In Search of Meaningful Conversation

meaningful conversation
If you must tell me your opinions, tell me what you believe in. I have plenty of doubts of my own.”
   — Goethe

I‘ve never been a fan of small-talk. I appreciate that you need a personal context for conversation — I’ve tried to have meaningful conversations (via IM or voice-to-voice) with people who have commented on my weblog posts, and face-to-face with people I’ve just met, but it’s hard.

As soon as I have that context, however — a subject of shared passion, an understanding of why the person I’m conversing with cares about that subject, and an appreciation of how they communicate (not how well, just how: we all converse differently and you need to chat long enough to pick up a sense of their conversational style) — as soon as I have that, I’m ready to waltz them outside the rest of the crowd and engage one-to-one (or occasionally in small groups) in deep, intense, serious conversation.

In such situations I try to adhere to my ten steps to effective conversations. But often I get so carried away that these conversations tend to go off on wild tangents, exploring a wide terrain in search of especially fertile common ground.

What surprises me, though, is the large number of people who have no interest in ‘serious’ conversation. This crowd includes many intelligent, creative and informed people and at first I thought it was just me — surely such people with imaginative ideas, important knowledge and powerful insights would want to share them with someone. But I’ve come to believe that the large universe of conversationalists (people who love to talk) and the smaller universe of people with something considered and important to say, are two different (and only partially overlapping) groups. To make things worse, even when I manage to find meaningful conversations, the majority of them are theoretical, not actionable, and accordingly, while stimulating, not terribly interesting to me. I am learning to pay better attention, but my attention span is still childishly short.

As I mentioned in Pilgrimage Part Two, I’ve always found it challenging to discover people who care to talk about things I think are important. In every country I’ve visited, in every community in which I’ve lived or spent time (in Second Life, and elesewhere online, as well as in real life) most people seem content to talk about immediate and superficial things — gossip, recent news, sports, weather, entertainment, work, what to eat for their next meal etc. So few people seem to care about what it all means, why we’re here, where we’ve come from, where we’re going, or what we can or should do about it.

I am tempted to chalk this all up to what I see, globally, as three endemic human malaises: (a) imaginative poverty, (b) lack of intellectual curiosity, and (c) anomie:

  • Those who lack imagination can’t conceive of the world being better or different from what it is, so why would they be concerned about changing it?
  • Those who lack intellectual curiosity simply can’t care about what’s happening outside their immediate situation in space and time.
  • Those who can’t or won’t empathize with others’ situation and who think the world is fucked anyway no matter what, will only ever care about finding what pleasure they can, now, no matter what the later consequences.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that places and opportunities for meaningful conversation are so rare — parts of the blogosphere, book clubs, and some universities — and places and opportunities for meaningful, actionable conversation even rarer.

That’s why I’m so obsessed, these days, with finding more powerful, interactive ways to communicate with you, dear online friends, than through the comments thread or e-mail. So if you’re fed up with my lack of response to these clumsy communications media, then IM me (via GMail/GTalk), schedule a voice-to-voice conversation (GTalk Call, orSkype), or meet me in Second Life, and let’s talk.

A friend of mine recently offered me these great ‘lead-ins’ to meaningful conversation:

  • Tell the other person something you’re passionate about, and why. Tell them passionately.
  • Tell them something they should know that they don’t, preferably as a story, and make it clear why it’s important.
  • Tell them about a possibility you’ve imagined. A real possibility, not just an ideal, a wish or a dream.  
  • Tell them a different way of thinking about something, one that sheds new light on what it means. 
  • Don’t argue. Just don’t.
  • In all of the above, make sure what you tell is actionable. But don’t tell them what to do.
  • And above all, keep it short, clear, and simple or entertaining. A conversation is a mutual gift.

Works for me.

Category: Conversation
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10 Responses to In Search of Meaningful Conversation

  1. Siona says:

    I thought this post was beautiful; thank you. Can I suggest, though, a simpler reason for any dearth of meaningful conversationalist might be simpler? (Or, barring that, could I add another to your list?)No doubt you’re quite aware of this already, but one of the most significant differences between small talk and serious talk is that the latter requires a commitment to deep listening.Listening requires stillness, and the ability to pay attention and to focus and to wait, and to be comfortable with those inner urges to do, and distract, and to take action.It seems to me we as a society are not very good at this.Because I’ll confess I rarely have a hard time discovering those who are interested in deep or meaningful conversations. Perhaps it’s that all meaningful conversations are unique; perhaps it’s that it’s hard to predict what topic or what emotion will strike someone else to dive deep within themselves, or reveal something that matters. In any case, I find the best way to facilitate those conversations is to LISTEN, and not to listen to content, but for emotion.Sometimes it takes a little while, but if the situation is private enough, something will bubble up. But I’ve definitely talked for long enough now. I’ll be quiet. Again… thank you.

  2. Janene says:

    Siona –I think you may have hit on yet another gender disparity (I am assuming you are female, if not, smack me :D). I think women are much more likely to have deep meaningful conversations — because we are generally more emotionally open than men. Not naturally, but culturally. So not only are we more willing to talk, other people are more willing to *let us talk* about things deep and meaningful. Of course, as an unusual woman in this regard, I have always felt that most “female conversation” is not as deep and important as most women think. But that’s another story all together……….Janene

  3. Siona says:

    I did think about that, but I had a hard time assessing for myself whether or not I, personally, found myself engaging more in conversations with men or with women. I do know interact on a daily basis with more men than with women, just due to the gender breakdown of my workplace and my friends, but even so I could imagine your observation still holding; perhaps both genders more easily open up to women than they do (other) men. What do you mean by “female conversation”? That sounds like a dangerously broad generalization if I ever heard one… ;)

  4. Jon Husband says:

    I’m going to have to read it again more carefully, and then reflect (as deeply as I know how) but on first read I find paragraph 4 powerfully nuanced in its condescension.Which throws me, because I know reasonably well, respect and appreciate Dave a great deal .. it’s probably my interpretation and (just as likely) my projection ….

  5. Jon Husband says:

    I want to clrify my earlier comment. Everyone has their own prersonal and preferred styles of communicatioln and conversation, and Dave has clearly outlined his and the reasons for it / them.My only or main beef with his assertion that conversations are not welll conducted (“clumsy communications media” were the words, I believe) are not necessarily shared by everyone. I participate in some comments threads in blog communities where I believe thst the comments thread gives rise to some might fine and mighty powerful “conversations” … but that’s just one man’s (mine) opinion.But there’s a basic threshold for me .. I firmly believe that a blog author shows respect to readers by replying to (all) comments as a matter of course, even if it is a simple “thanks” or an “I disagree” or even a “go troll elsewhere” (which is more or less a signal of respect for the rest of her or his community of readers).

  6. Jon Husband says:

    … otherwise, why even have comments capability ?

  7. Siona says:

    Well, if Jon can post three comments, I suppose I can keep unabashedly chatting, too. :)I also found the four paragraph a bit condescending, and can’t help, too, but reflect that the assumptions here would increase the likelihood that ‘meaningful conversations’ are difficult to find. If I meet someone who feels that my thoughts about “work, what to eat for [my] next meal, etc” are “superficial,” I doubt I’ll want to disclose anything deeper about who I am or what I care about–and I do believe that most people can sense that sort of attitude. To my mind, a genuine curiosity about others (and an interest in what THEY consider important instead of whether or not they agree with what *I* consider important) is a critical component of a good conversationalist.And again, I do think good conversationalists are much, much more likely to be “people who love to listen” rather than “people who love to talk.”

  8. Moshik says:

    I couldn’y agree with you more.Anyone wanna change the world ?no kidding ! :)I’m looking for people who are not afraid of dreaming in large scales, and being creative.anyone who’s passionate about that like meplease contact me at: :)

  9. I so agree about imagination. Imagination is learned, and like language is best learned early in life. It’s important to teach and encourage children from an early age to exercise their own imaginations, to be creative. It helps them be able to see and create possibilities later in life as well as to nurture their own curiosity. I think the biggest problem in places where poverty prevails is that parents (and sometimes children) are forced to work so hard and have so little means that children don’t get a chance to fertilize their imaginations early in life through story and play (and TV doesn’t count as creative play, because it feeds us complete images). A society that doesn’t nurture imagination in its young becomes stuck and requires outside impetus to get creative again, in order to even solve day to day problems related to survival. Too often, even when help arrives, rather than impetus to create for themselves, they’re fed someone else’s idea of what they need.Imagination is freedom.

  10. One thing nobody has mentioned yet is risk taking. To raise the important subjects, to talk about something that may make you vulnerable, or that is unusual, requires a certain boldness.

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