Conversations That Matter: What It Takes to Have Them

mindful wandering
photo by Maren Yumi on flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Ironically, despite the fact that I engage in fewer conversations than I used to (maybe because since I’m retired I don’t have to, and because I find few conversations valuable anyway), I’ve started writing more about conversation on this blog. In a recent article, I suggested:

  • Real conversation serves one or more of these five purposes: to impart new information, to surface insights, to see different perspectives, to achieve consensus on decisions, and to resolve conflicts.
  • Prerequisite to good conversation are participants who have these seven skills: capacity to be open to other and difficult ideas and perspectives, capacity to articulate, social fluency (emotional engagement and sensitivity), critical thinking skills, curiosity, creative/imaginative skills, and attention skills.

The widespread lack of any such purpose, and of these essential skills, means that most conversations are, in my experience, at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive. Most conversations (like substantially everything posted on social media) are attention-, appreciation- and reassurance-seeking, and are just vexatious for those seeking a real meaningful exchange.

At a recent lunch with my friend Don Marshall, I confess my conversational skills were not up to par (I blame sleeplessness the previous night, but perhaps I’m just out of practice). I learned what he is trying to do with a volunteer project to improve people’s conversational skills around the predicament of climate collapse, through exercises (practice) focused on appreciating others’ perspectives, attentive listening, and conflict resolution. As there are so few people around capable of modelling such behaviours, and because people are so busy with the urgent demands on their time, and because most of us, I think, are in denial about the degree to which our conversational skills have atrophied, I wasn’t surprised to hear that he’s having a bit of trouble getting traction with this project. I had no suggestions for him to improve the process.

It occurred to me that (perhaps like many writers) I write, now, mostly to make sense of my own thinking. On this blog I have ‘conversations with myself’ because it is so hard and so rare to find others with whom I can have intelligent conversations on subjects both or all participants care about. No one is to blame for this — ‘talking with oneself’ is always the last resort for trying to make sense of things that seemingly don’t make sense. Such clarity can come from conversation, but it is a side-benefit when striving for one of the objectives above, and it’s rather narcissistic and a bit desperate (though, sadly, not uncommon) when it’s the principal reason for having a conversation.

Conversations about the predicament of climate collapse are particularly prone, I think, to such somewhat self-indulgent and often-fruitless “help me make sense of this” and “what should I do about this?” exchanges. The challenge with such pleading requests is that climate collapse is a predicament not a problem. Chris Martenson explains the difference (in his “Crash Course”):

The distinction between predicaments and problems boils down to this: problems have solutions; predicaments have outcomes. A solution to a problem fixes it, returning all to its original condition. Once a suitable solution can be found and made to work, a problem can be solved. A predicament, by contrast, has no solution. Faced with a predicament, people can develop responses, but not solutions. Those responses may succeed, they may fail, or they may fall somewhere in between, but no response can erase a predicament. Predicaments have outcomes that can be managed, but circumstances cannot be returned to their original state.

Terms like sustainability, resilience and regeneration suggest that one is dealing with a problem that can be ‘worked’, ‘worked around’, ‘bounced back from’ or ‘fixed with a reboot’. (The prefix re- means ‘back’, and there is no going back.) A predicament like climate collapse lends itself to no ‘solutions’, so striving for any of these is misguided and doomed to fail.

Those coming to grips with climate collapse (a much more honest term than mere climate change or even climate crisis) are now more often using the term adaptation to suggest what can or might or should be done, to, as Chris puts it “manage the outcomes”. But as any language scholar will tell you, the verb adapt is a reflexive verb — it does not take an object, and refers back to your self (in French, it is s’adapter — to adapt oneself). So adaptation doesn’t mean changing one’s community or environment, it means changing oneself.

It is not in our nature to want to change ourselves. It has been a lifelong and exhausting struggle to get our selves to the precarious but seemingly-optimal state we are currently in, and the thought of more gut-wrenching change does not sit well with most of us. We would much sooner change stuff outside — our government, our social and economic and political and educational and technological processes and systems. The problem with that, however, is that none of these systems will survive climate collapse, no matter how we tinker with or ‘regenerate’ them. These systems are collapsing, in fits and starts, just as our climate is. We cannot predict when and how they will collapse, and hence we cannot adapt them (or reinvent them) in order to delay, avert or lessen the impact of their collapse.

The only thing we can adapt is the one thing we don’t want to adapt — our hard-won selves.

Remarkably, those selves are at the core of all our suffering, anxiety, dread, shame, grief, anger and fear about climate collapse. If we were really able to (self-)adapt, we would let go of our selves and all our judgements, self-recriminations, unhelpful anxieties and other feelings that are causing us such anguish (and in the process, immobilizing us and turning us on ourselves and against each other in an endless blame game), and just be, in the moment, ready for whatever comes. Not ‘prepared’ (for we cannot prepare for what we cannot know), but ready — open, alert, grounded, present, competent (the etymology of competent is ‘striving together’.

And if we’re going to strive together we’re going to have to communicate with each other, and to do that we’re going to have to relearn the art of conversation (whose etymology is turning with, the step before striving together).

In our crazily individualistic modern western version of civilization culture, we are still fixated on s’adapter — changing ourselves, self-improvement, personal growth, spiritual growth, becoming present in the ‘now’, finding the path to awakening, enlightenment, or whatever other flavour-of-the-month navel gazing practice has currently caught our attention. Perfectly understandable.

And also (and here’s where I part company with most of my ‘progressive’ colleagues) perfectly impossible. As I have argued endlessly elsewhere ad nauseam and will not argue again here now, we cannot change who we are. We are the product of our conditioning, devoid of free will and self-control, and in fact our self is just a mental construct conjured up by the brain to make sense of what we perceive, and it isn’t real at all. When ‘we’ seemingly change, it is our conditioning that has changed; ‘we’ have nothing to do with it.

If we were not too smart for our own good, we would look to another reflexive verb instead of s’adapters’accepter. To accept ourselves as we are — scared, lost, impotent, and desperate. Not as a prelude to changing any of that; just accepting that that is who ‘we’ are. Of course, such humble self-acceptance will also only happen if our conditioning allows and mandates it. We have no free will to choose who we are or what we believe or do. Now that is a predicament.

If you are in the large majority who think you can change yourself, who think you have personal volition, I won’t argue, and I wish you well. I’m more interested in learning about conversation — turning together — and competence — striving together.

There is some compelling evidence that most wild creatures (and perhaps even prehistoric, wild humans) have no sense of themselves as separate from everything else in the universe. They intuitively act in ways that have evolved to sustain and enhance the collective well-being of all-life-on-earth — of what is called Gaia, the self-aware, self-optimizing force of everything, life-forms and environments, that make up our world. For Gaia, turning together and striving together is the only option, the law by which it has evolved. Nature always bats last, and our species’ current predilection for so flagrantly breaking this law will not be allowed to continue much longer.

If you have watched wild creatures, you know we have a lot to learn from how they seemingly ‘converse’, communicate, and collaborate, and how they become ‘competent’ — how they strive together.

Think about a time in your life when you were so caught up in some collective action, some striving together, that ‘you’ momentarily disappeared. When you ceased thinking of what ‘you’ could add to the conversation, of what ‘you’ thought about what was being said by others, and all thought was on the collective goal or benefit. At that moment, if you’ve been lucky enough to have one, the individual mind was replaced by the collective mind. This is what some teams striving for very difficult, urgent or important goals seem to experience. It’s what improv groups (actors or musicians) seemingly experience when they’re ‘in the groove’.

That’s what we want. We want to emulate those who are able, when the moment calls for it, to overcome their preoccupation with their individual selves and just become part of a collective mind. Presuming we have one of the five purposes for our collective conversation listed at the top of this article, and our participants have an adequate un-atrophied amount of the seven essential competencies, what might be the trigger, the catalyst that then shifts the conversation into this collective mind state, and precipitates the resultant striving together?

The usual method of provoking a group is to use either rhetoric (talk radio, tweets, Ted talks or blogs) or a story (often fictionalized, simplified or exaggerated) to whip the participants into a frenzy of action — this seems to work particularly well on people who are simplistic, blame-y and lacking in self-awareness. My concern with such manipulative methods (and I’ve used them myself) is that their impact doesn’t last. Sooner or later the lie will be seen for what it is, and humans’ focus of attention is notoriously fickle.

Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour is:

Humans have apparently evolved to do what they must (the personal, unavoidable imperatives of the moment), then do what’s easy, and then do what’s fun. There is never time left for things that are seen as merely important. Social, political and economic change happens only when the old generation dies and a new generation with different entrained beliefs and imperatives fills the power vacuum. We have evolved to be a collaborative and caring species, and we are all doing our best — we cannot do otherwise.

If that’s how we’re conditioned, how might we use Pollard’s Law to get people to that collective mind-state in their conversations? I would suggest that it will eventually become urgent (an imperative of the moment) as collapse hits home in our day-to-day lives, but in the meantime, we’d be better off finding ways to make conversations more fun than trying to make them easier. I think for example the collective altruistic conversations and actions of Occupy were, and those of XR are, (somewhat) fun. Why? There’s a sense of shared energy, risk, momentum and liberation in them. There’s lots of shared laughter, revelry and (sometimes) celebration. Same goes for improv activities.

So how might we introduce an element of fun, celebration, laughter and revelry into something as serious as conversations, especially when the topic is climate (or other system) collapse?

I have no idea. But I think it’s worth exploring. If fun can be the catalyst for conversations that move us beyond our paralyzed individual thinking towards a sense of collective presence, collective will, collective insight, and collective accomplishment, they might actually wrench us out of the entrained, default mode of thoughts and beliefs so many of us are stuck in. This “whole is greater than the sum of the parts” activity might actually change our conditioning, something we (arguably) cannot do all by ourselves or in the normal conversations that merely reinforce what we already think.

If we can catalyze such conversations, we’ll need to stay clear of the misguided thinking that drives us to then agree upon an “action plan”, which normally takes the form of a “who will do what by when” list and which notoriously deflates that collective energy. Indigenous cultures know that when collective action or consensus has emerged from a group conversation, no one has the authority to tell others what to do about it. It is always left up to each participant, her/his mind expanded and shocked out of its default way of thinking, to know, intuitively, what then must be done, by each of us, both individually and collectively. We have to trust that to happen.

So, in order for conversations to be (for lack of a better term) transformative, producing much more than any group of individuals could come up with alone, they need to: (1) “be on purpose” (have one of the five purposes listed above), (2) have sufficiently skilled and competent participants (with the seven skills above), and (3) have some quality (urgency, or fun) that propels people into a collective mind-state and gets them out of their personal, “self”-ish, default thinking mode. And, of course, (4) they need to have a topic, theme or focus that’s important to the participants, something they all really care about.

Derrick Jensen, who has been coming to grips with climate collapse a lot longer than most of us, might have some advice on what the topic of your next conversation on climate collapse might be. He writes:

Stand still and listen to the land, and in time you will know just what to do…  Find what or whom you love — whether it’s salmon, sturgeon, a patch of forest, survivors of domestic violence, your own indigenous tradition, migratory songbirds, coral reefs, or Appalachian mountaintops — [that you’re willing] to dig in and defend with your life… Ask yourself what are the largest, most pressing problems you can help to solve using the gifts that are unique to you in all the universe.

Imagine: You’re with a group of “conversationally skilled” people, convened purposefully about something profoundly important to all of you, in a setting with either a sense of great urgency or great fun/joy, and you’re talking about what you love so much you’d give your life for it, and what you can do exceedingly well, together, using each participant’s unique capacities.

How could such a conversation not be brilliant? How could it possibly not lead to a turning together, and a striving together, beyond what you could have believed was possible?

And if your conversations don’t meet these criteria — aren’t on purpose, aren’t skilful, aren’t urgent or joyful, and aren’t about subjects you can help with and which you care about enough to die for — why, when our planet is burning, are you wasting your time on them?

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4 Responses to Conversations That Matter: What It Takes to Have Them

  1. philip says:

    A lot of scaffolding is required to have the conversations that meet those criteria. Much conversation seems a waste of time but a degree of acceptance is required for any participant as they can be no one but their selves. Ignorance can bring a certain joy for anyone. There are only levels of ignorance in any walking, talking individual human. As we are on the road to hell, wasting time for many will be imperative. Is there really much difference between conversations that don’t or do matter in this unfolding predicament when one has “let it go”?

  2. James Gibbons says:

    I’m into common-union and everybody knows. I’m not into the surface stuff, the platitudes, the matter, because you are right, it doesn’t matter. Time to look elsewhere.

  3. Christopher Vandyck says:

    Dave, like only a handful of great intellectuals of our times, you have reverted to navel gazing because a wise and learned man of your calibre can’t get traction in the North American milieu.

    You need to get to Europe, if you want your life to unfold.

    Your problem isn’t universal. It’s just you.

  4. Dale says:

    Fun, yes. I’ve been thinking that often these days: that much of what drove such success as the New Left had in the sixties was that we were clearly having a much better time than our dreary Establishment counterparts. Not that our “fun” wasn’t problematical, it was very much so. But even so. I don’t think we’re doing a very good job, at present, of replicating that marketing success. We’re owlish or preachy, and our lips are tightly pursed.

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