Civic Dinners could help us learn a lesson about conversation. They might even show us how to make Thanksgiving a time of peaceful exchange. Jenn Graham, 34, can tell you, from painful personal experience with her own family, that it's not an easy lesson to learn.
In 2016, Graham, founder of Aha! Strategy, was working as a consultant for the Atlanta Regional Commission, trying to help find ways to increase feedback from millennials, when she hit on the idea of the "Common Ground" meal.
As that concept morphed into the Civic Dinner, the 2016 election reached its denouement. Enraged about the outcome, Graham posted a Facebook message that effectively exploded her family.
“It kind of took off,” she says of the post. “It made its way to all of my friends before I deleted it, but the damage had already been done. My uncle, his wife, my only living grandmother and my dad de-friended me on Facebook.”
Graham gradually mended fences with her family. Having a baby helped: They all had to come to see Little William. Also, Graham was contrite. “I ate my own words,” she said.
She invited that uncle, Richard Lysinger, whom she hadn’t spoken to in a year, to a planning meal, to help formulate ground rules for these intentional dinner parties.
Lysinger, 56, a marketing consultant living in Smyrna, said he was off-put by Graham’s personal tone in her post-election Facebook commentary, but he praised the concept of the Civic Dinner, saying the design effectively restricts ad hominem attacks.
“I’m a very opinionated person. I can have very strong opinions about politics,” he said, “but I don’t make it personal.”
The ground rules keep the conversation on topic: One person talks at a time, comments are made about one’s own experience, and participants are asked to address a small handful of open-ended questions.
An example: “What’s one worthy goal you think the majority of Americans could get behind?”
The Atlanta Regional Commission has staged 163 Civic Dinners since November 2017, engaging more than 1,000 people in dialogue. Rather than focus on national politics, the ARC investigates issues of transportation, affordable housing, livability and prosperity.
Hosts and guests sign up through the CivicDinners.com website and follow the template created by Graham.
The feedback this has provided the ARC, through surveys of participants and notes from the host, has been enormously valuable, said Elizabeth Sanford, ARC’s manager of corporate and community engagement. Guests report that the experience is valuable to them as well.
“When would you think of giving public comment to a government agency and having it be fun?” said Sanford. “Not only fun, but also meaningful?”
Political conversation has become dysfunctional on the national level, said ARC’s communications manager Paul Donsky. “That’s pushed some of the key issues down to the regional and local levels,” he added, “so it’s critically important as a region for people of varying backgrounds to talk about what they want for the region’s future.”
The template for the Civic Dinner (see below) isn’t complicated.
Can we adopt that structure for our own family meals? Or what about for Thanksgiving?
State Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, who lost to Rep. Sally Harrell in the midterms, said now is the time, and the Thanksgiving table is as good a place as any to talk of important things. "What better time than the holiday season when we talk about peace on earth and good will toward men?" he said. "We can't continue down this path of mutual destruction."
But many of us don’t want to take the risk.
A new Saint Leo University Polling Institute survey shows political rancor can ruin a Thanksgiving get-together. About one in six people surveyed said they get stressed and anxious in advance of — and during — gatherings due to heated political debates, according to the survey of 1,167 adults in October.
This same percentage of people said they have declined Thanksgiving gatherings due to a political divide. Even so, people like to talk politics. About a quarter of those surveyed said while they encourage political conversation at Thanksgiving gatherings, one should limit the time or close the conversation down if it gets heated.
“The current political climate suggests that such conversations are more volatile than perhaps previously,” said Diane Monahan, associate professor of communication management at Saint Leo University, in a press release accompanying the survey results. “At Thanksgiving, many are trying to maintain a state of peace and happiness.”
Dr. J. Kip Matthews, an Athens psychologist, said heated conversations and hurt feelings can be avoided by placing some topics off-limits.
Or you can agree to talk about football.
The Atlanta Falcons happen to be playing the New Orleans Saints on Thanksgiving night. One can at least unite your Atlanta relatives behind the Falcons instead of talking politics. (And if some of them are from New Orleans, at least it's a different debate.)
Whatever you do, Matthews said, it’s important to remember what’s most important about the day — being together with your loved ones and being grateful for the good things in our lives.
Attending a Civic Dinner
To participate, a person chooses to host or attend a meal, using the civicdinners.com/ARC website.
A diverse group of six to 10 people is assembled. It can be friends, colleagues, neighbors or strangers. Each participant pays a fee to cover the cost of the event, or brings a dish if it’s a potluck.
Current conversation topics at ARC-related meals include mobility, livability, affordable housing, aging, education and work. The host receives a packet that provides instructions for facilitating the dinner conversation. It also includes three “big questions” to ask each participant.
Participants take turns, and the host acts as moderator.
“One of the things that’s nice about Jenn’s concept,” said Jenn Graham’s uncle, Richard Lysinger, “is it’s a formalized opportunity to have those kinds of conversations. Everybody knows the rules of the game.”
With some care, Atlantans can apply those same rules to Thanksgiving:
“We know that the science of having a conversation over a meal is the best bet for it to end in a positive manner,” said Graham. “Biologically, we’re wired to bond with people when we break bread.”