conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Archive for the ‘Rhetoric’ Category

Minnesota Representative Garofalo: “There is not a racist bone in my body.”

with 8 comments

The short, turbulent life of a tweet.

What we say and do demonstrates who we are. We cannot help but draw conclusions based on the actions we see and the comments we hear. In the end, no one of us can know more than that about each other.

That’s how communication works.

Representative Garofalo’s Sunday Tweet landed on ESPN Monday morning. Tweeters were quick to jump on the tweet, denouncing Mr. Garofalo’s latent racism, Republicans and politicians generally. Colleagues lambasted the tweet and national media held it up for examination, which is to say, the typical circus-posse was formed around these 140 characters. Mr. Garofalo denied racist overtones but ultimately apologized for the tweet as the water got hotter.

Mr. Garofalo’s apology was unusual because he is an outspoken Tweeter and communicator who remains unafraid to confidently assert. The apology was also sort of usual: “to those NBA players and other who were unfairly categorized by my comments….” So, typical of public apologies, this one creates distance even as it acknowledges pain and takes responsibility.

I’m interested in what happens in our quick responses. Responding to each other is one of the fun bits of conversation. Our quick responses are often revelatory: sometimes they show us things about ourselves we did not know. I wonder if in Mr. Garofalo’s case—despite his confident, well-reasoned quote on top—his quick tweet peeled away layers to reveal unseemly categories.

I suspect we all have those layers. Maybe we need to tweet and talk all the more rapidly so we can do the work of peeling the layers.

It can be a painful work—all the more so when put it in the form of a tweet that catches the national eye.



Op-Ed Wars: Putin on Obama. McCain on Putin. Rouhani on Conversation

leave a comment »

Words are The Best Kind of War09202013-Iranian-President-Hassan-Rouhani

As far as wars go, this one is easily sustainable. And we all have a vested interest in sustaining it, because when we’re talking (even combatively), we’re, well, talking.

Just talking. Not bombing. Not spying (well, OK, probably still spying). Not releasing nerve gas on civilians (well, OK. Some of us can talk and still gas/butcher/jail civilian populations). But talking directly to our various populations is at least different than cold-warring it. Talking is the opposite of the silent treatment.

Talking accomplishes stuff: McCain’s sharp criticism of Putin comes on the heels of Putin’s criticism of Obama’s Syria plan. And Obama’s Syrian plan floated out with words and met all sorts of ridicule and resistance and ire and…success (or at least the beginning of movement toward success).

What if more of our conflicts started in our enemies op ed pages, long before we took action?

What I like most about all this talk is the corollary comments that come out when McCain or Putin or Rouhani poke their sharp sticks in the eyes of the audience. The audience responds bringing up all sorts of truth and innuendo and implications that may apply or may not apply, but all of which allows us to think together. All this talk allows us to stay engaged. Engaged audiences are a good thing.

Keep talking Mr. Putin. Say on, Mr. McCain. Let’s grab a chai, Mr. Rouhani. You are right: “constructive dialogue” is a great win for everyone. Even if Iran is on a PR spree with their new reasonable-sounding president. Let’s jump on this bandwagon. We’ll need to move to the next step, of course: if Iran’s nuclear program is truly for fuel only, then allowing third-party inspections will be not big deal, right? Inspections could begin to put the rest of the world at ease about Iran’s seeming bomb-making proclivities. On the other hand, the US also needs to offer movement toward transparency: we’ve certainly hid plenty. Being a superpower should not make us bullies—we need to play by the same rules.

Yes. Let’s chat.

We may not believe everything each other says, but talking is a start.


Image credit: Times of India

Written by kirkistan

September 20, 2013 at 10:16 am

On Being: One Shining Moment for Talk

leave a comment »

Krista Tippet, David Gushee and Frances Kissling07292013-prodialogue_lead

On Being recently broadcast a 51 minute conversation entitled Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Pro-Dialogue. The recording includes a bunch of great moments and thoughts about communication and conversation as David Gushee and Francis Kissling each have their say and then tell what they’ve gained from the other side of this deeply divided topic.

I need to listen to the entire conversation again.

But toward the end of there was a moment where Ms. Tippet asked about the paradox of passionately clinging to what you know is true even as you reach out to understand  what your opponent/conversation partner says/thinks/feels. There is a growth that happens, a change. It is not a giving away of passion or the rightness of the cause, but a deep concern that emerges. Here’s Mr. Gushee:

…after the Princeton conference in 2010 I felt clearer [about the] the position I had going…. But also I was more clear about the intelligence and the love that motivated the people on the other side too. And I respected that…. (~43:30 to 44:01)

There is a mistaken fear about dialogue that says if I engage with another person who does not believe like I believe, I run the risk of losing what I believe. But most people find the opposite to be true: passion grows deeper and something else is added: an understanding care about the other person. The passionate divide may remain, but surrounding that divide is care for another. And that begins to change everything.

This seems to me a shining moment.

A moment many of us could pursue.


Take this Word to Rehab: “Out”

leave a comment »

A Meditation Beyond Gay

07222013-tumblr_mqaztxDDNl1qbcporo1_1280A few days back I posted There’s Something About Out (Out Always Informs In) and noticed a slight uptick in hits. My theory: the uptick had to do with the word “out” in the headline and subhead, a signal word for the LGBT community. Walk with me as I argue the value of “out” is beyond ownership by any particular set of people and is useful for anyone trying to communicate to those outside their immediate peers.

One lesson to be learned these days is the walls that traditionally provided sharp borders for any community are falling quickly. Social media opens a rolling window into nearly any group—if you know the right search keywords. With keyword searches we expose what poets and writers are doing, what glass-blowers and comic-con enthusiasts and copywriters and geocachers are up to. The corollary is that if you are in a tightly-delineated group with high walls, there has never been a better time to begin to explain yourself to those outside, because someone is likely peering in.

Out is more and more important—especially since we battle xenophobia (fear of strangers) on so many different levels: acute and generalized, nationally, locally, in Congress and on the street. Fear of strangers ought to be decreasing given increasing frequency, but it seems the opposite is happening.

In my copywriting practice I often help clients organize their thoughts for those outside the organization. How difficult can that be? Good question. The truth is that we all get caught up using shorthand, insider terms that have less to do with communication and more to do with identifying others who are part of our tribe. Real communication happens when we make our ideas and ourselves accessible to those not from our neighborhood or company or tribe or sect.

The challenge of “out” is communication beyond our self-inscribed language borders. First we need to identify the borders (and possibly our tribe). Then we need to know what’s important and remarkable that someone outside would care about.  The challenge of “out” is to step outside our circle with honest, clear language that also happens to make us vulnerable. But those things that are important to us are worth sharing.

Other words in need of rehab: fellowship,  strategy, and maybe “lovingkindness.”


Image credit: Corrado Zeni via 2headedsnake

Written by kirkistan

July 22, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Juxtapose: How To Build a Church that Counters Culture

with 5 comments

07112013-tumblr_mpqvswZg4K1qbcporo3_500Theological Roots and Practical Hope for Extreme Listening and Honest Talk

A couple nights ago Mrs. Kirkistan and I had dinner with old friends we’d not seen in some time. It was refreshing to catch up and there was lots of that free laughter that happens when old jokes and forgotten quirks reappear. At one point someone asked whether we were hopeful about the state of the evangelical church. We each offered an opinion.

Mine: “No.”

It’s actually a qualified “No”: my sense is that the evangelicalism has largely lost its way following industrial-strength, church-growth formulas and it has also sold its soul to political machinery. Following these tangents we’ve lost the essence of what it means to counter culture by speaking the words that stand outside of time.

I’m actually quite hopeful about what God is doing—especially in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. We’ve seen a number of groups trying very new things while employing deeply-rooted devotion to sacred texts and veering from partisan nonsense. So my sense is that evangelicalism is morphing and, frankly (I hope) growing up.

For a couple years now I’ve been laying down about a thousand words a day toward this book dealing with the theological and philosophical roots of communication. It’s been a one-step-forward-seven-steps-back process. But I’ve just finished Chapter 8 and by the end of July I’ll deliver the manuscript to my editor friend. I’ll likely self-publish it later this year—I’ll probably have to pay people to read it (Know this: I cannot afford more than $5 a reader. So both of you readers give a call when you are ready. I’ll put a fresh Lincoln in the Preface.)

The book offers new ways to think about the ordinary interactions we have every day. It draws on a few philosophically-minded thinkers and reconsiders some old Bible stories to reframe the opportunity of conversation. It also provides a kick in the butt to move out of our familiar four walls to engage deeply with culture—but not from a standpoint of judgment, rather from a deep curiosity and love. I’ll be sharpening the marketing messages over the next few months, but here are the chapter titles so far:

Would you stop browsing at Barnes and Noble long enough to pick up a book that looked like this?

Would you stop browsing at Barnes and Noble long enough to pick up a book that looked like this?

  1. The Preacher, Farmer and Everybody Else
  2. Intent Changes How We Act Together
  3. How to be with the God Intent on Reunion
  4. Your Church as a Conversation Factory
  5. Extreme Listening
  6. A Guide to Honest Talk
  7. Prayer Informs Listening and Talking
  8. Go Juxtapose

Let me know if anything of what I’ve said sounds like you might actually be interested in reading. However: I can only afford to buy a limited number of readers.


Image credit: Daniele Buetti via 2headedsnake

JC Penney and Advertising for the Brave

leave a comment »

Honesty as a marketing technique? Nah—that’ll never catch on.

They say desperate times call for desperate measures. That might explain why when some wiseacre proposed honesty as a communication tool, the JC Penney marketing honchos bit.

The result is memorable.


Via AdFreak

Written by kirkistan

May 2, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Posted in Brand Promise, Rhetoric

Tagged with ,

The Moving Horizon of Engagement: The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller on TED

leave a comment »

How to Boil Down Levinas?

help find a way

A recent issue of The New Yorker includes an excellent article on TED talks. On his way to explaining why the talks are so popular, Nathan Heller stumbles onto  the differences between our rituals of learning in college and how college is set up to support those rituals, and compares that with the kind of learning people need outside of college—the kind that keeps expanding rather than narrowing. Along the way he mentions in an offhand way how Levinas does not lend himself to a quick recap. One must do much preliminary work to begin to understand Levinas. Philosophy, especially phenomenology and theology are useful backgrounds to begin to understand Levinas. But only as a beginning.

The author of Conversation is an Engine is well familiar with this. As he tries to explain Levinas from time to time, blank stares and hasty retreats to other subjects are typical reactions. The French philosopher and apologist for The Other is famously obscure. And fascinating. But obscure.

Heller’s offhand remark reminds me that the bigger challenges ahead of us as communicators have to do with how we let people in on the details that engage us. Over at Big Picture Leadership there was a discussion recently about what it means to witness. That discussion reminded me of an ongoing conversation a few of us have had about what makes something remarkable, as in, making me remark out loud to another person because it was that important to me. In both cases there has to be an intensely personal connection for it to bubble up through our conscious mind and cross our lips.

If we are intent on rhetoric that draws others in (and I believe it is a most excellent thing to be a passionate booster for what we love and understand), than we are constantly providing low-hanging fruit for newcomers to grab and taste so they too will become enamored by the taste and want more. This is the horizon of engagement. That horizon is growing shorter and getting closer with every Google Search.

More sophisticated discussions will always have their place among practitioners and experts. But we’re quickly moving to the point where we each need to have a ready answer about our work, or firm, and what we believe.


Image Credit: Martin Morazzo via thisisnthappiness

Tattoo U: Reading Those Who Take Required Courses

leave a comment »

Painted along her spine and

Shouted from the pitch of her neck:

“What’s the least I can do?”

Eyes closed her gentle snoring:

“This is boring.”

Doodled maze focusing attention down

And in and away from the other:

“Why bother?”

Just another required class

My parents are funding

Or deepening my debt.


This posture a tattoo

A rhetoric of being

A one person drama

An act that snaps to real

Not easily shrugged off

After the definition-jail of school sets sail

Where topics contain in rigid compartments

While practices secretly wash from stem to stern

Habits inked

Minute by hour by week

Quarter by semester

Cleansed only after years of toil

Digging from the depths of whatever

Where no one pays your fee

Or your debt.


Image credit: via Falcons on the Floor

Written by kirkistan

December 3, 2011 at 11:42 am

Verbatim: “Pursue truth behind our differences,” Wayne C. Booth

with 5 comments

Who will you argue with today?

The late Wayne C. Booth was Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Chicago. Among the many books he wrote was The Rhetoric of Rhetoric, which I reviewed here. In that book he talked about three kinds of conversations: win-rhetoric where the point of the conversation is to bash your conversation partner into submission. Bargain-rhetoric is where we dialogue toward the goal of finally getting to common ground that benefits both of us. In the business world we called this “win-win” because everybody benefits, though deep concessions were often made. But Booth favored this final type: listening-rhetoric, which had the goal of “pursuing the truth behind our differences” by listening with the intent of understanding what the other is saying. There are many benefits to that way of holding a conversation.

Listening-rhetoric sounds pretty obvious as the way forward, right? I agree. Yet when I check my intent in the middle of a conversation (hard to do), I find I am more often trying to listen strategically to counter whatever obstacle my conversation partner places between us. Or I am not even listening. Instead I’m thinking some far away thought (but maybe that’s just me—I’ve always had a problem staying anchored in the present).

I propose a fourth kind of conversation: reconciliation-rhetoric. I see it as Listening-Rhetoric Plus. Pursuing the truth behind our differences can often lead to a very fertile place—a place as uncomfortable as it is fecund. But leaving the conversation as just touching the two of us does not reveal the whole truth. In reconciliation-rhetoric, me and my conversation partner invite God into our discussion. This isn’t churchy stuff. It isn’t religious stuff. It is a human connection that recognizes the bigger stuff going on around us. It is actively asking and talking about how (if?) God’s plans enter our discussion. Maybe it looks like a silent prayer. Maybe it looks like an out-loud prayer. Maybe it is the recognition that larger plans may be in motion, subsuming our own. I’m taking my cue from a pivotal ancient text written by Paul the apostle in his second letter to the church in Corinth (Chapter 5).

Just who is involved in our discussion, anyway?


Photo credit: Niklaus Ruegg

Riot, Restart and Scrubbed Minutes: The Bradlee Dean Prayer

with one comment

But really…what happens when someone prays?

Say more.

Last Friday Bradlee Dean gave the opening prayer at the Minnesota House. His words caused such uproar that Speaker Zeller apologized and had the prayer scrubbed from the historical records of the day. The session was restarted and Rev. Grady St. Dennis, the house chaplain gave the new prayer.

Was it a prayer Mr. Dean offered or was it a speech intended as a burr under the saddle of the gathered legislators? I don’t know all that Mr. Dean stands for, but his rhetorical mix seems misdirected. Yesterday I wrote about mixing an ancient form with something of today. In Mr. Dean’s prayer, the result from mixing an ancient form and using it as a rhetorical bully pulpit is repellent. The communication seems more speech than prayer, and seems to have been interpreted that way by the humans in attendance. And yet it is possible Mr. Dean was sincere in his conversation with God.

The notion of a public prayer is actually kind of complicated, and is perhaps a mix of forms from the beginning. One person speaks aloud. The person implores God’s attention and action. Perhaps the person seeks wisdom and mercy, or help with any of the myriad needs finite beings have. Listeners listen and agree. Or disagree. Rather than praying along and seeking the same things, the potential prayers in the House rose in disagreement shouted the guy down (figuratively, I think).

I agree with Rev. Dennis Johnson writing about the work of guest chaplains in saying “We have a special burden to include all people in our prayers….” But I’m not so sure about the last part of the quote in Lori Sturdevant’s op-ed: “…and to make the prayers nonsectarian.” Because real prayer must come from somewhere, some belief in God. It is true that belief in God need not highlight a specific brand of religion, but any prayer must be grounded in belief that God exists and hears—that alone will be offensive to some. Otherwise the prayer is just good wishes and positive vibes—not bad stuff, just not, well, real. And not that useful in seeking help from the Eternal.

King Solomon got the form right (1 Kings 8.22ff) and set a lasting example and practice. Of course, Solomon’s prayer was spoken among a set of like-minded people. So the context helps the prayer stay as a prayer: spoken to God from a bunch of people going a similar direction.

If we’re going to have prayer in the Minnesota House, there needs to be some elasticity in allowing people to pray for real. And people praying need to examine their intentions before uttering word one. But let’s continue the notion of conversing publicly with the Creator.


Image Credit: Buramai

Written by kirkistan

May 25, 2011 at 8:41 am


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 886 other followers

%d bloggers like this: