Decades ago, I took a stand for “meaningful conversations about things that matter so we can do good things for the world, together.”* This stand has been the primary thread weaving through my decades-long career and it was the inspiration for my book, Talk Matters! Saving the World One Word at a Time. As I approach the third anniversary of its publication and the end of 2019, I am revisiting this stand.
Many underestimate the power of conversational processes to create a desirable future. Can so much depend on how we meet and interact with one another? I offer a resounding, “Yes!” All we have is you and me and all the other you’s and me’s on the planet to work together to figure things out. The need for us to work together has never been greater.
We shape the present and future every day through our interactions. This reality causes the urgency behind the second stand I have been taking—for consciously designed and effectively conducted interactive processes that use what we know about the human brain and effective human interaction. The sea of difficult issues we face continues to collide with the more primitive instincts in the human brain, ineffective or destructive communication, and archaic meeting procedures.
Given the truculent nature of so much of the national discourse, I am sometimes tempted to let go of this thread and stand down. However, I am heartened by the words of Leonard Cohen, “As to my own work, inhabiting the great scheme of things and knowing you’re going to leave pretty soon, you know that whatever you’re doing is tiny as hell, but on the other hand it’s your work, so you treat it with respect.”
With a keen awareness of my own failings in creating meaningful and constructive conversation, I continue to take these stands and treat my work with respect. I do this by continuing to explore brain research, innovations in process design, and how we create conversational environments. I analyze the social fields that influence (for good or ill) our ability to create constructive conversational fields.
Thanks to my colleague and friend Natalie Arroyo, I recently had the opportunity to talk with approximately 30 students at Humboldt State University who are studying Environmental Conflict Resolution and reading Talk Matters as a part of their curriculum. I emphasized the importance of intentional processes, including how we interact with one another. I shared how taking a stand for this matters for three essential reasons:
- Ineffective process impacts the quality of the content. For example, when people jump around in a discussion from problem to solution and back again, it becomes nearly impossible for them to understand the issue at hand systemically and to develop efficacious solutions.
- Destructive patterns of communication impact the quality of people’s participation. For instance, when people interrupt one another or only listen so they can wield counter-arguments, people begin speaking from the more primitive parts of the brain, i.e., to protect themselves and/or to attack those who attacked them. Suddenly the conversation is about who is more right rather than achieving the goals of the meeting.
- When the quality of the content and people’s participation is undermined, the quality of the results and the quality of relationships after the conversation are undermined too. The results do not achieve the desired outcomes and participants are loathe to work again with those involved in the process.
I don’t know if I have the capacity to move the world, as Lynne Twist suggests, but I do have the capacity to influence the conversations and the process of conversations with my clients, colleagues, and neighbors. These stands are at the very heart of who I am and what I care about.
What are you taking a stand for or what do you want to take a stand for? How might that stand draw on the very heart of who you are? Might your stand help you find your place in the universe?
*I am forever grateful to Juanita Brown from whom I heard similar words decades ago. They rang like a bell in my heart and keep ringing to this day.