The Purposes and Power of Conversation


As We Careen into the Midterm Election, Let Us Reflect on the Art of Conversation.

This blog began last Summer in part to provide improved dialog opportunities.

Our diminishing ability to talk with each other in this country should be a matter of concern for all. Disagreements are natural – and healthy. But if we are unwilling to talk at all with millions of our fellow citizens, this is problematic. Not easy stuff, but we need to try.

It cannot bode well for the health of this country to continue down this path. I am reminded of a statement some time ago by a Canadian leader. “When the US sneezes, Canada catches a cold.” In other words, what happens here and what choices we make have outsize influence in the rest of the world. Our internal rancor is having such an effect around the world. Again, not good for  us or for the world.

I recently ran across a quote from actor Alan Alda that rang true to me. I am paraphrasing, but in essence he said the following: “Conversation should be like playing catch, not like throwing a spear.” Exactly. It turns out, by the way, that conversation and communication have been  life-long interests of Alda’s. He has given many insightful interviews on these subjects. And a book on the theme. More on that shortly.

I like to remind myself every so often of the purposes of conversation and engagement.

  1. Yes, it often is my intent to convince someone else of my point of view. But not always or exclusively.
  2. Conversation implies talking AND listening. I should be interested in trying to learn how someone came to their point of view. It is important for me to do this with those I agree with and those I disagree with. I want to know how they got where they are. How firmly and by what motivation  are they anchored to those positions?

  3. I am looking for an opportunity to learn something. A good conversation expands my horizons, peaks my curiosity, teaches me something. I need to go into conversation with the mindset that I could be wrong, and I may need to change my mind. Easier said than done, and I admit it is rarely the case, but when it happens, it is a powerful thing. It’s nice to use your whole brain on occasion. There is value in looking back on yourself and concluding you were missing something. It’s humbling in a good way.

Sister Simone Campbell, of Nuns on the Bus fame, said we should “take the risk of reflection in this 15 second world.” Might our conversations be better with reflection before, during, and after a conversation? What would happen if, after a conversation, we asked ourselves two simple questions? “What have I learned about the topic, about the other person, about myself in this conversation? What should I do with that knowledge?”

The best conversationalists (and in an earlier time, the best letter writers) I know practice what we are talking about here. Many are masters at the Socratic Method. Rather than challenging someone, they say they are trying to understand their position. They ask questions designed to foster self-examination and analysis.

This approach does not always work, of course. But when the start point is one of conflict (liberal vs conservative, atheist vs believer, democrat vs authoritarian, etc.) this approach opens the potential for reflection and understanding by all participants.  I have witnessed people changing rigid positions when asked the right questions in an open way, inviting reflection, articulation, and exchange.

It cannot happen if we all are speaking Bumper Sticker English, if we are convinced there is no morality or value on the other side, or if the goal is only to win an argument. This is not a call to overlook evil, but it is a call to look for ways to find each other.

Our new City Manager in my hometown started a program in her last city of residence that I like. Employees were asked to seek at least one conversation a day, no less than 10 minutes long, with someone of a different race. I expect this is even better if its someone just met. Brilliant idea. Take a risk, reach out, see what develops.

Someone else said we should practice “grocery store line evangelism.” Speak to someone next to you about something you think is important for the country. OK, that one is not easy and could be a little awkward. So what? You likely will never see them again and you might find the experience exhilarating. Don’t be so shy.

If at least one party in a conversation is willing to do more than shout at the other, we might make a little progress.

Why bother? I have news for you. There are over 325 million Americans alive today.  – almost none of them are going away. We might want to invest a bit in talking with (not to) each other and see what we can do. The alternative does not bode well for a country anyone would like to live in.

Let’s talk – and listen, shall we?

PS- If interested in Alda’s book, you may find out more at:

Bill Clontz, Founder, Agents of Reason      Bill Clontz

If you find this blog worthy of your time and curiosity, I invite you to do two things:

(1) Join the conversation. Your voice counts here.

(2) Share the word about this post with friends and colleagues. Share a link in your emails and social media posts. Let’s grow our circle.


2 replies to The Purposes and Power of Conversation

  1. Hey Bill, good topic. This reminds me of a good little book written years ago by Roger Fisher – “Getting To Yes.” Alda’s comments point to tactic known as “impromptu” which is designed to keep the conversation rolling ultimately including the word “yes” along the way.

    Seems we could use a lot more “yeses” these days.

    • Thanks very much. Glad you enjoyed it. It was one of those I especially enjoyed writing. And I heartily agree on Getting to Yes. It’s in my bookshelf too.

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