Uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinners are a running joke in America, but there might be a way to save them that doesn’t involve silencing outspoken family members — by listening to them for three minutes.
In 2016, two friends from completely different backgrounds, Mary Anne Inglis and Victoria Chance, founded My Neighbor’s Voice in South Carolina. They wanted to find a way to reignite civil dialogue. What they developed is a structured and moderated conversation where community members can share a meal while listening to one another, discuss their concerns, ideas and experiences.
“The basic premise of what we’re trying to do is take our communities and weave them together again — that’s it,” said Russell Evans, Colorado Director for My Neighbor’s Voice. “We feel that dialogue in America is broken and we want to create a structure where people have a safe place to communicate ideas about how best to move forward as a community and as a society.”
A dinner typically hosts about 8-10 guests who each take turns answering a question from a deck of “listening cards” with four different categories: political thought, our society, environment and health and civic rights and responsibilities. Each participant has three minutes to share their perspective on the topic.
“Because of the format, no one is interrupting or asking questions,” said Evans. “You get to hear out a person’s entire response and then it’s the next person’s turn to draw a fresh card on a new topic. The timers are brilliant because it takes away the worry of being interrupted or of someone going on for too long. Instead it forces you to practice generosity.Listening is essentially the most generous act that you can do and that’s what this is.”
So far Evans has hosted three dinners in Montrose and helped to lead the pilot project of bringing the nonprofit’s vision to Montrose.
“I would like to have 1,000 people attend a dinner in Montrose County by the end of 2020,” said Evans. “So that means we need to be doing at least one dinner per week. An interesting aspect of this has been figuring out how to scale this. It’s an intimate (project) but we’re figuring out how to get listening cards into peoples homes, lives and conversations.”
For most newcomers, one of the biggest learning curves at a My Neighbor’s Voice dinner is learning how to listen, says Evans.
“At first it sounded a little intimidating: having dinner with mostly strangers and answering questions on deep topics,” said Emily Maxwell, who attended a Montrose dinner with her husband, Ben.
“But My Neighbor’s Voice sets up a nice and respectful environment. It was good to share my own thoughts, as well as listen to others share theirs. It was good to be reminded that there are a lot of good, kind people out there in our community- including those whose thoughts and ideas differ from my own.”
Evans explained that the process breaks down barriers because guests aren’t able to talk and respond; they have to listen.
“It really is an exercise in listening, but it also causes you to reflect on your own perspective and how you want to express your opinions,” said Ben Maxwell. “It showed that you can cover hot topics respectfully, because it isn’t a debate. I felt a bond being created as we each expressed things that were really meaningful, deep and intimate into the heart and mind.”
My Neighbor’s voice doesn’t intend to always come to a consensus or to even force a dialogue.
“Those things may happen, but I don’t promise people that in advance,” said Evans. “We listen and once we learn to listen and to be polite the moderator has the option of opening up a discussion. You’re definitely welcome to ask someone to talk privately or to go have coffee — and that is part of our goal, but it’s not required.”
The organization aims to continually bring diverse perspectives to the dinner table. Evans said that he is continually meeting with people for coffee to familiarize them with how the process works so they feel more comfortable attending a dinner.
“I honestly can’t imagine more important work to be doing in our country right now,” said Evans. “To be able to give people the opportunity to listen to one another is incredible and it's so simple and so basic yet it’s so profound.”
Evans explained how he used to say divisive things but that he doesn’t want to do that anymore.
“I’d much rather hear what other people have to say,” said Evans.
Evans has also met with City of Montrose representatives to introduce them to the goals and values of the organization.
“I would love to see this as a way to transform all ways of our civic life from Thanksgiving dinners to the way our town hall meetings are run,” said Evans.
For My Neighbor’s Voice dinner attendee Acacia Sharrow, the experience gave her an opportunity to get to know people that she came across in town often but didn’t actually know.
“I feel like so many of the world’s problems come from people not taking the time to get to know and understand each other,” said Sharrow. “My Neighbor's Voice provides a way to help with that starting on a local level.”
Evans will next host a dinner Oct. 15 with many more dates to come. More information can be found on the My Neighbor’s Voice website or by contacting Evans at email@example.com and calling 970-433-2513.
“I think there’s a temptation - including a temptation I’ve had - to use this to solve all of our problems, but it’s not going to do that,” said Evans. “Instead it’s the simple fact that the act of getting together and listening can be so profound - and that’s the point.”
Emily Ayers is a Staff Writer for the Montrose Daily Press.