: Focus on Small and Rural Libraries is an initiative of the American Library Association (ALA) in collaboration with the Association for Rural & Small Libraries (ARSL).”


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