What you probably don’t know about me is that I like to talk. While I tend to believe that my writing represents my best form of communication, good conversation with interesting people is one of my greatest joys. Put me together in a room with people who are creating new possibilities, transforming their part of the world, or passionately involved in subjects I find intriguing, and it’s hard to shut me up. On the flip side, invite me to a cocktail party where people care more about what they look like, who they know, and what they own, and I have little to say. Or start a conversation with me and then stop the minute your cell phone rings to answer, and I’ll likely just walk away. While conversation often means different things to different people, for me, big talk and meaningful conversations are what really matters.
What do I mean by big talk? First it’s important to note that big talk isn’t talking big. A “big talker” who monopolizes the conversation with their accomplishments and acquisitions is arrogant. Instead, I take my definition from a story told by psychologist and author Gay Hendricks in his book, Five Wishes.
Hendricks tells the story of going to a cocktail party to please his soon to be new wife, Kathlyn. Normally Hendricks did his best to avoid most social events. In this case, he went to the party to nurture his relationship. After a very brief time of meeting and greeting, he began exploring on his own the rooms of the home he was visiting. One room was a library stuffed full of rows of books and a roaring fire in an elaborate stone fireplace. Not until he approached the fire did he notice a man sitting in a chair in the corner of the room.
The man said, “Don’t like parties much do you?
“No, I actually don’t.”
“Me neither,” returned the man. “Hate the small talk.”
“I hate small talk too,” Hendricks quickly answered.
The man smiled and asked, “Wanna have some big talk?”
The resulting conversation led to not only a deep and meaningful evening, but a lifelong friendship as well. Even better, Hendricks used what he learned about himself during the conversation to go on to overcome many of the hurdles holding him back in life. Instead of the often-mindless entertainment that comes from small talk, big talk opens the door for new opportunity, transformation and more rewarding relationships.
So why don’t we do it all the time? A new and growing problem is technology. Sherry Turkle, Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, and author of the book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age offers her advice. Turkle believes that while technology connects us by computer and phone in fantastic ways, it hinders real conversation. She explains, “We are too busy connecting to have conversations that count.” The conversations she believes are most advantageous are those where we give our full attention, allow ideas to develop, and open ourselves to be vulnerable. Those kinds of conversations foster intimacy, empathy, collaboration, and allow creativity to grow and thrive.
In other words, chatting on Facebook or texting back and forth might provide us with a form of connection, but it is not a conversation. In fact, a study done at the University of Essex in the UK shows that just putting a phone on the table during any form of get-together like lunch or a date, hinders conversation. When a cell phone is sitting nearby, conversations veer toward the more trivial and that lessons the empathetic connection between those present. Even worse, Turkle says, “Our phones offer us gifts as though from a benevolent genie: that we will never again be alone, that we can put our attention wherever we want it, that we can always be heard, that we can present ourselves as we wish to be seen, that we can avoid difficult confrontations, and that we never have to be bored.” Yes, but at what cost?
In many ways, our constant attention and focus on technology are little more than the latest version of small talk. Tweets, Facebook posts, Pinterest and many blog posts are similar to cocktail party banter that can sometimes be amusing—but easily forgettable within minutes. For example, people often accuse me of writing blog posts that are too long because they can take up to 15 minutes to read. Even those who enjoy digging deeper into subjects often prefer to watch a news story or documentary on YouTube or television than read a book or long article on the internet. Has our attention span become so condensed that no one has time for a big conversation or to thoroughly explore ideas that matter? I hope not.
Fortunately, some people realize the importance of a rewarding, meaningful and big conversation. One such organization is called, “The World Café.” With a book, website and international online resources, the organization works to promote and facilitate conversations that matter. By offering a simple and dialogic process for people to connect, cross-pollinate ideas, and access the collective intelligence between participants, The World Café does its best to encourage conversation. This month, they celebrate 20 years of transformative work.
What about the rest of us? Where can most of us reduce small talk and find conversations that matter? It’s critical to remember that a big conversation is our responsibility—both to start it and keep it headed in that direction. Here are eight suggestions:
1) Make the effort to get together with others in settings that encourage conversation.
2) Put your cell phone away and encourage others to do the same.
3) Don’t run and grab the computer to either prove or make a point to others.
4) Ask questions that dig deeper about things that matter to you.
5) Spend at least as much time listening as you do speaking.
6) Avoid interrupting or trying to one-up the last bit of information shared.
7) Look people in the eye when talking.
8) If the people you are talking to don’t want to follow you towards a meaningful conversation, find another group.
Of course, a major key to finding a big conversation that matters to any one of us is recognizing that we are all different with subjects we find important and worthy of discussing. Plus, like so many other things in life, it is always SMART to remember that quality conversations begin with intention and focus. Equally important is the awareness that we each craft meaningful conversations by the alchemy of people coming together with common interests and concerns, to connect, create and transform together. So, are you ready to include some big talk in your life today?
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