conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

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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.).

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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).

So…

  • 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?

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Dubious Conversation Skills: Skepticism and Fault-Finding

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Pivot Your Conversation on Some Fresh Hope

One dubious skill I learned early in corporate life was that skeptics and fault-finders earn respect at a conference table. If you are not presenting the idea (and thus less invested in making it work), you’ll win experience-points with others by blowing holes in whatever the group is discussing. Finding fault won’t cost you much and could win you a more exalted place in the world of that organization. Plus: you need know next-to-nothing about the idea or context to find some loose thread to pull and hope for collapse.

Please walk this way

Please walk this way

Yesterday I sat around a conference table with a group of skilled, opinionated, driven people who had a brand new idea. All around the table were invested because they had been working different parts of the idea for some time. The hero directing the conversation skillfully wove a bit of verbal fabric above us by hinting at how these disparate work groups were—quite possibly—creating some brand new category. I’ll not be more specific because of non-disclosure agreements, but what was remarkable to me was the intent of the verbal dreaming and the way it resonated with a group that could have been contentious.

Yesterday’s meeting reminded me that fresh hope is a disarming thing to bring to a group of seasoned people.

 

By the way, my book ListenTalk: Is Conversation an Act of God? is moving through the publisher’s proofreading department toward an actual physical presence. Chapter 2, “Intent Changes How We Act Together” highlights the work of the late University of Chicago rhetorician, Wayne Booth, who showed three different ways our intentions derail conversations. He ended up developing a way of talking that could unite conversation partners—much like the hero in my story above. You can put your name on a list [here] to be notified when the book is available.

Randomized, double-blind studies indicate that people who put their name on that list live happier, more thoughtful lives. I just made that up. But you can–and probably should–put your name on that list.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Philosophers don’t pack heat. Right?

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On Preparing for Ignite Minneapolis

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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.

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Image Credit: Zohar Lazar via 2headedsnake

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

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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?

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Photo credit: Niklaus Ruegg

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