Transformative Power of Conversations

I believe in the transformative power of conversation.  My life is a testament to that power.  I am the sum of my conversations.

But transformative conversations don’t just happen.  Like any other skill it can be learned, but again, it takes practice.

The practice begins with seeking those who share your passions.  Shared passion makes good conversation.  Little or no passion makes small talk.

Ask questions that matter, and listen to the answers with your whole attention.

Trust the person you’re talking to, until they give you a good reason not to.

Reveal yourself to them.

Bring people with a shared passion together.

Learn how to share the conversational space.

Talk about your passion in the context of your faith.  How do they inform each other?  How do they inform the others in your group?

Allow those who think differently from you, whether about your passions or your faith, to deepen your perspective.  Try to think and feel from within their skin.  See the world through their eyes.

Wrestling with God is not enough.  We need to hear what he says in the mouths of others.  We need to wrestle with ideas in the context of the group, not to win an argument, but to gain understanding.

Wrestling turns to polishing.  We gain perspective, understanding, and self-awareness.  We are blessed by the conversation, and bless others in our turn.  We grow rich with ideas, depth of perception, and positive emotional connectedness.

Gradually you find yourself transformed, not by a brutal hammer and chisel, but through the slow and gentle washing of water by the word of God – through the mouth of a friend.

Optimal Conversation and Group Mitosis

How can we optimize the conversational experience of a group, and once the group gets too large, divide the group in such a way that the conversational quality of the two groups is maintained?

The quality of a conversation is directly proportional to the number of ideas presented and understood therein.

Ideas increase with both the number and diversity of participants.

Understanding requires dialectical inquiry, which in turn requires bandwidth.

I define bandwidth to be the number of minutes in one hour each person has to communicate her ideas to the others in the group in such a manner that each person has an equal opportunity to speak.  For example, a conversation between two people shares one channel of communication and each has thirty minutes of bandwidth.  A conversation between eight people shares 28 channels of communication and each person has about one minute of bandwidth.

When the group forms, members are familiarized with the ideas of talk dancing, bandwidth, and with the Occupy Wall Street Hand Signals.  The group is responsible for the conversational flow, and those who do not respect the bandwidth of others should expect to be called to order by the “wrap it up” hand signal from others in the group.

My own experience suggests the optimal group size to be about 8 people.  Eight people can have a lot of ideas.  More than 8 people in a group imply less than a minute of bandwidth for each person.  It’s hard to express an interesting idea in less than a minute.  By the time you get to twelve in a group there is less than thirty seconds of bandwidth available.

I would suggest that a group divide in two when it reaches about ten people, and certainly no more than twelve.  Let the group elect a ballot counter.  Then each person write down their own name together with four (if there are 10 in the group) or five (if twelve) others they would like in their group.  Then divide the groups so that everyone has at least one person they wanted in their group besides themselves.

If there are persons with less than five votes then there are those with more than five.  Pair off the ones with the most votes with those with the least.

Practicing Perspective

About 25 years ago I was in a conversation with someone in our book club when it dawned on me the person I was talking to had begun to fear for his physical safety.  My body language and tone of voice had become positively homicidal.

Since then I’ve tried to be aware of both my body and my attitude when engaging in conversation.  What am I feeling and why?  What is my purpose?  Am I trying to understand the people engaged in conversation, or trying to win an argument?

If what the person is saying is producing an unpleasant reaction in my body, I know it’s time to be careful; time to focus on my breath, and try to understand what the person is saying.  What are her assumptions?  What is her point of view?  What is her life experience?

Sometimes someone will say something that just pushes my buttons, which produces an immediate bile dump in my gut; my blood pressure goes through the roof and my breathing becomes rapid and short.  When this happens I need to breathe through these feelings and calm down before I open my mouth.  Often times this is a signal to me that I am feeling disrespected in some way.  Sometimes this comes, not from any intended disrespect, but from my own sense of inadequacy.

If the person says something I don’t understand, or uses a word I’m unfamiliar with, I’ll ask her what she means.  If I’m unsure I’ve understood what she said, then I’ll try to paraphrase what I think she’s said.  If I think I disagree with her, I’ll try to understand what she feels is important in the situation, or what life experiences have influenced her conclusions.

How do you practice perspective?  Do you have a method for psychologically distancing yourself from the conversation in some way?  Or is your source of perspective from something other than conversation?

The Conversationalist

I learned most of what I know about conversation from my second father. He never met a person he couldn’t learn something from.

He owned a convention services business. As a kid I would often go with him to work with my brother. He would give us odd jobs to do, like sweeping the dock, stuffing envelopes, or folding drape.

Along the way we would inevitably run into someone, like a guard, an exhibiter, or a convention manager. He would talk with them all with the same respect and interest. And it seemed to me he would invariably learn something interesting from all of them.

I can remember riding in a cab with him one day; I want to say in New York, but I can’t think why we might have been there. But it was a long ride, and in the course of time it took us to get where we were going, he had coaxed that cabby’s entire life history from him. And I remember it fascinating me completely, both how interesting this cabby’s life was, and how effortlessly my father was able to draw it out of him.

My friends loved to talk with him; they would feign otherwise, and talk about playing twenty questions with George. But to this day they never fail to mention those conversations whenever his name comes up.

His questions come from a genuine interest in people, and he is able to ask them in such a way that they don’t feel probing or intrusive. He makes the person he’s talking to feel like she is utterly fascinating to him, and they seem to trust him completely.

I’ve tried to emulate him, but it’s not as easy as it looks. There’s a subtle difference between a question that makes a person feel interesting, and one that makes a person feel threatened. He listens. He’s interested. He’s observant. I can remember him more than once describing roadside scenes that utterly escaped my notice. Somehow he makes his conversations go where most others can’t.

The Talk Dancer


I have described conversations as one person in a group having an idea and everyone else in the group responding to that idea; then the next person in the group having an idea and everyone else in the group responding to that idea, and so on.

You may reply that conversations don’t actually occur in the way I’ve described.  For example, in a group of 12 people maybe one person has an idea, and only two have a response.  I would argue that everyone in the group has an idea, and everyone has a response.  But that some don’t give voice to either.

That brings me to an idea I’ve been wrestling with for years:  the talk dancer.

The talk dancer is someone who brings everyone in the group onto the conversational dance floor.  He is able to fill an uncomfortable silence with an interesting idea or question that provokes conversation without dominating it; he is able to make those present feel safe enough to participate, and draw ideas or responses from those who are reticent.

For a group to thrive it needs a talk dancer.

I think one of the problems with dividing a group is that if one half does not have a talk dancer, then chances are that the half without a talk dancer will wither and die.  And because talk dancers are such stimulating people to be around, everyone wants to be in the talk dancer’s group.

Moreover I think talk dancers are drawn to other talk dancers because they both share a love for good conversation.  If the group divides, the talk dancers will probably want to be in the same group.  So to add insult to injury, when the group divides one group will likely have all the talk dancers, while the other group has none.

I have not quite figured out how to deal with this dilemma.  I’ve thought about having a secret ballot, and have each person in the group nominate the other persons in the group they think are talk dancers, then have the two with the most votes separate to form new groups.  Or perhaps rank everyone in the group, and sort the odds into one group and the evens into another.  But I’ve never put these ideas to the test.

Constraints on Conversation and the Size of a Group

Have you ever been in a group, and wondered why that group never grows beyond a certain limit?  It begs the question, ‘How many persons can be in a group before a conversation in which everyone participates becomes nearly impossible?’

Suppose you and I have a conversation.  Our communication is bidirectional: you have an idea, and I have a response; I have an idea, and you have a response, and so on.  I believe this is referred to as a channel of communication.

Now suppose Phil joins our conversation: you have an idea, Phil has a response, and I have a response; Phil has an idea, I have a response, and you have a response; I have an idea, you have a response, and Phil has a response, etc.

You have a channel of communication with me, a channel with Phil, and Phil has a channel with me; three channels of communication.

Suppose Gordon joins the three of us.  With four of us, you have a channel of communication with Phil, a channel with Gordon, and a channel with me (3).  Phil has a channel with Gordon and a channel with me (2).  And finally Gordon has a channel with me (1).  That is, with two people there is one channel of communication; with three there are three, and with four there are six.

What we are doing here is finding the number of combinations of N persons taken 2 at a time.  There is a formula for this:

N! / [ 2 * (N-2)] = N(N-1) / 2

This is a quadratic equation, which of course is nonlinear.  With eight people in a group, there are 28 channels of communication, or 4.5 times as many as there are with four.

In other words, we need to be very sensitive to the length of our conversational “bursts” as the size of our group grows.  With two persons in a one hour conversation, they could each talk for four fifteen minute bursts and still complete an entire conversational cycle (you have an idea, I have a response; I have an idea, you have a response).  With eight in a group, that maximal burst time is reduced to thirty seconds.  With twelve persons, that time becomes fourteen seconds.