Conversation can often feel like something we have to do. We use it to make a good impression on another person or to find out a piece of gossip or to feel less awkward in a room full of strangers. We use it with an end point in sight, a tool for steering our social and professional lives in a seemingly upward direction.
And yet, if there’s one thing I’ve learnt in the past ten months editing and engaging in conversations for Dumbo Feather, it’s that conversation is in its purest form an act of pleasure—a special kind of pleasure that comes from journeying into unknown waters.
At a party recently I found myself agitated while chatting with a friend’s partner. Despite our intentions to get to know each other more deeply, there was no pleasure in it, no ease. It was like two intersecting monologues. In that moment I was quick to put the blame on him: his questions were too interrogatory, his energy too anxious.
It wasn’t until I thought about it the next day that I realised how much of the friction was my own doing. I had approached the chat believing I needed to go somewhere with it—somewhere deep. I was trying to ask insightful questions. And then I wasn’t willing to offer the same kind of openness with my story that I sat there expecting of him.
This got me thinking about the particular dynamics that make for an enriching, well-oiled conversation.
Something The School of Life once taught me is that healthy conversation is come to without expectation. That means dropping any judgements about the person you’re speaking with and dropping any desire to get something out of it.
The whole experience of conversation is less about doing and more about being. Which can be hard. It can be hard to cease control, to be vulnerable, to fall back-first into the tide of human exchange. And it can be hard to not want to get anything out of it—to be truly present to another person.
Obviously with Dumbo Feather, interviewers go in with a bit of a plan. They’ve researched the person they’re chatting to. They’re guiding the conversation. And that’s something I’ve gotten a bit stiff about—I try to stick to the plan I go in with. I’m realising that even in those interview situations, the wildest, most wonderful musings come when both parties really let go. When we drop expectations, we find ourselves in places we never would have imagined.
Good conversation is at once selfish and selfless. There’s an inner and an outer dance that goes on as we learn from other people’s experience and reflect on our own. It’s a paradox that reminds us of our shared humanity—that in talking to another person and learning how they see the world we are also learning about our selves, our prejudices and our capacity for growth. This means being as curious about the person you’re speaking with as you are about your own self. It means taking them on that dance.
Give of yourself
As I’ve already mentioned, one of my limitations when it comes to conversation is not being forthcoming with my story. I’ll ask questions quite comfortably but when I’m invited to speak about my own thoughts and experiences, I’ll deflect the offering or give a short response that doesn’t allow for the wellspring to open. I’m protective of my inner world, scared of the rejection that might come if I share too much.
This of course isn’t doing myself or the person I’m talking with any favours. It doesn’t make for a very fun dance. I’ve now read enough Brené Brown to know that real connection and insight come from being vulnerable. We need to give of ourselves wholeheartedly if we expect the same from the person we’re speaking with. As Brené said in her conversation for Dumbo Feather, “Courage is the ability to tell your story.”
Don’t look for a neat ending
Another thing I’ve learnt is that there’s never an end point to our conversations. It’s not a case of arriving at one illuminating conclusion once your 15 minutes on the clock are up.
Those “aha” moments usually happen when we least expect them. And so it’s better to be comfortable in the murky unknown, bringing everything that we can to understand something and make meaning in the process rather than hoping it comes at the end. Give in to the tide.
I think the biggest lesson I’ve learnt is that we have to listen. And that doesn’t just mean being silent when someone’s talking. It means being present to what they’re saying and responding to it, explicitly, in a way that shows you’re engaged. This way they’re more inclined to go deeper in their story—because they’re responding to your interest. It’s where we start to experience conversational pirouettes.
There is great joy in these moments of attention and realisation. When we come together in this way, the ground beneath us shifts. We’re not worrying about what to say next or how we’re coming across to the other person. We are on the same page, working things out together, arriving when we least expect it.
To learn more about how to have better conversations and put your skills into practice, check out this class at The School of Life.
Nathan Scolaro is Assistant Editor at Dumbo Feather.