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17 January 2008

C is for conversation, curiosity, caring, community

Conversationinsnow Life's meaning emerges from conversation in community with people you love. – Dave Pollard

I will have real conversations in 2008, fierce conversations driven by curiosity, by caring, by connection, in community, through love.

“I found myself unwilling to waste time. I cut right through the bullshit to the real conversation,” MaryAnne said yesterday, recalling the last few weeks when she was standing on the edge of this world, going into the next. Now back to the realm of the living in a delightful respite, she knows she is still dying (as are we all), but has been given some more time—“to do what?,” she is asking. Perhaps to record her thoughts of being in that liminal space between life and death—the gap between I am and I was and I am becoming; she has asked me to help her by asking questions, recording our conversations, creating organizing principles for the lessons we are all learning from her—and from ourselves, delving into her heart-filled community to uncover what has made it so possible for friends and family to walk toward her and not away from her at what we usually see as a very fearful time. Perhaps we can all learn from her as we learned from her daughter’s death just over a year ago.

Talking with her yesterday reminded me of something Andre Gide once said: "The most important things to say are those which often I did not think necessary for me to say—because they were too obvious." As I heard her talk of giving and receiving what seemed to be last rites, those final conversations with friends in which you say the things that you cannot seem to say, day to day, I wondered why we don’t say those things every day. I wondered what our lives would look like if we did.

Dave Pollard has written beautifully and brilliantly about having better conversations. He also writes that “Every conversation has a purpose—which may be to give attention to learn something new, to understand something better, to convey an important idea or an imagined possibility, to express love and appreciation, to collaborate, or to build community through consensus or exchange.” Do we know the purpose of our conversations, I wonder. Often not, I fear. Or we say the conversation is about conveying idea when it is really about forcing someone to agree with us. We say the conversation is about expressing appreciation when it is really about creating a debt. We say the conversation is about understanding when it is really about judging. We say the conversation is to connect, but it is really about standing above.

When there is love,” he says, “conversation has purpose, context, engagement, trust (while, without love, conversation is sterile and selfish). The best conversations are in fact a form of play. Good conversation entails listening and paying attention, and it is through this that we learn (unschooled), discover, develop capacity to understand how the world works and how to make it better.”

Dave is right. And yet, as Margaret Miller said, “Most conversations are simply monologues delivered in the presence of witnesses.” Most of us are so adept at turning every conversation back to us. We ask question less from curiosity than from an addictive need to find our place in their story.

And most of us stay at the level of weather reports, forgetting what Oscar Wilde warned: "Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” And yet we stay there, on that surface place, not going into the conversation, the real ones. Why? Fear? Fear of what? That you will know too much? That you will misunderstand? That you will read too much into what I am saying?

An acquaintance—not a friend, really, but someone I had seen once a year for several years—knocked on my dorm room door one evening one summer and talked for five hours about what was really going on in his life. I was the container for what he needed to say. Perhaps I was at a sufficient distance to hear him since we weren’t close friends. He spoke of lost and broken love, disappointments, and of having been suicidal. I was his witness, the holder of his story. The next year when we came back to the same gathering place, he couldn’t look at me, be with me, talk to me. Did he feel he had revealed too much? Did he feel he had said things he shouldn't have said?

I’ve felt that way. Have you? What drives us to silence instead of vulnerability and connection? After all, as Mister Rogers told us, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.” Who are you helping know they are not alone? Who is helping you know that?

Slacker Manager beautifully summarizes a book I read several years ago: Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. The key points? (My emphasis and additions in bold and italics)

Three ideas:

  1. Conversations with people are either bolstering relationships, reducing relationships, or keeping relationships at status quo. Keith Johnstone’s brilliant book, Impro, includes a fascinating section on how in our every interaction we are either giving or receiving status.
  2. The conversations we have aren’t really about our relationship. Those conversations are the relationship. Yes, yes, yes.
  3. All conversations are with myself and sometimes they include other people. And sometimes, just sometimes, I really hear other people rather than fill up the space in my head while they’re talking with what witty response I will give if they would just get to the period and shut up.

Seven principles:

  1. Muster the courage to interrogate reality. When you ask your teenager what they think about global warming and they say “I don’t know,” ask them what they would think if they did know.
  2. Come out from behind yourself into the conversation, and make it real. Don’t wait until you’re on your deathbed for this one.
  3. Be here. Be prepared to be nowhere else but here. Oh how our lives would change if we really did this.
  4. Tackle your toughest challenge today. Ask at the beginning of a conversation—what is the most important thing you and I could talk about today?
  5. Take responsibility for your emotional wake. Consider what you leave behind. Is the water choppy behind your boat, or calm? Does it roil and crash against people, or does it lift them up, like those deep waves you feel in the ocean sometimes that bring you to the surface?
  6. Let silence do the heavy lifting. Why are we so afraid of silence?
  7. Don’t just trust your instincts–-obey them. That gut feeling you get? It’s there for a reason. Listen to it. Don’t discount it in a world intent on proof. Sometimes that feeling is the proof.

Conversation2_2 The talented and wacky Truman Capote once said “A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue.” Indeed. But oh how often it is the sound of one voice talking.

Intentions: In 2008, I will find my life’s meaning not in my bank account or awards or commendations, but in conversation in community with people I love. I will be fully present. I will see conversation as relationship. I will go into fierce conversations, not avoid them. I will say what I believe is obvious, because it sometimes isn’t and if I don't, someday it will be too late. And I will remember that as Richard Armour once said, “it is all right to hold a conversation but you should let go of it now and then.”

From the last alphabet challengeC is for compass

[photos seen here and here]


Subtle, subliminal message: If you've enjoyed this essay, perhaps you'd also enjoy my upcoming book, LIFE IS A VERB, to be published by Globe Pequot Press in the fall of 2008. For more info, click here!


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Conversations are tough. It's so easy to spend time that you'll never get back talking ABOUT someone instead of WITH someone. And it's so difficult to listen to others and not just wait until you can insert yourself into the story. I'm horribly guilty of doing both of these things, and I hope I'm not too old to change. Thanks for writing so clearly.

great post! i've always found friendships based on good conversations. learning and improving our ability to communicate has always felt like the path in my marriage. i really appreciated your tips!

Beautiful post, Patti. Listening--really listening--is such an underused and unappreciated skill. But, oh, the doors (of our minds and hearts) it can open when we practice it.

"And sometimes, just sometimes, I really hear other people rather than fill up the space in my head while they’re talking with what witty response I will give if they would just get to the period and shut up." I am trying SO HARD to learn how to do this, particularly when I speak with my sister.

I will come back to this post often.


As 1/2 of Slacker Manager and a person who also teaches Crucial Conversations you hit the C right on the mark with an A post.


Ms. Patti - the place you have created here is an amusement park for the mind and a hand-picked bouquet for the spirit. There is so much healing here and it is interactive.


Thank you, so much, for taking the time and giving of yourself to make this _______ (fill in the blanks: happiest place on earth) available.

You are appreciated.

I agree 100% about having conversations of meaning, content, amusement and enjoyment for 2008. I feel the most alive when I am engaged intellectually, especially with others who are as excited about ideas, life, love, and possibility.

Oh, what a lovely post. I feel like printing it and taping it to the wall where I can remember it each day. I see pointers to the Now year in principle number 3. :-)

Some of my best experiences in life are good conversations. I don't always remember the content long after, but I remembering the bonding and good feeling and happiness and contentedness and sharing in the company of another person. The conversation ends for various reasons and your soul longs for it to never stop, so it feels a bit sad. Then it remembers that the conversation's heartbeat is recorded in the soul and that it continues to beat every time you recall its existence.

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