For Nearly Three Years, Keene Group Has Practiced Civil Conversations

Nov 18, 2019

David Payson, Richard Merkt and Mike Darcy after the group's November meeting in Marlborough.
Credit Daniela Allee / NHPR

Earlier this year, NHPR did a survey of what questions, concerns and stories our listeners wanted to hear when it came to the 2020 primary. One theme that came up several times was civility in political and national conversations.

In Keene, a group has been meeting since early 2017 to talk about politics civilly, and they’ve learned a lot about how to do it.


The group was started by Tom Bassarear, a retired Keene State College professor.  He’s a Democrat, but after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, he wasn’t just concerned about the new president’s politics.

He was more concerned about how people were talking to each other -- the vitriol, he says --and in some cases, the lack of conversation in the first place.

“I had more and more friends saying I can’t talk with my neighbor anymore, or my family,” Bassarear said.

He decided he’d start a group that would focus on having civil conversations.

“I remember I wanted to do something to work toward more harmony,” he said.

After a quick Google search, he saw other civil conversation groups existed, so he was encouraged to try.

Tom Bassarear facilitates the groups monthly meetings, which started in January 2017.
Credit Daniela Allee / NHPR

Bassarear knew more Democrats than Republicans, so he jumped at the chance to attend a unity luncheon, put on by the Cheshire County Democrats and Cheshire County Republicans.

He sat next to Kate Day, who was chair of the Cheshire County Republicans at the time.

“She and I had a really nice conversation,” he said. Day said she’d come to the first meeting and invited some other people she knew.

About 15 people gathered in Bassarear’s living room for that first meeting in late January 2017.

“I explained that this is a discussion group, where the purpose is to understand why an otherwise seemingly intelligent person could have views that are so different from mine,” Bassarear said.

Some members have left and others have joined, but the group has met nearly every month since then.

There are four basic ground rules for the group’s monthly meetings: each person gets three minutes to respond to a prompt; there’s no name calling; no generalizations (i.e. all Democrats or all Republicans) and no using pejorative language.

Since that first meeting in 2017, they’ve discussed immigration, healthcare, abortion, income inequality and gun control, among other topics.

Now, they’re trying out different formats. For their November meeting, members of the group had read two articles, one about a county in Arkansas and another, an editorial by New York Times columnist David Brooks.

After some discussion about what to focus on, the group found a question they felt they could answer.

“When thinking about my own interests, as a person, as my family, my community, my world, how do you sort that out?” Bassarear put forward.

All 11 group members had their three minutes to answer. As the conversation progressed, there was consensus that everyone is part of a social contract.

“We all start as individuals, all animals do. But the strength of humans, of homo sapiens as a species, is our unique ability to extend our cooperative behavior and bring it to a larger group,” said Mohamed Saleh.

Some members of the group pointed to the US Constitution as this country’s social contract.

But there was disagreement about what happens when individuals cede their interests to a larger group, or to the government. Some felt government can infringe on personal freedoms to decide those interests -- including what to care about and what to do for others.

“I like the idea of free will,” said Kate Day. “The idea that God gave us free will because he wanted us to love him, and not be forced to obey him. And when I think about that, I think that is what love is, not when you’re being forced to give to someone else. 

"When we’re forced to give to someone else, like, how many of us are excited about April 15?” she said to some laughs. “Even my liberal friends are trying to find ways to pay less taxes. They go to a good accountant where they can pay less taxes. Yet they will vote to increase taxes. That to me never quite makes sense.”

The group takes a five minute break after each person has had their say. When they return, group members can ask clarifying questions of others.

Not all conversations have gone as smoothly as this November meeting. A while back, the group tackled gun control.

“Lines in the sand were drawn,” said Mike Darcy, who’s from Hinsdale and has been in the group about a year and a half. 

Some people left the group after this meeting. Others felt it was useful. Bassarear said that the meeting helped the group learn that the line between debate and discussion can be nuanced.

“Sometimes you need to know more about what they believe so you can understand why,” he said. “Sometimes that sounds like debate.”

But Bassarear says over time, through hard discussions and difficult moments, both Republicans and Democrats have found values they agree on.

For example, Bassarear says everyone in the group wants a democracy, fair elections, and a level playing field.

“And that everybody can make a name for themselves and they can have success,” he said. “We may not agree on the issues, but the values are in common.”

Richard Merkt, from Westmoreland, has been with the group for about two years. For him, there are two important elements in a civil conversation.

“First of all it’s respectful. It’s understanding that everybody has a right to his or her opinion. They shouldn’t be beaten up on it, and they shouldn’t be denied or talked over,” he said. “The secret is not just to talk. The secret is to listen, not to respond, but to listen to understand.”

And for others, like Malia Boaz, listening to others who think differently from them has translated to her personal life.

“My daughter is exactly the opposite of me. We’re constantly battling with each other,” Boaz said. “So this helps me to better understand where she’s coming from, and sometimes helps me explain to her better [where I’m coming from].”

The fact that the group still meets one Sunday a month for two hours makes this a success, Bassarear says.

The group will sponsor three civil conversations next year at the Keene Public Library, where group members will help facilitate and teach others how to start groups like this in their own communities.

How to have your own civil conversations

These are the guidelines the Keene group uses. 

  1. Each person gets 3 minutes to answer the prompt/question. They are not interrupted and group members can ask clarifying or follow up questions at a later point in time.
  2.  Listen to understand what the person is saying and where they’re coming from, rather than listening to respond or to change someone’s mind. The goal is not to persuade people. 
  3. No name calling or using pejorative language. 
  4. Avoiding sweeping generalizations (i.e., all Democrats, all Republicans, etc). 
  5. From NH Listens: One way to get people connecting on a personal level at first, is to ask a question along the lines of, “What makes you tick? What are some of your values? What’s something you learned from your family?” 

Other resources for having civil conversations: