The lost art of conversation

When you look at this picture what do you see?

This past week I experienced three examples of why it’s so important to talk to each other, old friends and new acquaintances alike. Something magical happens when we actually talk to each other, not at each other. True dialogue looks like this: one person talks and the other listens, with the intent of hearing and understanding and the cycle repeats itself. These kinds of conversations seem to be rarer and rarer. What’s at stake if we forget how to really talk and hear one another? Perhaps everything.

My first reminder of the importance of true dialogue came Wednesday morning on an airplane. Like many travelers, once I arrive at my seat I usually settle in by plugging in earphones and either taking out a book or taking out work. Earphones are the universal sign for leave me alone. It just so happened that I’ve started reading Malcom Gladwell’s new book, Talking With Strangers, so that’s what I pulled out as we pulled away from the gate.

Once we lifted off, I couldn’t help but notice the lady next to me. Well, let me clarify- I couldn’t help but notice her screen. She was watching Fox News, specifically, Fox & Friends. Every few minutes I kept finding myself glancing up at her screen and then looking back at my book. Here’s the thing: I was sizing her up. She was an older white lady, we’re headed on a flight from Atlanta to Nashville so she was likely a southerner, she’s watching Fox News so obviously conservative. I didn’t know the woman yet, but I already had her pegged just based on the cues that I could observe. Then, out of nowhere (or perhaps because she noticed me continuing to glance up), she pointed to my book and asked, is that book any good? And so began a flight long conversation with Debbie that by the time we landed, I was convinced would be my favorite all time interaction with a stranger on a plane.

It wasn’t simply what we talked about, but really how we talked that surprised me. As I got to know her story, most of my assumptions were debunked. She’ll be 63 in January, but she was raised on both the West Coast and Connecticut (she only came south for marriage). She now lives in Florida and was on her way to Nashville to visit an ailing friend’s mother. She asked about the book because she has a 24 year old son who she thought I was around his age (she was surprised to learn that I was 36, married, with 4 kids). She’s really worried about Conner (her son). He hasn’t seemed to get over the loss of his father (her late husband) and in his failure to grieve he has gotten himself into all kinds of trouble. In fact just that morning she’d sent him a text (because that’s the only way to communicate with this generation we both bemoaned), encouraging him to find some purpose and letting him know how worried she is about him. Turns out, what she needed more than anything was simply someone willing to listen. Sometimes the best conversations aren’t planned.

Yet, it’s possible to create spaces where meaningful dialogue can and should happen. Sometimes it’s even necessary. I carried this remarkable experience of talking with a stranger on a plane with me into Saturday where I sat with a roomful of parents who were attempting to do the same thing. Here they were, common challenges, common aspirations, trying to figure it out on their own. Except, they had a unifying purpose for coming together: they wanted to merge their efforts. What if we don’t have to figure everything out on our own? What if we have enough common ground where we can find solutions together? In this setting, talking with a stranger at least seems easier because you start off on common ground.

Finally, I ended the evening hosting a gathering of friends at my own home where I got to share more about an organization that my wife and I support. It’s called a friend-raiser, and while I wasn’t too keen on the idea of hosting an event to raise money, I was intrigued about the prospect of talking with friends about issues I care about. It turns out they ended up caring as well. Imagine that!

It’s these lessons this week that have me appreciative for the experiences that force me to unplug and connect, share my story, and hear the stories of others. I learn a lot about others of course, but I also learn about myself and my own biases, particularly how quick I am to pre-determine the perspective of others. It’s a real eye opener, but one that only happens when you put yourself out there and actually start or engage in a conversation.


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