The Scoop: Building a foundation to respond to healthy conflict is essential for romantic partners, whether they’ve just started dating or have been together for decades. Couples struggling to find common ground can take a page from Living Room Conversations, a nonprofit that encourages individuals to talk with others with whom they disagree. The organization’s Conversation Agreements offer strategies that help people have more respectful discussions in a variety of contexts.

No couple agrees on everything. Perhaps one person is conservative, while the other is moderate. Maybe one partner is religious, and the other isn’t.

Minor disagreements can also arise around issues like who should take out the trash or what color to paint the living room.

Many couples never learn how to have productive disagreements that lead to useful outcomes. Instead, moments of contention may lead to one or both people feeling disrespected. If nothing is solved, the dispute will likely recur.

Living Room Conversations, a nonprofit that aims to connect individuals across divides so they can have meaningful discussions, is helping people find common ground and build understanding.

Living Room Conversations logo
Living Room Conversations helps people learn to have respectful talks.

“Getting at the heart of what we share in common with one another, these conversations have powerful, positive impacts across society — including a sense of respect, understanding, and even friendship in unexpected places!” the organization states on its website.

Individuals with differing viewpoints can use the nonprofit’s model to learn how to approach topics in low-key settings, including living rooms, churches, coffee shops, conference rooms, or even online.

Living Room Conversations was founded in 2010 to foster productive disagreements through guided conversations that can help transform communities. Founder Joan Blades partnered with dialogue experts to create a conversation format that would encourage useful — not hostile — discussions.

The format involves two conversation hosts with different viewpoints each inviting one or two other people to participate in a structured conversation on a specific topic. Then, they would agree to discuss that topic in a safe space.

Ideally, they would build relationships across the aisle and even discover common ground on the topic.

“At the core of all our conversation strategies are the Conversation Agreements, which apply to our model as well as any conversation where you’re trying to connect with others,” said Becca Kearl, Director of Programming for Living Room Conversations.

Be Curious & Suspend Judgment

Couples can apply Living Room Conversations techniques for productive dialogue, whether they’re participating in conversations with friends or each other.

The organization has six fundamental Conversation Agreements.

The first is, “Be curious and listen to understand.”

Rather than supporting one’s own position, this basic agreement is about listening to the experiences of others and paying attention to what matters to them.

That is important for healthy disagreement. Partners shouldn’t dig in and try to find evidence supporting their own positions. Instead, they should be open to hearing their partner’s point of view.

That idea is closely linked to the second agreement: “Show respect and suspend judgment.”

Here, individuals are asked to listen openly to those who disagree with them, rather than judging what the other person says. People can’t have productive discussions when they feel judged. And if someone comes to a conversation with a critical point of view, they may never be open enough to listen.

Another important facet is to “be authentic and welcome that from others.” Couples can apply this advice by encouraging their partner to speak truthfully.

“Living Room Conversations is all about creating understanding and connection through conversation, which certainly has applications for dating. All of our guides are free and open-source,” Becca said.

Put Your Relationship First by Accepting Differences

The objective of the remaining three Conversation Agreements focus on connections and structuring the discussion.

The third agreement asks individuals to “Note any common ground as well as any differences.”

This rests on the idea that we think those who hold differing beliefs are different from us. But it is possible to find shared beliefs, even on contentious topics.

For instance, perhaps a couple constantly fights about money. One partner wants to spend it, while the other wants to save. They could agree that they should spend money on experiences, not things. Then, they would have a common ground to work through their disagreement.

Screenshot from Living Room Conversations website
Couples can learn how to approach discussions using Living Room Conversations strategies.

Once couples understand what they should discuss, philosophically, they can turn to the final two tenets.

The first is “Be purposeful and to the point.” This means couples should stick to the topic at hand rather than bringing in other points of contention or ideas. They should also speak succinctly, so their partner can contribute equally.

The last agreement is to “own and guide the conversation.” It suggests both participants should do their best to make the discussion productive and respectful. If an individual gets off track, they should bring themselves back to the relevant conversation.

The experts also recommend using “an agreed upon signal like the ‘time out’ sign if you feel the agreements are not being honored.”

These six fundamental agreements can help couples have more productive disagreements with each other and interact more positively in society.

“We hope for a world in which people who have fundamental differences of opinion and backgrounds learn to work together with respect — and even joy — to realize the vibrant future we all desire for ourselves and our families,” Living Room Conversations writes on its website.

Living Room Conversations: Share Humanity in Honest Talks

While these six fundamental agreements set a baseline for a productive conversation, couples can also follow more specific prompts useful for difficult talks.

“The Power of Empathy” conversation guide, for instance, can help couples who struggle to relate to each other.

“The power of empathy can bridge our ‘us vs. them’ perceptions and lead to new solutions, improved relationships, better strategies for social change, reduction in loneliness, and realization of our shared human needs and oneness. This conversation is about sharing experiences giving, receiving, and observing empathy,” according to the Living room Conversations website.

Conversations begin with participants accepting the Conversation Agreement.

Photo from Living Room Conversations website
Living Room Conversations participants follow guidelines called Conversation Agreements.

Next, the two members of the couple ask each other a series of questions for around 40 minutes. Sample questions include:

  • How do you feel when someone else truly understands what you are going through?
  • How have you been able to tell that someone understands what you have experienced or felt?
  • What helps you understand what someone else is experiencing or feeling? What gets in your way?

The conversation concludes with a 15-minute reflection section, where couples can talk about what they learned in the conversation and consider whether the conversation changed how they viewed their partner.

The Relationships First conversation guide takes couples through similar steps, but asks them to think about what’s important to them in relationships.

Couples may also be interested in participating in Living Room Conversations with others. The philosophy, methodology, and structure of these conversations can also help ensure more productive relationship disagreements.

“Dating really boils down to getting to know another person,” Becca told us. “Our agreements include listening, being curious and authentic, and suspending judgment —all things I’ve found useful in dating.”