A Few Thoughts on The Art of Conversation

So Friday night I got together with a few friends for intentional conversation, and the topic was…well, conversation.   We asked questions like, “If you’ve just had a great conversation with someone, what were the things that made for the greatness of the time?”  “What are conversation killers?”  “What do you expect when you enter into conversation?”  “How do you keep a hospitable conversation going when opposing viewpoints are in play, especially about topics such as politics or religion?”   “What do you do when the person you’re talking to never asks you a question?”  “What do you do when one person dominates a conversation between a roomful of people?”  “How do you ensure that lesser voices get heard?”

We had this conversation as a sort of test run for an experiment I’m planning on dabbling with this year.   Along with a couple of dear, like-hearted friends, I’m going to be hosting a series of evenings during the year centered on intentional conversations between friends about things that simply need to be talked about.  The word “salon” comes to mind, but I doubt what we’ll be doing could be called a salon, but perhaps merely salon-esque.   I have a general list of topics going, but I want to stay alive to that new ideas that will present themselves as we go.  We’ll certainly talk art, music, and  theatre, and what else?   Maybe politics, or at least subjects with political implications, maybe faith and/or religion (I’ve been talking about those kinds of topics for years), and hopefully some science and sociology as well.   (After watching the Oscars last night, it would be great fun to unpack the meaning of celebrity, achievement, honoring of achievement, beauty, the state of racial justice in the U.S. film industry, etc.)

But I wanted to start with an evening about the art of talking.   My impression is that there’s fairly wide agreement that the tone of much public discourse is toxic, and for many people, that toxicity creates a barrier of entry into meaningful conversation.    Our need for dialogue and connection has perhaps never been greater, and the best that can be said about our skills for entering into those dialogues effectively is that we need work.    One thing we came away with in our conversation Friday night was the fact that we just don’t get the kind of opportunity we need to actually sit down and practice the skills that make for great questions, high quality listening, the considerate and humane exchange of ideas, and great conversation that nudges all toward better relationship and deeper truth.

There was nothing scientific about the discussion, and we weren’t really seeking to prove anything.   So we each walked away with different ideas ringing in our minds, and there was no “here’s the next step” sort of conclusions.   At best, we took some thoughts with us to mull over.   Here are a few of them:

1) Conversation and relationship has the best chance when we are working to discover, to remember, and to protect the other’s humanity.

2) Empathy and compassion are built across bridges of human likeness.   The very notion that we should be able to honor differences is a shared notion, one of the ways in which we are alike.

3) Authenticity is paramount.   At the same time, expression and restraint are in tension, and there are times when your authenticity of expression must give way to a wise use of restraint on behalf of the other.

4) “Winning” is a very different intention than “Building relationship.”

5) The quality of the questions asked determines much about the shape and quality of the conversation.

6) One-upmanship is a conversation killer.  “I know, I felt the same way.  Here’s what happened to me (and it’s way more interesting that what happened to you!)   Sure, on the front end, it’s establishing connection, but by the third time, I’m just getting annoyed.

7)  Being slow to take offense is one way to keep a conversation going.

8)  The best questions open up possibilities instead of narrowing them.

9)  There’s far too much information for anyone to learn it all.  That means there will always been something to learn from the person you’re talking to.

10) Conversations driven by hidden agendas are not relationship building conversations.

11) Genuine curiosity is a huge help.

12) So is humor.

What about you?  What do you value in conversation?


2 Replies to “A Few Thoughts on The Art of Conversation”

  1. I love number two. It is so true, and yet so rare in our society.

    Something I’ve been learning about conversation recently: The conversation two people have is not just affected by the behavior of both parties during intentional conversation, but by the casual comments both make either to the other person, or even around the other person. It is necessary for the principles you discuss above to be lived out in all human contact, not just intentional conversation, in order to foster good intentional conversation. Hope my ramblings make sense!

  2. And to build on what Amy Beth says, it would be my hope that personal conversation and commercial (work) conversations can both have the same attributes–authentic, transparent, affirming, other-honoring, with good questions. That’s hard! When the missing participant in the room is my employer, The Corporation, whose agenda is perhaps more narrow, I find it a challenge to be the same Me in a work conversation. It is still a worthwhile goal, and probably benefits both me and it more than either of us may suspect.

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