Communitas: Restoring the lost art of civil dialogue

Emily and Tim Bowyer, with Heather and Russ York, lead a recent meeting of Communitas, a group dedicated to “reclaiming the lost art of civil dialogue.”

Oct 16, 2019–So much of our daily communication is cocktail party conversation without the cocktails: shallow ramblings about the weather, recent medical procedures, or political rants.

The words may serve to lubricate the hub of the social wheel, but seldom set any wheels in motion.

Quite the opposite happens at Communitas, a monthly gathering of people seeking meaningful conversation.

“It is an open group for the purpose of reclaiming the lost art of civil dialogue in our local community,” offered Emily Bowyer, who with her husband, Tim, currently facilitates the group.

Russ and Heather York brought the concept to the Hill Country when they moved from Dallas to work at Ambleside School in 2014. They had participated in a Friday Night Salon there, and thought the idea would work here.

Russ has degrees in history and politics, and is Head of School. Heather has a background in social work the humanities, and teaches. They started Communitas oriented to teachers, but soon opened it up to the community.

The format required some refining, according to the Yorks.

“Some people might have felt intimidated at first and were not sure how to engage with each other,” said Russ. “We wanted it to be a place where one needed to listen more than speak.”

The couple set clearer guidelines and boundaries, steering the conversation to ideas rather than opinions.

I attended the September Communitas to get a better feel for how it works. About a dozen others were there. After a short social time, we sat down to a conversation.

It felt slightly awkward for me at first, but then I’m an introvert by trade. I intended to observe only, but when I realized the question was about words, I couldn’t resist jumping in. The topic: How do our words shape reality? When we consider blessing, cursing, making oaths, how is reality different before and after we have spoken the words, or is it not?

The conversation flowed. No one dominated the discussion. Every idea was welcomed, and every viewpoint considered. Speakers referenced earlier comments.

After 45 minutes that went by surprisingly quickly, the biggest takeaway was that Communitas is not about speaking; it is about listening. That is not by accident. In fact, it is written into their rules:

  1. We aim to dialogue about ideas, not to debate our opinions.
  2. We believe that conversation consists of both listening and speaking. If you hear your own voice twice in short succession, you should listen for a while.
  3. We encourage you to listen and speak with intent, offering thoughtful, not casual or offhand, utterances.
  4. We hope that every remark made will be taken seriously. Most so-called “dumb” comments and questions are really honest inquiry.

For the facilitators, it’s a tricky balance guiding the discussion. As Heather stated it, “You have to manage the flow of conversation without steering it.”

Part of the art is in assembling questions that are interesting, open-ended, and worthy of conversation. Here is a list of recent prompts put together by Tim Bowyer, who has a degree in Religious Studies, and Emily, who teaches Humanities:

What does it mean to be “safe?”

What is music?

What is excellence?

What marks the difference between having money in the mind and having money in the heart?

What has television done to build a real community out of an entire country? In what ways does television diminish the community?

You get the idea. All thoughtful and deep fields, ripe for comment and discussion.

It is important to note that Communitas is open to all, and the hosts welcome new participants.

“The makeup of the group changes every single time, and that is part of the beauty,” said Emily. “It is important to maintain a safe harbor for conversation. All we do is set up a place and time, and present questions. Hopefully this will build relationships and trust.”

All have seen conversations that began in the group spill over into other parts of daily life.

“Even when I see someone later, we continue the conversation!” Heather said. “It is a positive interaction. It was the first time I had been exposed to people actually talking. It really fed something in me that hadn’t been fed before. It challenged me, it made me want to know more. I want to be able to give something like that to someone else.”

For Russ, Communitas is about valuing people.

“To me, it is the discovery of something that is lost,” he said. “Until you come and experience it, you may not know you have to offer. People aren’t enriched by conversation unless you show up.”

They call it “growing from the inside out.”

“In a lot of ways, people’s thoughts are given to them today, in headlines, in 7-second sound bites,” Russ said. “People don’t develop thought, we acquire it. Communitas is a place to come to develop thought; it’s people developing thoughts together.”

It’s also meant to be fun.

“We have fun with it, but we take one another seriously. Through the art of conversations, we can laugh and enjoy each other.”

Details:

Communitas meets the 3rd Thursday of each month. The location varies. The next conversation is Thursday, October 17, from 7 to 9 p.m., at the stone house on the Ambleside campus, 406 Post Oak Road, Fredericksburg TX. For information: communitasfbg@gmail.com