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Fighting the “echo chamber” effect, one meal at a time.

Some reflections on our 12 Discussion Meals.

As 2019 draws to a close, I’ve naturally been reflecting on a year that’ll soon be relegated to “the past”. For my wife Emily and I, one of the highlights of 2019 has been the Discussion Meals we’ve hosted since the start of the year. These have taken place monthly in our home with different friends joining in. The meals have been such great fun, so intellectually stimulating, and a great way of getting to know people better. We actually feel quite spoilt. 

Inspiration for the meals came from a couple of different places. A conversation with a good friend of ours towards the end of 2018 was probably the main catalyst. She asked us about our hopes and dreams for the coming year and it was in that conversation that we began to talk about how we wanted to help others (and ourselves) get better at exploring big, deeply-felt ideas in a respectful manner. We’d become frustrated with the state of our public conversations. A few days prior, we’d followed the social media commentary following an incident where a government minister had said something in a radio interview that had offended an opposition politician. We keenly followed both sides of the argument online and it felt a bit like sticking pins into one’s eyeballs: it was painful. No one was listening to what the other side was saying and everybody was shouting. The great irony of the whole situation was that the minister was actually trying to say something in support of the opposition politician. When you listen to the rest of the interview, it’s clear that that’s exactly what she was doing and it was the use of one unwelcome word which had caused the furore. For us, this raised a myriad questions about language … its power, how the web harms understanding, the policing of it, and more.

As keen conversationalists, Em and I care very much about language not just words. We care about how people listen, understand, and engage. The question then became about how to create a space where people would feel free to come and share their thoughts, listen well, and engage in robust debate well. 

In the preceding months, we’d started to see some people taking steps to improving how we talk across difference. A major inspiration was the Sacred Podcast hosted by Elizabeth Oldfield, the Director of Theos, a religious affairs think tank based in London. In each episode, Oldfield interviews a relatively well-known person and discusses the things that they hold dear (their “sacred values”) exploring how these have come to shape them today. For the host, the conversations are an exercise in restraint. Oldfield does challenge guests’ views but the main thing she does is listen, even when you know that she’d probably love to take apart what they’ve just said. That’s such a difficult thing to do and yet it’s so important. We rarely know what experiences, or which people, have shaped our friends’ views of the world.

Another laudable thing Oldfield does is that she readily expresses doubt and uncertainty about things. She makes herself vulnerable which is another difficult but important thing to do.

Vulnerability builds trust.

***

When we started out, Em and I made a long list of friends who we thought would be interested in the idea. We sent each one a message explaining what we were thinking. We received replies from about 80 percent of them and the vast majority were buzzing at the idea. Over the course of the year, we’ve simply worked through the list but also added new names to it. We try and vary people according to personality, expertise/interests, religious faith convictions, etc although there’s nothing scientific about our methods! We’ve occasionally been surprised by how people who we thought would disagree on a lot actually had more in common than we’d expected. 

Each meal is restricted to 6 people including us. We ask everybody to recommend one topic of conversation before they come. Em and I then pick one at random, usually a week or so before the meal takes place. (A confession: in reality, the selection process is often heavily influenced by us). When we meet, we stick to that chosen topic for the duration of the evening. It’s a relaxed environment and everybody feeling welcome and at ease is really important to us. These are the topics we’ve discussed this year, starting with the most recent:

December: “Is the world getting better?”
November: “How do people change?”
October: “Should voluntary euthanasia be legalised?”
September: “Should prisons be abolished?”
August: “Are private schools good for society?”
July: “Is patriotism a good thing?”
June: “Is romantic love simply a social construct?”
May: “Should the big tech companies – Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, etc – be more tightly regulated?”
April: “Is plane travel still morally justifiable?”
March: “The desire for greater diversity and inclusion is highly valued in 21st century Western cultures. But when, if at all, does this fall apart?”
February: “In an age of rapid global change, how are people finding inner peace and why does it matter?”
January: “Decor and our physical surroundings: Why do they matter?”

The goal of each meal is to get people practising how to discuss well even when they disagree. We also aim to reach some sort of conclusion in a deliberate, unhurried fashion. Sharing good food and wine helps this end. This approach provides wide open spaces to explore ideas which we perhaps hadn’t even thought about at the start of the discussion. It’s normal for a topic to touch on a wide variety of themes before coming back full circle. The most common themes we’ve touched on include history, politics, moral reasoning, economics, and religious faith. One of our earliest guests said, “This reminds me of being back in France!” (He also happens to be French so we were quite flattered – ha).

We always have a fixed finishing time of 10pm. This communicates to people that the meal won’t go on forever! Em and I do the main course and we ask people to bring drinks or a pudding to share. That way they (hopefully) already feel part of it even before they come. Also, it just saves us some preparation time, and some money too! But there have also been some small challenges. Getting the different groupings sorted, finding dates that work for everyone, trying to be good hosts when we’re already exhausted from the day, putting baby to bed in time and hoping he stays asleep(!), etc. For us as Christians, we’ve been so aware of God’s help throughout. We couldn’t have done it without him. Our willing guests have been great too. We’re so thankful that there are people who also want to talk deep and engage with views and ideas that are different to their own. 

Three main highlights: 

  • Seeing good friendships emerge. Us and two other couples have continued to hang out fairly regularly. One pair are Christians and the others aren’t. We all live within 5 minutes’ walk of each other. They all came to the meal in April and since then, we’ve done various things together like hang out at each others’ houses, have another Discussion Meal in one of their homes, share baked goods, DIY tips (mainly Em and I asking for help!), baby advice and babysitting duties, plant seeds, garden produce, spare bits of wood, cards, music recommendations, plant-watering responsibilities, as well as take trips to a choral concert, baby groups, and our local pub together.  
  • Seeing friends of friends (people we’ve never met, or don’t know that well) join in too. We’ve had this on four separate occasions.
  • Seeing people open up and explore their own thoughts in a setting where they can be listened to.

Three big lessons: 

  • We’ve been reminded of the fact that we all have deep-rooted assumptions about how the world works. Sometimes it’s hard to articulate the why of our positions. We all want to be listened to, we all have questions and we all struggle for answers. We also all need a safe place to express fully- and partially-constructed thoughts. 
  • As Christians, our faith in Jesus governs how we live. It’s been an interesting challenge to explore how this connects with the various topics we’ve discussed so far. In some cases, the links are obvious but in others, we’ve had to work much harder to find the relevant points of connection. When you’re forced to apply your deeply-held assumptions to the world around you, your foundations can get exposed. For us, that’s been a boon. Also, given the meal setting, it’s never felt like we were shoe-horning God into conversations. They’ve happened quite naturally as people have asked us questions. We’ve also been surprised by how much more open people have been to hearing about God. Something many non-Christians don’t always appreciate is how terrifying it can be for Christians to publicly talk about their faith in our culture. There’s a fear of rejection and other people’s negative reactions. In these conversations, our guests have been relaxed, open, curious and respectful even when they hold differing views.
  • I’ve become much more aware of how much genuine listening I’m actually doing in conversations. When someone says something I disagree with, I’ve learnt to say so respectfully but also not assume the absolute worst of them. This isn’t about just being nice, it’s about trying to better understand complex human beings and our complex world. It’s slow, hard, and often frustrating, but the depths of relationship that can emerge makes it a worthwhile endeavour.

Em and I plan to continue with the meals as normal in the coming year. We’re open to switching things up a bit but we don’t have any firm thoughts yet. 

During the course of the year, a few friends have loved the Discussion Meal idea so much that they’re thinking of adapting it and doing something themselves. That’s exciting! Maybe you could do something similar in 2020, however big or small? We’re big fans of adaptation so take what’s useful from our format and make it work for you.

Here’s to more good conversations in 2020.

Happy New Year!

2 replies on “Fighting the “echo chamber” effect, one meal at a time.”

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