THE BLOG
12/02/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Civil Discourse And The Intentional Conversation

The outbursts over the past month by Congressman Joe Wilson, Kanye West and Serena Williams have provoked much soul-searching in the media and the public in general about the level of civility in society. There are lots of theories about how rude and inconsiderate behavior has begun to permeate both our public and private discourse. Some blame celebrity culture, while others believe it a result of the partisan political culture. While there has been a lot of finger-pointing, there have been very few constructive suggestions about improving the level of the conversation beyond platitudes like "respecting our differences" or repeating the Golden Rule.

For nearly a decade, there has been a quiet though effective effort to improve the level of conversation, albeit in a modest community way. Since 1999, a series of Intentional Conversations has brought together civic, religious, business and cultural leaders for a day of genuine conversation. The Intentional Conversations (in which I have been an active participant), begun by the Skirball Institute on American Values and now sponsored by Marymount College in Palos Verdes, California, stress communication over confrontation and exchange of ideas over argument and sloganeering. The result has been what most participants describe as a unique and memorable opportunity for real conversation - a commodity that is sorely lacking in our fast-paced, competitive and confrontational world.

What is an Intentional Conversation? Stated simply: It is a structured conversation with no purpose other than the conversation itself. Or as Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century French essayist wrote: "The most fruitful and natural exercise of our mind is conversation." Because of our hectic lives, the millions of distractions of modern life and the fallout from information overload, few of us have the time or discipline to devote ourselves to even a few hours of focused conversation. So the Intentional Conversation provides the structure - and the setting - to enjoy those few hours of conversation.

The other important element of an Intentional Conversation is that it has no stated purpose beyond the conversation itself. This is a critical component of the Intentional Conversation and what makes it different from any other gathering that comes with an agenda. We have all been to conferences which were devoted to a topic, or to solving a set of problems. While these serve a valuable purpose, they are not "conversations" in the same way as the Intentional Conversation, since their focus is on an agenda or a problem rather than on the conversation itself.

What also distinguishes the Intentional Conversations, both in theory and in practice, is the emphasis on the personal experiences of the participants. An Intentional Conversation of 80-90 participants, for example, is broken down into small groups of 8-9 people. In the first of three hour-long small group sessions, the participants introduce themselves -- their backgrounds, their experiences and often talk about their beliefs and values. In these introductory conversations, I have been struck by how little we know about our fellow human beings from first impressions - the CEO whose ambition was to run a deli, the preacher who was influenced by his convict uncle or the woman from Russia who never knew her parents.

After the first session, there is often a panel discussion around the specific theme of the day. Past themes have included everything from "Living on the Edge of Eternity: Confronting Our Mortality" to "Personal Values and Political Beliefs: Exploring the Relationship Between Our Life Experiences and Political Identification" Following the panel, there is a second small group conversation in which participants relate their personal experiences to the theme of the Intentional Conversation. In the final small group conversation, participants link their personal experiences and values to the larger, more universal scope of the theme.

What I have found is that the reflections on the theme are less important than the personal experiences that the participants share in relation to the theme. Rather than coming up with a set of "bullet points" or resolutions, the participants emerge with a sense of having experienced a genuine exchange of views and feelings -- what one commentator has called the "essential conversation" which occurs as the participants focus on conversation for its own sake. These "essential conversations" often reach a depth or scope far beyond what might have occurred within the range of a narrow agenda. Because the only boundaries are the ground rules of the conversation structure, participants are able to pursue the conversational journey wherever it leads, which is often down profound and challenging pathways. The eminent historian of religion Martin Marty has said: "Argument begins with an answer, but conversation begins with a question." I would add that the Intentional Conversations generally end with even more questions than they begin with, which after all may be the point of conversation.

So what does the Intentional Conversation experience have to say about the lack of civility in our society? How can the lessons of the Intentional Conversation provide some answers to the argumentative and confrontational tone on the airwaves, in town hall meetings and even in our own living rooms? My favorite example is not from the Intentional Conversation, but from a real world case of how to restore civility and ultimately human cooperation. A colleague of mine is often called upon to lead high-level retreats for leaders in the entertainment industry - a volatile group in a volatile industry. A few years ago, he was asked to lead a retreat for leaders in the country music industry, which was undergoing severe challenges, in part because of the bitter rivalry between the major companies and players.

After a weekend of structured conversations, in which the bitter rivals shared some of their backgrounds and personal experiences, the participants were surprised to discover that while their daily lives were consumed by the fierce competition in the industry and the profit-and-loss statements of their companies, most of them shared a love of country music, which was what brought them into the business in the first place. Once they realized their common passion for music, they formed a bond which enabled them to see beyond their petty concerns and determine to work to for the good of an industry which the loved, and which was suffering.

Ultimately, the lessons of the Intentional Conversations are that when people share their personal experiences and values, they have a much greater understanding and tolerance for each other's opinions. With very few exceptions, when people of different backgrounds, political and religious beliefs and even value systems are able to converse with each other and truly connect, bridges of communication and understanding emerge. One stark example was the dispute between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge police Sergeant Joseph Crowley that led to Gates' arrest. While there was much animosity at the time, a subsequent conversation, refereed by the President and Vice-President, evidently led to a genuine exchange and reconciliation.

While most of us don't have the benefit of participating in an Intentional Conversation or having the White House patch up our differences, we can draw a lesson from these events. The natural human curiosity that leads us to learn about our fellow human beings is the best guide when our passions threaten to get the better of us. If we think in terms of conversation rather than confrontation, exchange of ideas rather than argument, we will find our better angels there for guidance. Above all, if we see our fellow human beings for the complex and fascinating individuals they are rather than trying to mold them into caricatures, we will, without even thinking about it, elevate the level of civility all around us.