An Ethos of Conversation

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image of George Bernard Shaw with his quote: 'The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place".

One of the greatest feelings of connection with others can come as a result of meaningful conversations with people who may be significant to you in any number of ways, or with someone you may never see again.

How often do you talk – really talk – not only to loved ones and close friends, but to people you don’t know, and people who might be not-like-you? How often have you had an experience like those of Dave Pollard in Conversations That Matter?

In retrospect, I would guess that most of the conversations I was party to over the years were incompetently conducted and largely a waste of time. The conversants, for the most part, had already decided what they believed or what needed to be done, and were just looking for reassurance. Or they were talking to hear themselves think, and not listening to anyone else. There was almost never any real exchange of information, or ideas, or perspectives, despite the earnest attempts of the conversants to convey these things.

How often to we get to engage in deep conversation, especially with those with whom we might differ, in the spirit of Koinonia?

I want to introduce you to the concept of Conversare, which is described by one of its key proponents and ‘professional conversationalist’, Dr Alan Stewart, as ‘a way of bringing people together to interact quite differently from how we do usually – by engaging in lively conversation, mainly with someone you may not know, in public places’.

‘Conversare’ is a different kind of conversation that might happen at a party, or at a business networking event (especially if there are other subtle agendas or politics going on there). It’s certainly different to interactions we might have had at school or work, where someone else is controlling the agenda or dominating the discussion, or where we are expected to keep quiet so others can talk at us.

In his article The Art of a Lively Conversation, Alain de Botton notes that perhaps part of the reason there has been a decline in the art and practice of conversation is that we assume conversational skills are inherent, not something worked on and developed:

…it is striking how bad most of us are at having a conversation, chiefly because we insist that knowing how to talk to other people is something we are born with, rather than an art dependent on the acquisition of a range of odd and artificially acquired skills. We rightly accept that improvisation in preparing a meal is unlikely to yield good outcomes, and as a result, the market is flooded with television programs and books promising to take us through the intricacies of assembling aubergine paté or poached pears. But we show no such caution and modesty when it comes to conversation…

Botton goes on to discuss how the art of conversation was reinvigorated in the 18th century Parisian salons of the French aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie, drawing on the traditions established in Ancient Greece:

Fed up with the idle chatter of the court at Versailles, where the talk centered relentlessly on who had shot what and in which forest, they wanted to make their homes into the spiritual descendants of Socrates’ dining room…

Guests had to arrive with a number of conversational topics and explore them with the same rigor as a scholar in a library, except that rather than consulting books, the other guests were to provide the insights. Examples of fitting topics included: What is the wisest way to approach one’s own death? Can governments make us good or only obedient?

There are distinct parallels here with the idle and mundane chatter of the court, and its 21st century incarnation of gossip, superficial social media exchanges, reality TV and celebrity news.

Conversation skills have also become limited by the notion that talking is only for conveying useful information and practical knowledge, or for argument and debate.

In his mini-book Time to converse at the heart of human warmth, Stewart cautions that ‘conversing’ should not be confused with ‘debating’:

While debate brings rigor to analysis, it is essentially confrontational. Talking of debate can be misleading and counterproductive – part of the problem – when there is a need to build ideas and to seek creative solutions interdependently. For by its very nature a debate is a contest, a game, with winners and losers defined by who is right and who is wrong. Inviting people to contribute to a debate is to set up adversarial positions which are attacked and defended. The alternative?  To converse, rather than debate.

Conversing involves talking without needing the answers you wanted, and interacting without anyone trying to control the direction or outcome of a conversation.

Conversing and debating are two very different approaches and mindsets, which create different dynamics and potential pathways for action:

Conversing Debating
finding common ground winning
searches for basic agreements, strengths in other positions searches for glaring differences, weaknesses in other positions
is collaborative – two or more sides work together toward a common understanding is confrontational – two sides oppose each other and try to prove each other wrong
assumes many people have pieces of the answer, and that together they can put them into a workable solution assumes that there is a right answer, and someone has it
listens to understand, find meaning listens to find flaws, counter argument
involves a concern for the other person and seeks not to alienate or offend involves a countering of other positions without focusing on feelings; often belittles or deprecates the other person
enlarges, possibly changes, participant’s point of view reaffirms participant’s own point of view
one submits one’s best thinking, knowing other people’s reflections will help improve rather than destroy it one submits one’s best thinking, and defends against challenge to show that it is right
opens the possibility of reaching a better solution than any of the original solutions defend one’s own position as the best solution and excludes other solutions
calls for temporarily suspending one’s beliefs calls for investing wholeheartedly in one’s beliefs
reveals assumptions for re-evaluation defends assumptions as truth
introspection on one’s own position critique of others’ position
whatever is contributed is of potential value careful about saying anything that may be attacked, about being personally vilified
opportunity to speak from the heart draws mainly on intellectual, rational skills
creates an open-minded attitude – an openness to being wrong, and an openness to change creates a close-minded attitude – a determination to be right
implies a conversation remains open-ended implies a conclusion

Observe the discussions you see around you – in your personal life, at work, in the public arena – how often do you see conversation rather than debate? The latter is great for ratings and headlines, not so good for forging paths forward.

To initiate conversing, Stewart suggests questions like ‘What is interesting to you at the moment?’ and ‘What are you trying to accomplish?’ He likens conversation to jazz, where it starts with conventional elements and then incorporates improvisation.

Outcomes of conversing may include:

  • new knowledge is generated, horizons are expanded
  • local knowledge is uncovered or expressed
  • relationships begin and are sustained
  • questions are unsuppressed, brought into the open for consideration
  • attitudes and feelings are transformed
  • participants feel excited and energised
  • people feel included, feelings of trust are nurtured

Debate certainly has its place, but if we are trying to find a way forward from a starting point of different perspectives, the dominance of debate undermines this process.

What if we put at least as much effort into becoming as good at conversation as we do debate? What if a greater percentage of our exchanges were conversing?

What would we be able to achieve if we could engage with others using an ethos of conversation rather than debate?

It is not difference which immobilises us most, but silence.

Audre Lorde

It is critical that we encourage and support the skills and practice of conversation, especially in times when we have huge challenges to address that are being stymied by inability to find a lack of common ground and a way to talk together.

You don’t need the permission of your workplace, university/college, family or friends to give ‘conversare’ a go and develop your skills – if you want to try the idea out, why not organise an event (or look for one) on Meetup?

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  1. Thanks for this thoughtful feedback Sven – I agree the art of listening has become somewhat lost in the competition for attention. Love the metaphor of listening as a massage!

  2. I never thought of it that way, but the debate vs conversation premise makes a lot of sense. I often feel completely alienated when I find myself debating with someone, on or offline. Certainly most of the articles that are published these days revolve around of some sort of controversy inviting a pro/con back and forth that never comes to any higher ground or transformation. Of course, that’s by design because endless sniping between two parties locked into their position creates a lot of traffic, which seems to be the predominant modus operandi of this social networking age we find ourselves in.

    One important pillar of constructive conversation I’d like to add is the ability to listen. You think it would be an easy thing to do, just being quiet and focusing on understanding and processing what the other person is saying, but it’s becoming a bit of a lost art, because there’s so much chatter out there, and the pressure to say things louder, faster and more frequently than the next person. There’s also a huge emotional component to listening; I’ve found that these days just sitting there and listening to someone is like giving them a massage. When everyone’s talking and trying to convince you of their point of view, the world around us turns pretty cold, because there’s not much safe space to share your doubts and weaknesses, to bare your soul.

    Of course, when you have two or more people willing and able to listen, you get a nutritious and inspiring conversation where everyone comes out a winner. That, to me, is still one of the most magical and powerful sparks we humans are capable of experiencing.

    Thanks for another wonderful post, Sharon!


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