Quality Conversations

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; 
they listen with the intent to reply.” 

The theme of “healthy” conversations seems to have been emerging repeatedly over the last couple of years, in my research, in my leadership roles, and in my personal life. This post is to be the first in a 2017 series that I hope will add new perspectives to my 2014 series on “Holy Conversations.”

Let’s start with a general introduction to the art of quality conversation.
A conversation is a feature of human relationship, where two or more viewpoints are shared respectfully, with a view to mutual understanding and shared goals. Conversations may be mundane, but some have the power to change lives. Used sensitively, they can give us power to create shared  meaning out of our pasts, and to imagine new futures. 

Conversation is often used at a research tool, because it provides such rich data for new insights and interpretations. The researcher listens to what people themselves say about their lives, their dreams, fears and hopes, and their work, family and social life. Asking questions with an authentic desire to understand can unearth multiple stories and viewpoints, and help us ‘peek into the soul’ of another person. However there is a risk that such probing questions become stilted. I well recall a counsellor colleague learning “active listening” in the 1990’s; his sentences - even in social conversations - became  peppered with “I hear you saying…” and “so you’re feeling that...” We were not taken in. Mechanical conversations fail to generate interpersonal energy and may in fact invite derision. Barbara Walters in her 1970 book, How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything calls such conversation a monologue; “poked along with tiny cattle-prod questions, it isn’t even real conversation anymore. …. A conversation, even a brief one, should have all the best features of functioning human relationships…genuine interest on both sides, opportunity and respect for both to express themselves, and some dashes of tact and perception" (cited by Lynne Baab in her excellent book on Listening). 

Some of the skills required for quality conversations include:
1. Attending. You can’t have a good conversation with someone when you’re preoccupied with other things.  "Active listening" means consciously wanting to understand, and learning basic skills for attending and clarifying. When we listen with interest, aim to be honest and kind,  and determine to speak life, love and hope - rather than suspicion and judgment - people feel valued, involved and trusted. 

2. Honouring. Conversation is at the heart of community and so linked with hospitality which overrules agreeing or disagreeing. We need to “lean in” and listen, honouring the space between us, in the knowledge that each person is beloved by God. Respectful listening often requires us to withhold our opinion and that can be draining. But the other may desperately need a safe place to BMW - “bitch, moan and whine.” Sacrificial listening can often help people become conscious of what they’re saying and perhaps make connections they haven’t seen before.

3. Stilling. There is a time for not speaking. We keep talking because we want to fix things, or even just because we need to process out loud. I once had an obstetrician who was silent for long periods during my antenatal appointments. I felt embarrassed and filled the silence with meaningless chatter. But over time I have learned to be comfortable with silence. and to notice how pauses in a conversation can allow for important insights. Daniel Wolpert says "a rich, lively conversation encompasses times of listening and times of responding, times of speech and times of silence. Think of the waves upon the shore - they break with tremendous force and noise, and silently recede" (Alive Now, Jan 2017, p8)

4. Nurturing. Marilyn MacEntyre in the same issue of Alive Now says – “good conversations are like good meals, nourishing and with power to leave me changed”. Healthy Conversation can lead us to see problems in a different light; a well-chosen word can be a blessing, open a door, or challenge an unhealthy reaction. Our part as quality conversationalists  is to cultivate generous curiosity, imaginative listening, and an open playfulness. Listen, laugh and love. 

The founders of World Café - a format for hosting effective large group dialogue - say that people in such quality conversations experience curiosity, engage in deep listening, and take delight in each other (Brown & Isaacs, 2005). I recently came across the notion of conversational intelligence, in which leadership guru Judith Glaser describes three levels of human interaction. Firstly, Transactional Conversations are the most basic interactions we have with others - asking and telling conversations which elicit basic information and help us connect with others. However they can take on unhealthy features when we stop listening to others’ answers, so we can find space to tell our own story. Second are Positional Conversations which are characterised by the dynamics of inquiry and defence, what we know as healthy debate. These conversations can move people toward shared goals. However they fail when we become addicted to being right and listen only to influence people to our point of view. Level 3 Transformational Conversations go beyond basic discourse and defending a viewpoint. They require an openness to what others are really saying, and a willingness to change our minds to form a shared view of reality. Glaser calls this “co-creating conversations,” a reframing of perspectives that build an agreed view of what success will look like. This reminds me of what my denomination’s courts call “dialogue” - as compared with discussion and debate. 

I believe God is eager to help us grow in our ability to participate in loving transformational conversation. Future posts will examine some specific contexts, like the clergy reviews I researched in 2015.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in God's sight.

To think about: What conversational qualities could you aim to upgrade? 

“There are times in life
when we are called to be bridges,
not a great monument spanning a distance
and carrying loads of heavy traffic
but a simple bridge
to help one person from here to there
over some difficulty
such as pain, fear, grief, loneliness,
a bridge which opens the way
for ongoing journey.

When I become a bridge for another,
I bring upon myself a blessing, for I escape
from the small prison of self
and exist for a wider world,
breaking out to be a larger being
who can enter another’s pain
and rejoice in another’s triumph.

I know of only one greater blessing
in this life, and that is
to allow someone else
to be a bridge for me.”
©Joy Cowley 1989