conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Posts Tagged ‘JL Austin

5 Ideas that Will Change How You Talk Today

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3 Philosophers, a Rhetorician and a Social Media Expert walk into a bar…

Since writing ListenTalk, I’ve continued to hear these voices echoing in my conversations at work, at home, at church, in the street, at the curling club (I made that up. I don’t curl. Nor do I hurl.).


Here’s what these voices say:

  • We have responsibility for others. That’s why we greet people and learn names and acknowledge presence. Our responsibility can do deeper—or not. But it is there from first sight and we all know it. (Emmanuel Levinas)
  • People are not objects. So when we treat people as objects, we devalue them and strip ourselves of excellent relational opportunities. People becoming objects can happen in the workplace: it can happen when the CEO looks down on the vast army of minions. It can happen in the home. But it shouldn’t and we do well to defy this narcissistic pull. (Martin Buber)
  • Words have incredible power. We can say things and, behold, it is so. Like pronouncing a marriage. Or deciding on a goal. This may not seem so, given the river of words we issue, the mundane, seemingly meaningless conversations that make up 99% of any particular day. Despite the great volume of words avalanching through our lives, they do—at times—hold incredible power. That’s why we hang on the last words of a dying person. That’s why we want to hear the words behind our favorite writer—we want to hear them explain how their story or argument came about. You can probably recount a handful of life-changing words right now, words someone spoke to you at just the right time. (JL Austin and John Searle)
  • Our best talk comes when we’re not out to win a conversation. Humans are persuasive beings—we’re constantly trying to convince each other of things. But our best thinking and talk comes when we listen as well. And our worst conversations look like monologue—when someone preaches at us without listening. Those also tend to be short conversations. (Wayne Booth)
  • Say what you will. Unless you live in North Korea or Russia, you generally have the capacity to say what you want. Yes, the current Facebook effect seems to be to say only what our tribe wants to hear, but we can find and build new tribes using social media. This is very important, because the old institutional voices are veering from truth more and more frequently. We need those new voices. We need your voice. (Clay Shirky)

Do you see how any one of those five ideas might impact your conversations today?


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

“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.


Words: Frequently Chosen Tools of the Living

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Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Fascinating: How Stanley Cavell Was Fascinated by JL Austin

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Gimme a bigger brain. I’ll settle for a bigger trigger of fascination.

Stanley Cavell’s uneven memoir about becoming a philosopher (Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory) is interesting and boring and interesting. Like a lot of philosophy texts, it calls to you days and weeks after you’ve put it down and made peace with never finishing it. I’ve checked it out twice and twice have not finished it—usually a signal I need to actually buy the book with cash money.


Today I’m rethinking Cavell’s descriptions of sitting under the teaching of JL Austin when he visited UC Berkeley from Oxford. Cavell’s descriptions of Austin are not always becoming or charming. JL Austin was a brilliant philosopher but also a bit of a cad, it turns out. But what’s of particular interest is how blown away Cavell was by Austin’s “A plea for excuses.” It’s a pedantic text—like a lot of Austin’s writing. But for Cavell it was full of clarity and win and entirely energizing. Just based on Cavell’s enthusiasm, I’ll reread Austin’s paper.

Enthusiasm is humanity’s secret weapon. The boring teacher is the one unimpressed/unmoved/unchanged by the subject matter she drones on about. But the enthusiastic cheerleader for speech act theory or a particular camera lens or the lobster roll at The Smack Shack is enough to move me to action. As a copywriter I think a lot about how to present this priority or that piece of information so an audience will become interested. But human enthusiasm cuts through all technique and strategy, like sunlight burning off fog. Maybe that’s why word of mouth is the pot of gold every marketer seeks today.


Image credit: Lia Halloran via 2headedsnake

Written by kirkistan

June 26, 2013 at 10:00 am

Philosophers don’t pack heat. Right?

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On Preparing for Ignite Minneapolis

outcome not yet determined

The unrelenting movement—every 15 seconds a slide changes—makes speaking at Ignite Minneapolis more a verbal dance than a straight-out talk. I’ve compressed four voluminous thinkers (Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, JL Austin and Wayne Booth) into pairs of 10 second sound bites. If the audience includes philosophers packing heat, I may not make it out alive. Practice, practice, practice. And more practice. And then practice lots, lots more. It’s the only thing that begins to still the nerves.

I remind myself of the dream: to see if anyone will bite on my notion that ordinary conversations can be turned into insight-producing engines. All it takes is four steps to tune our thinking—but I’ll wait until after I present to spill the beans on “How to HACK a Conversation for Insight.” It’s the message I’m excited about presenting. Very, very swiftly.


Image Credit: Zohar Lazar via 2headedsnake

Listentalk Chapter 1 Synopsis: The Preacher and the Farmer

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Conversation can be a scattered affair or it can be strategic.

The street preacher tosses out words that may pull in a passer-by. The street preacher might even aim and deliver those words to his mobile audience, hoping to bring some casual listener to a full stop. The farmer also tosses out seed and hopes for the best. It’s just that the farmer plants systematically, knowing she has given her seed the best environment for growth by choosing the well-drained plot of rich loam and cultivating it before planting.

Is dialogue more like words scattered by the street preacher or like words systematically implanted for growth by the strategic communicator? The moving parts of a conversation are put on display by an overview of philosophers Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, JL Austin and John Searle. Context, content, character and intention all play a role in how our conversations move forward. Finally, observations about what makes for a good conversation, including thoughts on control, disruptions, rhetoric and the place of whimsy/serendipity.


Written by kirkistan

November 19, 2010 at 6:27 am

My Raw Argument for Conversation

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The Practice of Dialogue Rests on Solid Ground

I’ve become intrigued by trying to boil Listentalk down to the most elemental forms. Intrigued because there is a firm foundation for which I can build things on. Here’s what I know so far:

you really should

  1. There is a performative aspect of language. This performative aspect allows language to actually do something out in the world, to make things happen. It is not just that speaking something makes it true. But there is something closely related that is less about true/false and more about perception/reality: when we speak something, it becomes public, it becomes known, it becomes the story we’re going with—unless immediately debunked by those involved in the hearing and telling. So…stuff happens when we speak it. It becomes true…or at least truish. JL Austin, John Searle and others go on and on about such speech acts. I intend to hear more from them.
  2. We do right by others when we treat them as people. Obvious? Yes and no. Martin Buber suggested we often treat each other as objects rather than as people. He talks about “I-Thou” relationships where we treat the person before us as fully-human, whole people. Beings with many facets, interests, parts of their character. We talk and (especially) listen to them as we respect the dignity of their being human. But too often we treat others with an “I-It” sort of connection. That is, the kind of connection we have with an object too often becomes the model for the way we connect with people. We use a hammer to pound a nail, a George Foreman Grill to press a Panini for lunch. It makes sense to use tools in that way. But we mustn’t treat people as if they were objects. We devalue them. People are people. People are not objects placed on earth for the sole purpose of carrying out my personal (sometimes diabolical) will. There’s much more to say about this (in particular from Emmanuel Levinas), but that is the basic argument.
  3. God created and interacts with people. Lest you think I’m writing some humanistic diatribe, both the performative nature of language and the treatment of people as beings of dignity flow directly from the Old and New Testaments. Look at the role of “Word” from Genesis 1 to John 1 to Revelation 22. Words are performative so often it will make your head spin (If your head is subject to spinning) (You might want a doctor to look at that). Watch how the Eternal One allowed for the possibility that words spoken could be rejected. Even the words of the Creator. Even the Word that was a person as well as God.
  4. We’re at a new time when gatekeepers no longer control the discourse. Social media is part of the deal, but not the whole deal. New attitudes about who is in authority, who we can trust and who we cannot trust are in operation. Technology is opening doors.

Those are “Listentalk’s” four building blocks.

What did I miss?


I’m Writing a Book called “ListenTalk”

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I’m writing a book about talking and listening. I’ve become crazy about what happens in our best conversations: we come alive. We learn something about another person and in the spontaneous moment of creation as we frame up words to describe our own situation, we often suddenly learn something brand new about ourselves. Something we didn’t know before we started talking. I’ve begun to think that when we are in conversation, we are more truly ourselves. And the best conversations have a way of making us very present to each other.

I call this book “ListenTalk: You’re Boring. Let’s Change That.” I think we were created to be in constant, deep, creative, spontaneous conversation. Not just with each other, but with God. That’s why parts of the book develop a theology of communication, starting with God’s act of creation, where His speech-act created dirt and air and giraffes and coffee beans and people, among other things. So you can see that with my book I hope to bring together something of JL Austin’s work on communication with a commitment to faith. Maybe I’m trying to do something impossible. I’m not sure. In a few days I’m scheduled to talk with a philosopher and speech-act theory expert at the University of Minnesota. I’m interested in his response to my notion of combining these things.

Two more pieces of this book project capture my attention in a big way.

Derrida and Welcoming the Other

One has to do with Derrida’s notion of welcoming the other. I recently finished James K.A. Smith’s “Jacques Derrida Live Theory” (Amazing: the book retails for $120! No wonder I cannot afford most of what I read) and was pleased to see a philosopher working from a faith perspective dealing with Derrida’s thoughts. I was impressed to see overlap between Derrida’s notion of welcoming the other into conversation and the God of the Bible’s commitment to welcoming the other. The Bible talks about reconciliation, and that definitely includes welcoming the other. What reconciliation does not mean (and here is where Derrida is particularly helpful in helping throw off some of my Christian cultural baggage) is making the other like me. We’re all tempted to make those around us like ourselves. But that effort misses the point of the kind of conversations that will sustain us.

Is Prayer a Model for Conversation?

Pulling more from theology than communication theory or philosophy on this last point, one of my chapters looks at prayer as the Bible talks about it and posits that we were meant to communicate with each other along these lines. Nothing really mysterious or unorthodox, I just wonder if the way we communicate with God (listening followed by moments of intense listening, and then very frank speech) is meant as a model for how we communicate with each other. Maybe listening is to take more of our effort than talking, which is a lesson advanced people of prayer seem to know.

Social Media is a Way Forward

This book ends with the notion that people of faith are currently presented with a rich opportunity to create and be in conversation. People of faith would do well to place ideas out in the public common areas, since there are far fewer gatekeepers, and see how people respond. This is part of the class I teach at Northwestern College called “Building Community using Social Media.”

What do you think? Would you read a book like this?


Are Words Always as Powerless as They Seem?

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When we preach, our words often drop like stones from an overpass. And by “preach” I mean anyone who launches into a speech without a deep regard for her listeners. Pastors and priests can do it, but so do marketers, bosses, friends, even spouses. The guy at the party blathering on about his accomplishments—he’s preaching—and people walk away accordingly.

But our words need not fall like lead sinkers.

In 1955, the Oxford philosopher J.L Austin, gave a series of lectures at Harvard that became his book “How to Do Things with Words.” Austin proposed that there is a side to language where words actually cause stuff to happen out in the world. His famous example was with wedding vows: when the groom and bride say “I do,” and when the pastor/priest says “By the laws of the state of Minnesota, etcetera, etcetera, I now pronounce you husband and wife.” At that very point, something has changed in the world. Something changed because of the words spoken. Sure, those words gathered power from the context: the bride and groom, for starters. They agreed to get married. The priest or pastor officiating the deal contributed: the ordination process granted legal authority (at least in the eyes of the state) to pronounce these official words and have them mean something.


Why does preaching produce more leaden words than other kinds of talk? Again—not talking just Sunday sermon here. Corporations preach in their print ads and commercials and press releases. They collect a bunch of statements that are purposefully free from conversational context (you recognize this stuff by reading a brochure aloud. That’s when you realize no human talks like this). That kind of preaching that is more like wishing: wishing the world was a certain way. Wishing the reader was different from what he or she really is. The kind of preaching that tells others what to do or what the world is like, but is a lazy kind of talk that bears no resemblance to life. We all resort to this kind of talk that is unmoored from the people around us. Oh sure, we occasionally dress it up with an authoritative tone and we think we’ve accomplished something. But we haven’t.

Is there a way to get off our lazy butt of preaching and start saying things that make a difference in the world? Using words that instigate change? Is there a way to believe in the change our words signal?

I was reading the Gospel of Mark today, Mark 1, where Jesus starts the whole project. His first recorded words in Mark’s gospel are preaching: he preached the kingdom of God and invited his listeners to repent and believe (1.15). The rest of the chapter shows him, well, doing the stuff he preached. His talk about preaching and repenting and believing were not churchy words, meant only for the hour of the week where people piously peer up. No. His words demonstrated power by healing the sick. And the possessed. His were not empty sayings about a far-off God. They were words of invitation to taste something real. He was not just talk. He was walk.

Much more walk than talk.

How about your speech? Are you preaching to an audience who knows you are just mouthing empty words? Press release talk. Or are you saying things you can demonstrate? As a copywriter, am I doing this? And what kind of people do we need to be to deliver on the words we send out?

Makes me wonder.


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