Discover more from Kindred Spirits
on good conversations
what does it take to have an "unrehearsed intellectual adventure"?
In my note-taking app—a glorious cobwebby mess of lines and dots and lightbulb connections—I have a folder titled, simply, 'people'. It is home to notes and relics from conversations I wish I could've recorded in their entirety, knowing that I experienced a powerful human experience but painfully aware that the coarse weave of my mind might remember very little.
Almost always after these conversations, one thought rings as clear as a bell on a bright summer's day — that many things classify as art even if you wouldn't see them on the walls of a museum. Good conversation is one of those things.
The art of conversation is to weave together the threads of existence, reality, and experience. It takes courage to do this weaving: we leave ourselves open to judgement, taking a gamble on whether we'll plant the seed of mutual understanding or sudden indifference.
It's easy enough to describe what a good conversation feels like: weights being lifted off shoulders, solitude cracking wide open, lightbulbs flaring to life in a cobwebby corner of the mind.
It's equally difficult to describe how to have a good conversation. After all, the art of good conversation doesn't have well-defined rules. But at the same time, it places some pretty high demands on our capabilities.
Cicero wrote down a few rules for us in 44BC, and The Economist summarises it thus:
The rules we learn from Cicero are these: speak clearly; speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn; do not interrupt; be courteous; deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones; never criticise people behind their backs; stick to subjects of general interest; do not talk about yourself; and, above all, never lose your temper.
Probably only two cardinal rules were lacking from Cicero’s list: remember people’s names, and be a good listener.
Let's start there, then, with the most common piece of advice I've heard: to listen. Not paying attention gives off heady signals of boredom and a lack of interest. But I'm convinced that's not all there is to a good conversation.
See, when we first strike up a conversation with someone, we are on either end of a dense thicket. Meeting in the middle means each of us needs to cut through our share of cognitive noise, speak and listen in turns. Only then does the conversation feel rewarding. But when someone cuts through the entire thicket and emerges scratched and torn while the other hasn't moved a foot, it doesn't feel meaningful — it just feels like work. It feels like a monologue. It feels lonely.
No, I think the recipe for a good conversation takes much more than listening. I like to think of each conversation as a microcosm encompassing what it means to be human. To quote Barbara Walters of the "Today" show:
...that means genuine interest on both sides, opportunity and respect for both to express themselves, and some dashes of tact and perception. Conversation can be such pleasure that it is criminal to exchange comments so stale that neither really listens.
For one, a good conversation needs generosity. It needs generously placed doorknobs waiting to be turned and give way to tangents. It needs generously open-ended questions that invite honesty and vulnerability. And it needs generously offered stories in solidarity. It's hard to resist generosity in a conversation.
A good conversation also needs patience. Technology helps us clean things up — it helps us present a more cohesive self and build connections. Conversations, on the other hand, are inherently messy, rich and demanding. They are what philosopher Michael Oakeshott calls an "unrehearsed intellectual adventure". And all that complexity begs for patience so that we grow more and more comfortable in our ways of speech and get to the root of what we want to say — or just enjoy the cadence of conversation with another human.
Drawing from Oakeshott, a good conversation calls for spontaneity. A good conversation is not a trudge through a swamp or a series of checkboxes, but a lively, pleasing, quintessentially human interplay of ideas, rhythms and emotions with words as their vessel. A good conversation must be seen, according to philosopher John Searle, "as an expression of shared intentionality".
Generosity, patience, spontaneity: all of these call for one thing above all, and that is attunement. Novelist and poet Ursula K Le Guin, in a magnificent piece titled Telling Is Listening (PDF), refers to this attention to each other in pure physicist terms: "entrainment" or "mutual phase locking".
She says this lock-step extends beyond words and nods to physical resonance. All physical beings are oscillators, so any good conversation will, above all, be marked by a gentle, rhythmical to and fro that comes to us naturally. Small wonder, then, that when we describe a meaningful conversation, we say it "resonated".
Even small talk can turn meaningful because in a conversation, something more than words is being transmitted — something intangible and multi-layered. Speech is but "the medium in which the message is embedded" and this medium is, according to Le Guin:
…immensely complex, infinitely more than a code: it is a language, a function of a society, a culture, in which the language, the speaker, and the hearer are all embedded.
When we are attuned to each other beyond the top-most level of words, we ensure that even difficult and heavy conversations can be kept from turning sour or dwindling to nothing.
We are aware of conversational doorknobs that we can turn to traverse new paths that embody the spirit of conversation as an adventure.
We make conversation intelligent—not just intellectual, which has more to do with the topic at hand than anything else—but nuanced, comprehensive and emotionally resonant.
Down the rabbithole
Adam Mastroianni: Good conversations have lots of doorknobs
The Sephist: Resonant
Molly Mielke: Feeling seen
Farnam Street: The art of ordinary conversation
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