Coffee house in England of the 1600s. Here news could be had, conversation, arguments, meetings, card games, wagers made, workmen could be paid, etc. Only coffee and chocolate were served (no alcohol). Oil painting by Rita Greer. Free Art License. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Too often, activists advocate policies without really engaging or involving people. We need to find ways to lure people into involvement in social change, help them see how meaningful it is. One way to do this is to bring people together to talk.
Conversation is an overlooked strategy for social change, even though it has figured prominently throughout history: the coffee houses of 18th-century England, the salons of the French Revolution, the consciousness-raising groups of the women’s movement.
Over the years I’ve found there are three levels of conversation: the personal, the public and the political.
The personal response
Conversation involves connection and response to people in a congenial, convivial manner — making people feel welcome and appreciated. So try this: Develop the habit of “stop and chats.” Chat when you go for your walks or you’re standing in a line or sitting next to someone in a cafe. When we greet each other, we create a culture in which people feel they belong and they begin to care for others.
In a conversation, you don’t argue with people; you don’t try to convince. Just tell your story and ask others about theirs. Conversation is a barn-raising, not a battle.
Everyday personal conversations evoke the habit of response and connection — the first step in social change because people learn to turn to each other.
The public response
The next step is to build on this practice of personal conversation. Groups or organizations must bring people together in small groups to talk in greater depth about matters of substance. For instance, every time a group has a speaker, they need to follow the presentation with a small group of people talking together.
Further, you can build ongoing conversation circles. Conversation circles have three parts: exploring your own experience, exploring the cultural forces affecting us and brainstorming actions for change.
A conversation circle is cooperative and egalitarian. It helps people develop the habit of coming together, to respond with collaboration and equality. Most of all, it helps people feel connected and cared for.
Such social experiences are so important that Robert Putnam, author of “Bowling Alone,” recommends that all groups and organizations develop a “social-capital impact statement,” showing how they’re building connections and community.
The political response
Ultimately, we need a political response: marches, demonstrations and rallies — huge events that involve hundreds of people. They must be occasions of community, caring and joy. The experience of joyful community is the key to massive change.
So let’s quit having a lot of dull, boring speeches at our public meetings; ask people turn to each other and talk. Put chairs in circles; serve food. You need singing and chances for people to gather for conversation.
These protests will succeed because they build on the skills learned in daily conversations and small groups — because we have learned the habit of turning to one another. If we become committed with talking to each other, a massive outcry for change can build. In the process, we learn that we are always “better together.”
John Dewey said, “Democracy is born in conversation.” History has taught us that the biggest force for change begins when you take time to talk — it’s something we can all begin to act on now.
CECILE ANDREWS is the author of “Living Room Revolution: A Handbook for Conversation, Community and the Common Good.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.