More and more people are looking to revive the lost art of conversation. How do we start talking again?
We stay silent and apart for many reasons. Some of us have never been invited to share our ideas and opinions. From early school days, and now as adults, we’ve been instructed to be quiet so others can tell us what to think. These experiences have left us feeling hesitant to speak, and frightened of each other.
We’ve cultivated a lot of bad behaviours when we’re together – speaking too fast, interrupting others, monopolising the time, giving speeches or pronouncements. We attend a meeting or a conference for our own purposes for ‘what I can get out of this’. Many of us have been rewarded for these behaviours. We’ve become more powerful through their use. But none of these lead to wise thinking or healthy relationships. They only drive us away from each other.
Before there were meetings, planning processes or any other techniques, there was conversation – people sitting around interested in each other, talking together. Many people are longing to be in conversation again. We are hungry for a chance to talk. People want to tell their story, and are willing to listen to yours. People want to talk about their concerns and struggles. Too many of us feel isolated, strange, or invisible. Conversation helps end that.
I find it takes just one person to have the courage to begin a conversation. It only takes one because everyone else is eager for the chance to talk. They’re just waiting for someone else to begin it. You could be that person.
I believe we have to practice several new behaviours, so that conversation can lead us into a deeper realm in which we rediscover our collective wisdom. Here are the principles I’ve learned to emphasise.
We are all equal
Conversation is an opportunity to meet together as peers, not as roles. What makes us equal is that we’re human beings. A second thing that makes us equal is that we need each other. Whatever we know, it is not sufficient. We can’t see enough of the whole. We can’t figure it out alone. Somebody sees something that the rest of us might need.
Stay curious about each other
Curiosity is a great help to good conversation. It’s easier for us to tell our story, to share our dreams and fears, when we feel others are genuinely curious about us. Curiosity helps us discard our mask and let down our guard. As we feel it growing, we speak more truthfully and the conversation moves into what’s real.
When I’m in conversation, I try to maintain curiosity by reminding myself that everyone has something to teach me. When they’re saying things I disagree with, or have never thought about, I silently remind myself that they have something to teach me. Somehow this little reminder helps me be more attentive and less judgmental. It helps me stay open to people, rather than shut them out.
Learn to listen better
I think that the greatest barrier to good conversation is that we’ve lost the capacity to listen. We don’t have time to listen. One gift of conversation is that it helps us become good listeners again. When I’m hosting a conversation, I ask everyone to listen as best they can, and to help each other listen better. We consciously agree on this as part of our purpose for being together. In making this agreement, we are acknowledging that it’s hard work to learn how to listen, and that we’re all struggling with it. If we talk about this at the start, it makes things easier. Of course, we can’t learn to be a good listener alone. We need each other if we’re going to learn this skill.
Talking is getting to know each other
Humberto Maturana, a wise Chilean biologist, believes that humans developed language as they moved into family groups and wanted to be more intimate. Language gives us the means to know each other better. That’s why we invented it. If you’re hosting a conversation, you can rely on this history. We humans know how to do this. It does, however, take time to let go of our modern ways of being in meetings, to get past the behaviours that keep us apart.
Because conversation is the natural way that humans think together, it is, like all life, messy. When a conversation begins, people always say things that don’t connect. What’s important at the start is that everyone’s voice gets heard, that everyone feels invited into the conversation. Everyone will speak from his or her unique perspective. Thus, they won’t say the same things, at all. It can feel as if you’re watching a ping-pong ball bouncing off a wall as the conversation veers from one topic to another.
If you’re hosting the conversation, you may feel responsible to draw connections between these diverse contributions (even when you don’t see them). It’s important to let go of that impulse and just sit with the messiness. Each person’s contribution adds a different element or spice to the whole. If we connect these too early, we lose the variety we need. If we look for superficial commonalties, we never discover the collective wisdom found only in the depths. We have to be willing to listen, curious about the diversity of experiences and ideas. We don’t have to make sense of it right away.
Have courage, faith, and time
We don’t get it right the first time, and we don’t have to. As we risk talking to each other about something we care about, as we become curious about each other, as we slow things down, gradually we remember this timeless way of being together. Our rushed and thoughtless behaviours fade away, and we sit quietly in the gift of being together, just as we have always done. And as an added joy, we also discover our collective wisdom. We suddenly see how wise we can be together.