Four Conditions for Conversation

Living lives full of distractions we often find good conversations rare. Yet we long for the connection that a good conversation brings.

When was the last time you had a meaningful conversation?

They are the lifeblood of relationships. If relationships are at the root of reality and are the lens through which New Copernicans view life, then meaningful conversations become an essential rhythm.

Living lives full of distractions we often find good conversations rare. Yet we long for the connection that good conversations bring. We are hardwired for relationships and conversations are foundational to them. Here is the irony, we need them and yet they cannot be forced. You just cannot schedule on your Google calendar “Meaningful Conversation” as one might do a Zoom conference call. To be authentic it must be spontaneous.

What makes a good conversation? It is one where important matters are discussed, most often in the form of story, and where one leaves with a sense of being heard and affirmed. Good conversations often touch on our identity and dreams—they dance around the edges of our ultimate concerns.

If they are essential, but can’t be planned, what can we do? We can create the preconditions where these conversations arise. Four environments make these conversations more likely.

Campfire – Anthropologist claim that it was the discovery of fire that ignited human evolution. This was not simply because of cooking and warmth, but because fire sparks our imagination through storytelling. University of Utah anthropologist Polly Wiessner found that among primitive tribes, “Stories told by firelight put listeners on the same emotional wavelength, elicited understanding, trust, and sympathy.” We often speak of home as the “hearth,” which is the fireplace—the centerpiece of relational connection. Modern homes often do not have an open, working fireplace. They are deemed inefficient, dirty, and dangerous. But by doing away with them we have lost even more—the metaphor and reality of connection.

Alcohol – Lingering conversations over a pint of beer, a glass of wine, or a dram of Scotch has certain richness. Certainly alcohol consumption lowers social inhibitions and can make one talk more freely—often to one’s later regret. Certainly alcohol is poison to the alcoholic, but even so alcohol slows down the clock and enhances the gift of unhurried time that is an essential ingredient to connection. One can substitute tea and coffee, but experience will tell you, if honest, that it’s not the same.

Smoking – Men are particularly bad at engaging in meaningful conversations, especially among themselves. Break out the cigars and pipes and everything changes. The stories naturally flow amidst the smoke filled air. Like fireplaces in modern homes, fear of second hand smoke has eliminated most places where people can comfortably gather to smoke. Smokers are treated as second-class citizens and have been ostracized to beyond the pale. Opportunities for good conversations suffer as a consequence.

Home-base Hospitality – It’s one thing to go out to eat at a restaurant and quite another to share in a home-cooked meal. To open one’s home for a meal you have lovingly created shows vulnerability and investment in the other that is disarming. We do not do it enough and the opportunity for neighborliness, human connection, and good conversation suffers.

Great conversations cannot be forced. But we can create the environments that foster their likelihood—campfire, alcohol, smoking, and home-based hospitality. Conversations matter. We’d best start creating experiences as if this were so.

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John Seel is a cultural renewal entrepreneur and social impact consultant. He works with people and projects that promote human flourishing and the...
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