conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Archive for the ‘Rhetoric’ Category

What about those hard conversations? (DGtC #27)

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Are explosive words better from an authority or friend?

I am convinced that where people gather: a classroom, a department, a congregation, discussion is a more effective use of time than all of us listening to monologue. Many teachers explore the flipped classroom, where their time together is in discussion and the preachy monologues and lectures slide to a different time, place and pace. In general I am attracted to collaboration and many voices speaking. I keep hoping coherence will show up.

We may want to collaborate, but obstacles arise. We may want to be walking catalysts, but something stands in the way. Unsaid obstacles can block collaboration. And sometimes we need to have hard conversations, the kind where we not only disagree, but our different positions are emotionally charged. To assert my position will cut at my conversation partner’s position and vice versa. There may be anger. There may be tears. There may be power-plays. This conversation could be explosive.

Demonstrating the explosive past for Minneapolis flour mills.

Demonstrating the explosive past for Minneapolis flour mills.

The late Wayne Booth advocated a kind of listening-rhetoric: listen intently enough to your conversation partner to faithfully tell their position (without denigration) while still holding to your own. This would not be the place for win-rhetoric, where your goal is to beat your message into someone else. Emmanuel Levinas might say we have an obligation to watch out for the person before us—this conversation partner. In fact, he might advocate that this person before us is our first priority. Martin Buber might say we continue to hold that person in high regard as a person, inviting them to consider this different perspective rather than trying to force our viewpoint. Even Jesus modified the law with love and compassion (he actually said love was the fulfillment of the law).


  • Say we take the listening seriously as we approach the hard conversation.
  • Say we take seriously our commitment to the growth and personhood of this conversation partner (stay with me here). And we recognize this person as a person (versus an employee or student or lesser-being).

Given a kind of love for the person before us, we say the hard thing. And the explosion happens. No guarantees, but that blow up can be a worthwhile communication event. Good things can come from that, hard as they are.

Personally, I shy away from these explosive conversations.

But is shying away from a potentially explosive conversation doing a disservice to the thing that needs to happen between us?


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Catalyze This! (Dummy’s Guide to Conversation #26)

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What to do: Engage colleagues or just put up with them?

G15Between David Rock and David Bohm there is a lot of good advice about helping people have productive conversations. Rock’s “Quiet Leadership” is all about helping your friend find the answer she already knows, which is particularly useful for folks with leadership responsibilities. Bohm, on the other hand, was an omni-thinking physicist with deep curiosity about ordinary life connections. Bohm (and Rock, for that matter) are two of my conversational heroes.
Here’s Bohm on how it is that something new gets created between two people (italics added):

Consider a dialogue. In such a dialogue, when one person says something, the other person does not in general respond with exactly the same meaning as that seen by the first person. Rather, the meanings are only similar and not identical. Thus, when the second person replies, the first person sees a difference between what he meant to say and what the other person understood. On considering the difference, he may then be able to see something new, which is relevant both to his own views and to those of the other person. And so it can go back and forth, with the continual emergence of a new content. That is common to both participants. Thus, in a dialogue, each person does not attempt to make common certain ideas or items of information that are already known to him. Rather, it may be said that the two people are making something in common, i.e., creating something new together.

–David Bohm, On Dialogue (New York: Routledge, 1996)

Every day affords some catalyzing opportunity, often hidden in a very ordinary exchange.

How will you leap in to catalyze today?


Dumb Sketch/Timed Gesture: Kirk Livingston

Words: Frequently Chosen Tools of the Living

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Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

How to step into a conversation. And when to step out.

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Can presence and distance live in peace?

The philosopher, the writer, the journalist—and many others—work at cultivating distance in relationship even as they stand in the present.

Why do that?

The work of analysis, of illustrating via story and reportage all require distance for the facts to sort themselves. Just like the passage of time has a way of revealing what was important ten, twenty and two hundred years ago. Just like the artist learns to imagine a two-dimensional plane to begin to make marks with/on their media.

Distance starts to open a way forward by helping us see differently. Presence demands attention—that’s the human piece of empathy and mercy. Sometimes we need to slip from present to distant and back again. All the while avoiding absence.


My conversation with the hospice chaplain reminded me of the help a bit of distance brings to sufferers and those in grief. The person slightly distant brings a perspective the sufferer may need to hear, though that perspective may not be immediately welcome. Best if that slightly distant perspective comes wrapped in empathy and mercy.

But even at work we can cultivate a bit of distance for the sake of clarity. When the boss pontificates it doesn’t hurt to ask why she does so and what rhetorical goals her sermon serves.

And even at home we can mingle distance and presence: staying present with family (versus attaching to whatever screen or podcast holds our attention) is the first order of business. But we bring perspective when we step back.

We need presence and distance to move forward.

Absence rarely aids progress.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Pick a Door: Blessed are the Poor

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How do you read this?

Jesus went up the mountain with his followers, as the great teachers do. His first words:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


How you hear those words depends on where you come from. The images that come to mind, the connections you make, the hope or lack of hope—much is prefigured and preloaded by the conditions you bring.

What did the original hearers hear? That is the question.

But we make a start toward answering that question by asking what door we just stepped through.


Dumb sketch: Kirk Livingston

Why Academic Writing is so Boring

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Insider language bores the outsider

Researchers, scientists, academicians marshal their facts to a higher standard, but with their neglect of the emotive power of language they often speak only to each other, their parochial words dropping like sand on a private desert.

–Sol Stein, Stein on Writing (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1995) 11.


And please don’t equate “emotive” with flowery.


Image Credit: Kirk Livingston

Scots Deliberate: 61 Minutes of Talk About Talk

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How Our Democracy Fails at Conversation

We all know the September vote for Scottish independence failed and the country remains a part of the United Kingdom. But the conversations and engagement running up to the vote were astounding. One journalist cited 97% of voters were registered and turnout was uniformly high:

The more I think about conversation and the more I look for where it works and where it fails, I cannot help but see that our own (U.S.) version of democracy seems to be largely failing at promoting conversation. There are a lot of reasons for this: from our personal refusal to think beyond our tribe’s talking points to the media’s complicity in monologuing about peripheral issues to our general high levels of distraction and low levels of interest in following an argument.

Two excellent sources that have helped me see our democracy and media with fresh eyes are Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism by Sheldon S. Wolin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), and Dan Gillmor’s Mediactive. Both books begin to unravel the connections between larger corporate interests and the way news is made. Both books advise healthy skepticism of news delivered. And both books have a story to tell about why we as a nation are so disengaged in our political process (hint from Wolin: those in power stay in power by keeping the electorate repulsed and distracted).

But this video of people talking via Google Hangout—which seems about as interesting as your aunt’s travel slides—is actually quite engaging. If you watch, even for just a short while, you’ll hear journalists and academics cite Twitter as a way people named and combatted the spin the media produced. You’ll hear how many voices were heard rather than the same old standard voices. You’ll hear them calling for an inquest into the way media handles discussion. You’ll hear them talk about “deliberative democracy” and “collaborative government.”

But–that sounds like a lot of work and, frankly, who cares?

The bottom line on all the engagement we witnessed with the Scottish vote was that people felt their voice mattered. Scots turned out because their voices mattered.

I cannot help but wonder when our (U.S.) citizenry will begin to tug our democracy back from the vested interests that constantly monologue. Little by little, we’ve got to find the ways in which our voices matter.



Via Oliver Escobar and Citizen Participation Network


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