Talking philosophical conversations, we welcome my guest, Julie Mashack . Julie is the Director of Global Programs and Networks at 92nd Street Y – (as in the 24th letter of the alphabet). It’s a 145 year old cultural and community center located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in New York City. The Y is short for Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association.
“I admire [when you have] a confidence in your own opinion that you can listen to someone else. Maybe your opinion won’t change but you’re confident enough to say, “Okay, I’m open” and that I don’t automatically feel so threatened by another opinion. That I don’t need to shoot it down, that I can listen to it. I admire when I see that happen — I think it’s incredible.”
To begin, Julie started out as a radio producer on NPR and Air America Radio. She had a good stint in television news production before she joined 92nd Street Y over six years ago.
Not only.. but also, she oversees the major outreach and civic engagement initiatives for 92Y Belfer Center for Innovation and Social Impact. I met her at an online event hosted by the Royal Society of Arts here in the UK. When I heard her talk about a fascinating initiative that she launched and has grown to a network of 300+ civil conversation clubs in 33 states, probably more by the time you’re listening to this. When I met her, she was looking for leaders in countries around the world to set-up international clubs. I am sure you can appreciate how this might have drawn me in – and you for that matter.
The initiative is called The Ben Franklin Circles. A quick background… So, Ben Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. As well as being an influential politician of his time, he was many other things including a scientist and an inventor. He was deputy postmaster-general for the British colonies in 1753 and he did own and deal in slaves, but by the late 1750s, he began arguing against slavery and became an abolitionist.
In fact, Ben was all for self-betterment and ran conversation clubs to discuss his own defined list of 13 virtues. These were, temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. These were all with the purpose of asking two questions: How can we improve ourselves? How can we improve our world?
Taking that concept, Julie led an initiative to bring those conversation clubs back into practice, and I wanted to learn more about them as well as her own conversation journey.
Cultural programmes that can be adapted
To begin, how Julie offers programmes and supports their adaptation locally across the US and internationally (like the Seven Days of Genius festival that ran in 25 countries, all looking different with different groups of stakeholders). The focus being on the value the programme brings to the local community, including creating connections and life-long friendships
It was important to sound smart and affirmed when she was younger. With age she’s valued listening more and how others respond to what she’s sharing. Ultimately taking away a connection with another person
Ben Franklin Circles
This originated from Ben Franklin’s model of a weekly conversation club with 12 peers to answer some big philosophical questions. Like who have we helped in society or what is a social ill that we can help remedy, and to inspire each other to be collectively come up with good ideas to make a difference. Julie and her team established a modern day interpretation of these conversation clubs based on Franklin’s 13 virtues. An example of this virtue is moderation . How do you determine what is an appropriate response or feeling in a situation? How humility and asking questions can get the job done quicker, reduce resistance and influence more effectively.
Differences of opinions in conversations
The breadth of the topics encourage people to listen to and explore other people’s opinions. A spirit of inquiry along with suggested ground rules, help to get through some heated discussions.
Honesty with and commitment to strangers
Club members are encouraged to make a commitment at the end of the meeting to try a new behaviour. One that challenges or grows them. Being with new friends is liberating and allows for greater honesty — your identity is being seen afresh.
Admiration for people who ask great questions in conversation
Her time in journalism developed her ability to genuinely ask probing questions without an ulterior motive. Curiosity as a skill while having confidence in your own opinion.
Best conversations are rooted in trust and making space for them
The ability to be vulnerable with strangers allows for greater honesty than sometimes with people who know us well. The baggage somehow gets in the way or makes us resistant to hearing the truth. Whereas, the reflection from strangers can be more profound. Getting more comfortable with space or silence in a conversation vs feeling the need to fill those gaps by talking. How open body language is more inviting and shows engagement. Whereas blocking postures and even furniture physically between two people creates distance. Eye contact — when we’re speaking, look into the person’s eyes and when they are speaking, look at their mouth.
Unhelpfully assuming things about people can get in the way of conversations
Assuming the intent of other people can get in the way of a good conversation. Having joy and curiosity about other people can be very profound.
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