photo by Maren Yumi
A couple of years ago, riffing off Nancy White, I wrote that
Life’s meaning, and an understanding of what needs to be done, emerges, most often, from conversation in community with people you love. It is the key to changing anything, whether it be the political or economic system, or yourself, or whether you want to save the whales, stop global warming, reform education, spark innovation or change anything else.
Now (thanks to Tree and my colleagues at Art of Hosting for the link) a new study suggests that when we have deep, meaningful conversations with others, we are happier people. The authors of the study say the result was counter-intuitive (“don’t worry, be happy” and “I don’t want to know”) but it really doesn’t surprise me. We are programmed to look for explanations and solutions for things we don’t understand and don’t like. Initially we may want to try to control the situation, rush to conclusions and solutions, but when those prove elusive, and the knowledge, ideas, perspectives and insights we have acquired don’t help us cope, we quickly turn to conversation. Why? I think there are ten reasons that conversations are so valuable they drive almost everything we believe, understand, and do:
- It’s better to know. Maybe we say and feel that we don’t want to know how bad it is, but when we say that we’re already imagining the worst. The truth is usually not that bad, and that truth often emerges from conversation.
- We like reassurance that what we feel and think makes sense. The fastest way to get that reassurance is to converse, to share, because from conversation come the nods of understanding, the appreciation, the sympathetic ideas, and the empathy that make what we feel and think more bearable, more sensible.
- It’s how we learn. We learn best by doing, by watching others, and by asking questions, and all three processes are improved through intelligent conversation. Tell me, how/why did you do that? Show me again and this time talk me through it. Now let me try, and tell me how I’m doing at each step.
- It’s how we decide. The best decisions are informed by ‘the wisdom of crowds’, by consultation, by talking through the options, by consensus.
- It’s how we resolve conflict. Conversation is how we ‘talk out’ our differences. When we discuss our respective viewpoints respectfully and openly, an appreciation of the other person’s feelings, beliefs and rationale can emerge, and the misunderstanding that usually underlies the conflict can be dissipated.
- It leads to intention, and hence to action. Often an event or learning will lead us to a sense of urgency to act, but not give us wisdom of what action to take. Conversation, once it has reassured us that our instinct to act is valid, can help us surface and learn some of the options to act, and hence propel us into action. And when we converse, we often state our commitment, our intention to act, and having a witness to that intention can also push us to act on it.
- It clarifies, in our own minds, what we care about and hence who we are. What we care about defines who we are, so when we have a conversation that helps us understand whether and to what degree we care about an issue, and why, we come to understand and know ourselves better. That makes us more useful in many ways, and in the process, probably makes us happier.
- With practice, it improves our social fluency, and other critical capacities and competencies. The chart below is one I co-developed with Chris Lott, and the blue circle which, in concert with our knowledge and thinking competencies enables us to be usefully expressive (artistic and improvisational, and hence socially fluent) is all about the capacity for and practice of conversation.
- With practice, it teaches us the critical appreciative skills of listening and attention. Every conversation is a dance, and you have to be pretty insensitive not to realize that if you always lead and dominate the conversation, soon people won’t want to dance with you any more. And of course we learn more when we pay attention, really listen to what others are saying.
- It opens us to new possibilities. Although often in conversation we are seeking reassurance, attention and appreciation, sometimes we will be surprised, bowled over, astonished, to hear something, or to realize something, that changes us radically, opens us to new ideas and worldviews, breaks our heart. That is the key to innovation and resilience, and good conversation can expose us and keep us open to these mind-altering, heart-breaking new possibilities.
Yes, I know, lately I’ve been down on language because while it’s a passable tool for intellectual understanding it’s a poor one for communicating emotion. But I’m not sure you even need language to have a deep and meaningful conversation. Watch lovers converse with the ‘illiterate’ sounds and tones of their voices, watch the body language in meetings and casual encounters, watch wild animals collaborate on a project they couldn’t do alone — each is a wordless conversation. Even the conversation we have with ourselves (and imagine ourselves having with the author) when we read something stimulating is a substantially illiterate conversation — it’s more about acknowledging what we feel, and tapping into our instincts, than it is an intellectual word-conversation.
These ten ‘values’ of conversation make us more competent, more human, more appreciative, more collaborative.
No wonder conversation makes us happy.