conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Posts Tagged ‘conversation

How to Invent Something Brand New with Absolutely Anyone

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Please Write This Book

I want to read this book. I’ll even buy this book.

I want to read about how I could approach anyone—from total stranger to my most inbred colleague—and engage in a conversation that starts a process that helps us say things we didn’t know we knew.

Please tell about how it works that two or three or four people can find themselves in a conversation where they invent new, practical ideas by listening to each other and pitching in what they know.

Tell me the conditions required for that kind of social invention. Tell me how trust between people works to grease the communication cogs. Please point out how respecting others—no matter their background/skin color/accent—opens a door for deep listening and profound hearing. Please provide hopeful stories about how people have bridged religious and political and cultural chasms to create something brand new that completely mesmerized them and changed their lives.

Tell me how people engage in making meaning from their first words together. What kind of people are these and how do we become these kinds of people?

That’s the book I want to read and own. Please include juicy footnotes from deep thinkers from years past. And include a bibliography that I can pore over and order up brand new thoughts. Please point out the smart and talented people who have traveled this path.

Please let it be 312 pages long and let it cost $23.99, but seed copies through Abe Books. I want to find a marked-up version (with sly annotations and witty marginalia) for $5.23 and free shipping.

But hurry! I need to start reading your book yesterday.

Write it today and I’ll order it tomorrow.

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Image Credit: Kirk Livingston

Less Said: Focus Beats Volume

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Hey, You. With the Talking Stick.

In grade school I filled pages with my scrawling, hoping Mrs. Wheeler would search out the best bits and award me the “A.”

First Grade.

It turns out that later in life most casual readers—along with editors and colleagues and bosses and clients and you and (even) me—would rather not read through my brain dump, thank you. Who’s got time to hunt for sensical bits among paragraphs of nonsense?

Sometimes students still send me lots of words even though I put a low limit on the word count. Why did they do that? I suspect it is an old habit that operates in the background. That habit is to keep writing or talking with the hope that something apropos will pop out as they think it through. It’s a holdover from those early school days.

But producing lots of words is also a thing we do with our friends in conversation. That’s how we process life: we talk through the crazy thing that happened on the way home to try to make sense of it. We discharge armies of words to describe and annotate and react, all to make meaning. Some of those words stick and our friend was kind enough to listen and tell us what we just said, so now we know what it meant too.

But when some more formal assignment pops up, less is more. Getting to the point and illustrating it so I can understand the information and the emotion you feel—that’s worth 23 pages of single-spacing, 10 pt. Times New Roman blather. That’s why we sort through our main points and prioritize them and then cut them back again. That’s why we ask what does my audience know and what do I want them to feel? That’s why I create a context they can hear.

First Job.

I set a low word count to force students and clients and myself to hatchet away at all the words and tell what is most important. Tell the one remarkable thing I can remember. That is more than enough.

Last night I went to a modern dance event where at the beginning, in utter silence, the dancer slowly rotated and looked at every member of the audience—it must have taken 90 seconds. It was riveting. The space she created with that slow move wrenched every audience member from whatever hubbub they just came from. She created a space where the audience could (finally/actually/really) hear and see what this troupe would do.

We can create space and context with our words, whether spoken or written if we choose to.

Next time you have the talking stick, do everyone a favor and say only the top three things. Or even only the most critical thing. Then sit down. Even Mrs. Wheeler will give you an “A.”

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Dumb Sketches: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

February 26, 2019 at 9:51 am

“How Can I Help You?”

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Hungry for Power Vs. Repairing the World

This question is an invitation—a beautiful invitation.

If you ask me how you can help, I have an immediate gut response: “Yes! Wait. What do I need right now?” Your question makes me an active participant in my life. The question reminds me I have choices to make about my needs. Do I need someone to hold a door or a wrench or a flashlight? Do I need a kick in the butt or a power nap?

What I need right now depends on what I am trying to do at this moment. But longer term, what does an employee need from a boss to do her job? What does a student need from an instructor to apply these writing lessons to his life? You can see the question initiates a call and response—like most everything with communication. A question that needs an answer. A draft followed by a revision.

From Christian theology, I might call the question an artifact of kenosis, that notion of self-giving that is so hard for us power-hungry humans to live out. Then again, maybe it is less an artifact and more an aspiration. Maybe the question is a statement about the person I hope to become: caring and thoughtful and using my time and attention to help you reach your goal. But still aspirational, because I have a feeling you may actually tell me what you need. And then I have to put down my book or turn off the TV or be late to work to help you.

No matter how you look at it, the question asks you to know something about yourself and about your journey through life. What do you need to move forward in your journey right now? Back to theology for a moment: The psalmists who wrote the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134 in the Christian Bible) knew to query the creator and to articulate their need, whether for food or stability or growth or to beat up enemies. These authors (and generations of people who pray) had the sense that the Holy One was waiting in the wings with lovingkindness (“chesed”). They (the authors along with the many who pray) made a career of depending on that offer of help.

Maybe our use of the “How can I help you?” depends on the psalmist’s impulse. We thwart our own power-hungry instincts when we ask it of those who have no chance of moving us forward. But we ask it because of the kind of people we want to be and because we believe there is a deep well of chesed out there.

Maybe we ask “How can I help you?” because we are weary of constant rage and yearn for a vocation of repairing the world.

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Image credits: Kirk Livingston

Thinking First: Preparing for the Difficult Conversation

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Check out my guest post on the Essential Partners blog:

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http://www.whatisessential.org/blog/thinking-first-preparing-difficult-conversation

Written by kirkistan

January 5, 2017 at 3:48 pm

I Thought of You the Other Day (DGtC#32)

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Why are some things worth saying?

Next to the sound of your name, nothing grabs your attention like somebody saying they were thinking about you. You listen closely to what comes next because it holds a personality clue.troll-2-20161202

Go on—please continue to tell me what charming character trait/hideous character flaw you thought of.

It turns out the stuff that bubbles up through memory is the most critical content to say to your wife at dinner, or your kids at Christmas. Or your colleague. Interestingly, we remember this thing as we face our person. The reminder pops when your wife/kid/colleague makes that casual remark they always make about that pet topic. And then gears turn deep down in your brain-pan and the reminder careens drunkenly down the thought-chute to your mouth. And you can hardly swallow that bite of House Lo Mein, so tremendous is the pressure to say this thing.

Because you know they will laugh. And it will be a moment—a shared delightful moment.

I’m a note-taker. Constantly writing in books (books I own, mind you). Regularly setting reminders in Evernote. Forever reaching for a scrap to jot something. And I refer to my notes. But increasingly I wonder whether my notes harbor the best topics for conversation. I wonder this for the same reason that school lectures are so very tedious: Hearing from someone’s notes or pre-thought ideas is so boring. The very opposite of remarkable.

It’s the stuff we remember as we sit in conversation that matters most and makes a difference. We take notes and write things down to remember for later, but the most critical stuff bubbles up on its own–that’s the remarkable stuff. Maybe our note-taking has raised the importance and we are more likely to remark.

So by all means make your notes—especially as the holidays bring friends and family you’ve not seen for some time. But remember that the magic happens in the moment of conversation, which is a moment of connection. Chances are good your remark will be different from the note you made.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

From “You Suck” to “Say More”

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Advance Your Conversations by Providing Wee Bits of Pivot

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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?

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

December 2, 2015 at 9:21 am

Colbert: On Flop Sweat and Embracing the Bomb

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Man in spotlight laughs with failure

Lovely death mask courtesy Time magazine

Lovely death mask courtesy Time magazine

The recent excellent GQ article (By Joel Lovell) on Colbert illuminates the thoughtful wells the comedian will pull from as he starts his late night gig tonight. Is he a moral intellectual? A public thinker? A likeable guy on stage who talks with a knife? Is he a comedian with a charter to entertain?

Yes.

One revealing quote deep in the article shows Colbert’s dance with failure:

…longtime Second City director Jeff Michalski told them that the most important lesson he could pass on to them was this: “You have to learn to love the bomb.”

“It took me a long time to really understand what that meant,” Colbert said. “It wasn’t ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it next time.’ It wasn’t ‘Laugh it off.’ No, it means what it says. You gotta learn to love when you’re failing.… The embracing of that, the discomfort of failing in front of an audience, leads you to penetrate through the fear that blinds you. Fear is the mind killer.”

What is true for improv and comedy is also true for teaching, business meetings and ordinary conversation. We just might fail. We might fail to connect. We might fail to convince. We might fail to feed the self-image we continually tend, whether that image is macho or hip or knowing or controlled.

I cannot help but wonder if our growing xenophobia—an unfortunate currency in play by many presidential hopefuls—is a response to fear of honest but hard conversations. That kind of conversations that need to happen between us. All of us.

Philosopher turned motorcycle mechanic Matthew B. Crawford’s insightful book The World Beyond Your Head: On becoming an individual in an age of distraction (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) writes about the role of apprenticeships and (some) graduate programs in helping the newcomer absorb the wisdom and knowledge of the group. Growing understanding happens through didactic methods of course, lecture and the like. But much of what we know arrives as a sort of tacit knowledge—a kind of knowledge that shows up from watching others do a task.

On the way to this and many other connected points, Crawford points out again and again that we need the conversations and the interactions with others in order to understand who we are. We need interactions within our tribe—yes—but we also need the interactions outside our tribe. These can be clarifying interactions: they help us understand what we know and what we believe about the world.

All this to say:

  1. I look forward to Steven Colbert’s masterful comedy/public thinking.
  2. I want to grow at hard conversations—even if they gut the self-image I so carefully tend.
  3. I/we need to embrace the people who are different rather than push them away. They have powerful things to teach us—and that is part of the collective wisdom of our U.S. of A.

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Written by kirkistan

September 8, 2015 at 9:25 am

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