conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Posts Tagged ‘dialogue

From “You Suck” to “Say More”

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Advance Your Conversations by Providing Wee Bits of Pivot


My client has a big agenda for her healthcare organization: she wants her colleagues to reconsider how they purchase their millions of dollars of medical equipment every year. As we talked we realized there are a set of steps her colleagues take to see things differently. Every conversation can be a step, bringing in information, yes, but more importantly, bringing in emotional connection, along with wee bits of pivot. She needed to provide the right information at the right time at the proper emotional setting.

That’s because we use rational thought to change our minds. But changing our minds is also an emotional activity. Reason and emotion together help us see and do things differently.

If you are convinced you are right about something—and most of us are dogmatic by default on dozens of topics—then you state your opinion flat out and your conversation partner is forced into a binary response:

  • “Yes—I agree. You and I, we are brothers.” or,
  • “No. You suck and now I hate you forever.”

But if we dial dogmatic back a notch and consider that another opinion may help us, we are poised to deliver words with wiggle, words that help us move forward in a conversation. What we say next allows us to bring more information along with our own emotional force. And even if we don’t persuade someone of our opinion, we’ve had a conversation where we’ve learned something.

And that is significant.

We need a lot of wee bits of pivot just now. Conversations about race, about policing, about religion, about politics—all of these are ripe areas for letting go of the dogmatism that leads to binary thinking.

Can’t we all just have better conversations?


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

December 2, 2015 at 9:21 am

Just Do It—Out Loud (DGtC#31)

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But what if I’m a scaredy-cat?

I’m toying with the notion of starting conversations people won’t like. I’ve advocated and agitated for having the difficult conversation:

  • Even if I don’t know all the answers,
  • Even if I don’t have all my ducks in a row,
  • Still, start the conversation.

It’s a faith thing: faith that pressing thoughts into words and sending them clanging out at a conversation partner will have a positive effect. The faith part has to do with hoping we’ll get through it and still have a relationship.


My friend is a hospital chaplain. He and I have talked several times about the sort of sacred space he tries to step into at the bedside of a dying patient and family. It’s typically a quiet space, through deeply-charged with emotion. He comes to listen, he says. Platitudes and easy answers are not part of his game plan.

At these moments, just before the end, all sorts of unsaid stuff gets suddenly said. Confessions. Sorrow. Hopes and dreams. Oddly, even the very most mundane, ordinary things—weather, lighting, parking, “the soup is too salty”—are also said. But these ordinary words have more to do with human connection and presence than transferring information. The words themselves communicate far more than Webster’s dictionary would allow.

            “Sometimes people just need to hear themselves talk,” said Dave, the chaplain.

So he listens.

And the process of letting-go unfolds.

You’re Doing it Wrong

Surely we’re doing things wrong if we hold our most important thoughts in stasis until we show up at a loved one’s deathbed. Or until we wake up on our own deathbed. There’s got to be room for saying what’s really on our minds, even if uncomfortable, even if potentially relationship-threatening. I suspect that saying our important stuff out loud is sometimes a work of fierce determination. There are times where we must force those words up the esophagus and out through the lips.

Saying our most important stuff will not happen on Facebook or Twitter. Those spaces are loaded with an image we’ve carefully primped. We are agreeing and agreeable in those places.

No—I want to cultivate those raw conversations. I’m thinking of those conversations that happen after driving 1700 miles together. The conversations that happen at the end of a long evening talking with friends.

Is it possible to bring those kinds of conversations into regular life—even if they make people uncomfortable? Even if it goes against my grain as a people-pleaser? Those are the conversations where growth can happen.

What have you left unsaid today that really needs to be out in the open?


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Why we don’t know what we don’t know

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“As I was telling Mrs. Kirkistan…”

Our unguarded responses in conversation often point a way forward. It’s just that we don’t realize it until we’ve said it. And even then, it may take us recollecting that statement, in yet another conversation, to an entirely different person.

Sometimes we carry our own answers

Sometimes we carry our own answers

Example: sometimes I think writing is the stupidest thing to do on earth. This is not my standard line with writing students. But sometimes I swing low, like after I finish a big project and stop to calculate the return on (mental) investment.

Note to self: Never stop to calculate the mental ROI on a writing project. Just keep writing.

I was describing to Mrs. Kirkistan how it is I’ve come to believe writing is the stupidest way to spend your time—bar none. In that conversation, after several (verbal) paragraphs about all the frustrations of writing and why I’ve come to despise it, I found myself defending the process and telling of the delights of writing and what I want to do next.

How did I just travel from one conclusion to another within 90 seconds?

It’s almost like opening a water tap in a long vacant house: you let the water run until it is cold, then you drink. I know with writing you have to write a lot of dreck before you ever get the useful and true stuff. Same with verbal conversations: sometimes we just talk to fill up the space between us. And then sometimes the true thing just spoken—that thing that landed between us—is the very answer to an unasked question.

We unwittingly answer our own question.

But, this: we need to listen so we can hear what we already knew.

Moral: make sure there are some unguarded responses in each day. And listen to those unguarded responses to help sort what you don’t know.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Hold On: Let’s Talk About That

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Getting things right requires triangulating with other people.

Wait, let's triangulate for a moment.

Wait, let’s triangulate for a moment.

Getting things right requires triangulating with other people. Psychologists therefore would do well to ask whether “metacognition” (thinking critically about your own thinking) is at bottom a social phenomenon. It typically happens in conversation—not idle chitchat, but the kind that aims to get at the bottom of things. I call this an “art” because it requires both tact and doggedness. And I call it a moral accomplishment because to be good at this kind of conversation you have to love truth more than you love your own current state of understanding. This is, of course, an unusual priority to have, which may help to account for the rarity of real mastery in any pursuit.

–Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (NY: Farrar, Straux and Giroux, 2015) 63


Image Credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

August 24, 2015 at 9:22 am

Our Best Conversations Satisfy and Anticipate

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They can satisfy a question we didn’t know we had.


They can anticipate a question still on the horizon.


Image Credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

August 12, 2015 at 8:56 am

How Does Anyone Change Direction?

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Living with Questions

I met a preacher at a wedding recently. He had just officiated the ceremony, which was a beautiful thing—two people creating a great beginning. Afterwards, making small talk, the preacher told me how a few people in his congregation had changed. I was curious, because I had been reading Howard Gardner’s Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds. In these highly partisan days, where we carefully surround ourselves with our tribe who speak our language, agree with our view of the world and where we ingest the news biased toward our agenda, I’ve been wondering how anyone ever escapes their own personal echo chamber.


“God did it,” he said. “In quite miraculous ways. Real change. 180 degrees.”

The preacher’s story of change had to do with someone coming into his congregation and how their life was different now.

“Wow,” I said, because change is remarkable. And because I like to hear stories about God doing stuff in real life.

“Sometimes I wonder,” I said, “Whether God does stuff or whether people change to fit the new club or group they’ve joined. Because I’ve noticed that the things we attribute to God can sometimes be explained by communication dynamics—how this new club or group satisfies a question someone has. Or perhaps the group dynamic meets an impulse they have, and they are more than happy to abide by the rules and unspoken ways this tribe works. And that looks like change. And perhaps that’s where change takes place: as we adopt a new moral code and sort of work ourselves into it.”

Was the preacher backing away?

“Which is not so say God is not in it,” I added, quickly.

“Hmmm,” he said.

“Because I absolutely believe God works through ordinary conversations in very big ways (now’s when you would mouse over and order a copy of my new book ListenTalk. Or just click here.)

“But I’m just sort of eager to cite the proper authorities when we talk about change,” I said. “Because change seems more nuanced, more a response to the questions we carry with us.”

Was he nodding in agreement?

Wait—where did he go?

What questions do you carry into everyday life? Those very questions may be the beginning of change.


Image Credit: Kirk Livingston

Q: My friend has lost all desire and curiosity.

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What can I say to bring him to life again?–Lazarus’s friend

Dear conversation is an engine

My friend has lost all desire and curiosity. What can I say to bring him to life again?

–Lazarus’s friend


Dear Lazarus’ Friend:

Your friend may be depressed. Does he look at his smartphone a lot—that could be a sign. Tell your friend to hie unto a physician for a thorough physical–because it could be physical. It could require a counselor or mental health professional.

But from a friend’s perspective, find ways to be present. Take your friend out for coffee and get him to spill the beans: what’s going on? Friendship is about talking all the way through your friend’s understanding of life just now. Touch on what he fears and what he hopes. Touch on what next steps he might. This will take time—maybe many cups of coffee over a long time. Or take a long walk together–do something that takes the pressure off talking.

Being present with your friend may look like conversation. Or it may sound like silence. But being there, whether or not words show up, that is the first point.

Start there. Because showing up may be just the glimmer your friend needs.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Have That [fearful, painful, embarrassing] Conversation

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It’s how humans move forward

We find all sorts of ways to not say something important.

I do this all the time: there are things I need to say to several people in my life—but I hold back, fearful of how my words might be received, questioning where the conversation will lead. Am I able to follow where this potential conversation might go? Do I even have the emotional capacity to stick with that conversation? Will I fall into weeping or fly into a rage?

I’m not talking about drive-by conversations that release a damning monologue and then run away. I’m talking about those sustained conversations with people we are close to, conversations begun with a desire to say and hear. True dialogue about something important—where our thoughts are modified by someone else’s—and something new arises.


Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (Metropolitan Books, 2014) has reminded me of the need to get very specific when talking about end of life stuff—though the entire topic is crazy difficult. One simply does not know how much time anyone has left.

But it is not just death and life stuff that wants a conversation. There is life-direction stuff, talk about fears and hopes and dreams. Talk about how we understand something: what we think of faith now compared to what we thought 30 years ago.

Does that sound like a heavy conversation? It sure could be. But, in fact, we release bits and pieces of this stuff all the time. In conversation with those close to us we always find ourselves talking about these things. But sometimes those conversations need to be ramped up.

A couple years ago I wrote that it is better to have the conversation than not. More and more I think that is true. When we bring up a topic with a friend or family member or colleague, great things can happen. We can find new resolve, or new intimacy. Sometimes the talk conjures raw emotion. But on the other side is a movement forward.

What do you need to say today—and to whom?


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

July 14, 2015 at 9:13 am

“ListenTalk: Is Conversation an Act of God?” Get it at Amazon.

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How do ordinary conversations change the course of your life?


Now available at Amazon and other book sellers.

The smallest things you hear and say have the power to alter the trajectory of your life.

But you know this—just look back at a few of the most innocuous conversations you’ve had—the ones that led to a school and a life partner, or to the career you love, or to breaking with some substance.

ListenTalk rereads some old Bible stories for what God expected in conversation with women and men. A few wily philosophers show up in the book to quiz God—and us—about the power and promise of ordinary talk.

Read ListenTalk and  you’ll come to look for and expect big things from even the most ordinary conversations that populate your day. Because ordinary conversations lead to far deeper connections than you’d imagine in your wildest fever dreams.

Feel free to give the book a 5-star review at Amazon.

Take me to Amazon this very instant with this link so I can order this odd but interesting book.


Teach Your Institution to Speak

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Developing a Bias Toward Dialogue

Dogs don’t talk, but they are great communicators.

We know what they want, mostly because they want the same things at the same times every day. They’ve trained us in exactly that way: Go outside. Eat. Rub my ears.

Dogs have conditioned us well.

In the same way our corporations and organizations and institutions train us to speak in certain ways. One company I worked for required a high level of sarcasm to get through the day—it was just the way employees interacted—all the way to the top dog. Another firm with a gossipy culture built impenetrable walls of mistrust and politics between colleagues, cliques and departments—walls that interfered with work and mission. One brave boss arose from the nattering class with a zag to the well-entrenched zig: when Employee A came with a screed about Employee B, this boss would immediately summon Employee B to the office and engage their complaints together. So before Employee A went off the rails about Employee B, they had to deal with the issue together, face-to-face. This became the beginning of a solution. People stopped gossiping to the boss, for starters. But they also found new ways to talk with each other. People picked up on the message that unhinged rants about colleagues will not do—at least with this boss.

Spot the Ole in this photo.

Can you spot the Ole in this photo?

You might think that the only way to get an institution to have open, revealing, useful forward-moving conversations would be from the top down. If the big boss does dialogue, then everyone else does—so goes the thinking. But in fact, culture does not always move from the top of the pyramid to the bottom. Sometimes it starts in the middle. Sometimes it starts at the bottom.

And that is good news for the 99 percent of us without a bully pulpit.

A person who demands more of conversation will butt up against others who are not so demanding, and sparks will fly. Or not. If you cannot find a place for forward-moving conversation in your organization, chances are good you will leave to find an organization where your voice will be heard.

But there are not a lot of good reasons to put up with less than genuine conversation.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

July 9, 2015 at 9:14 am

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