In conversing

What are we really doing when we are conversing?

The need for conversation is one that many people have not fully acknowledged, perhaps because they have not had occasion to do enough of it or to do it well. I am not suggesting that, in conversing, we serve as each other’s therapists, but I do believe that good talk, when carried on with the right degree of openness, can not only be a great pleasure but also do us a great deal of good, both individually and collectively as members of society.

~ Paula Marantz Cohen from,

I agree with Cohen; It’s definitely a need. We humans are inherently social beings. A great way to get companionship and intellectual stimulation is with a nice, juicy, inspiring, thought-provoking, belief-busting, mind-expanding conversation. Also great: Chats over tea. Jawboning over a beer. Whispers by candlelight. Raucous exclamations at the game. Judicious maneuvering. Single-serving sized (h/t Palahniuk.) Week-long retreating. And countless more I’m looking forward to discovering.


Prepare for opposition

Comedians are prepared for hecklers. People in retail are prepared for irate customers. Pilots prepare for engine fires. It rains when our picnic is scheduled, blizzards cancel our travel plans, and meetings go sideways.

A great question arose in our conversation: “What do I do if I’ve prepared a deliberate intention, and someone else has an intention that is opposed to it?”

~ Angie Flynn-McIver from,

There’s no trick. A magician is simply willing to invest vastly more time and money than any sane person (which includes you, watching the performance.) Things are more likely to go well, the better we prepare; And better doesn’t mean simply more hours spent preparing. Better preparation means whatever it means for whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish. If you meet surprising opposition, that’s your failure of imagination.

That said, if you are generally well-prepared, then the surprise of opposition is a rare and precious gift. It’s an opportunity for learning and improvement.


The illusion of control

What is the opposite of play? …the opposite of playing an infinite game? I can’t think of a better candidate than the desire for control. My desire for control—when it rears its ugly head—stems from insecurity. (But let’s leave my insecurity for another day.) When I grasp for control I start trying to prepare for every contingency. When I grasp for control I start trying to control the contexts around everything I’m doing, everything I’m experiencing, and how others see me. And when I don’t grasp for control, I’m able to play.

The site you’re reading, Raptitude, is essentially an attempt to convey certain kinds of embodied knowing, having to do with the subtleties of being human, rather than driving a car or doing long division. I’m trying to get people to have some of the same perspective shifts I’ve had.

~ David Cain from,

Experiencing that embodied knowing is what I enjoy about conversation. It’s not vacuous, and it’s not an attempt by me to control. It’s play, and it’s learning.



I’m saying that it is necessary to share meaning. A society is a link of relationships among people and institutions, so that we can live together. But it only works if we have a culture—which implies that we share meaning; i.e., significance, purpose, and value. Otherwise it falls apart.

~ David Bohm



If I identify the main feature of my personal growth—a task well worth your effort too—it is a shift in orientation. Where once I was primarily interested in changing the world (in the sense of carving my own path, creating a unique path; not trying to change the entire world) and changing others, I am now primarily interested in understanding the experiences of others. Where once I was focused on developing tools of reason and logic to understand reality, I am now free to build upon (not abandon!) those tools to use empathy and compassion to understand others. Certainly, this remains an aspirational work-in-progress, but it is work, in progress, none the less.

But what if the primary way in which we are unique, and one of the ultimate causes of our remarkable rational and linguistic capabilities, turns out to be the unique way in which we are emotionally drawn to one another and the world? What if humans have become so rational and linguistic because of the very special kind of social way we interact and emote? How might it change our way of understanding ourselves, our relationships with and responsibilities to one another, our fellow animals and our planet if we came to see the foundation of human uniqueness not in our capacity for reason, but in our capacity for empathy? If we realised that we are the very special animal we are because of our very special ways of caring for and about one another – a care that we project into the nonhuman world?

~ Hayden Kee from,

What if, indeed! I clearly see a trend in the sorts of things I read, the blogs I follow, the podcasts I listen to, the conversations I seek to create, and the movement opportunities I chase. How about you?


Make the time

Nine years ago (journaling for the win!) I went from zero to rock-climbing in just a few weeks in preparation for a spontaneous, multi-week trip to Colorado. I was staring at my calendar leading up to the trip, and trying to imagine how I’d empty the weeks; how would I stop doing all these things that I do every day to make room for being away.

So I started chopping. This was the turning point where I started getting clear about what I was allowing into my life. First I figured out how to work ahead, or push off work—that’s the usual thing to do in preparation for going away. But then I unsubscribed from countless emails to avoid them piling up, then I unsubscribed from notifications from various services, then I entirely dropped services, and then I started getting intentional about what I was gathering to engage with.

How can I get more cultured / interested in things? I constantly feel I am missing out on conversations as I just don’t have any drive towards joining in. Everything looks meh.

~ Gavin Leech from,

All of my efforts to “make time” over the last nine years have made me realize that I clearly do not have the problem Leech is discussing. I have the other problem. I seem to already be naturally doing all the things he suggests. And I’ve no idea how to stop doing any of that stuff.


Fatal but not serious

My deepening dive into conversation will continue for the foreseeable future. I’m still in the phase of learning where, the more I read and listen (explicitly to podcasts but also just to conversations in life in general) the more I discover that I don’t know. I’m definitely in the epoch of “study the masters” and “learn the state of the art.” But still, sometimes things snap into a clear relationship to things I already know.

On the whole, you could say that if you are defending your opinions, you are not serious. Likewise, if you are trying to avoid something unpleasant inside of yourself, that is also not being serious. A great deal of our whole life is not serious. And society teaches you that. It teaches you not to be very serious – that there are all sorts of incoherent things, and there is nothing that can be done about it, and that you will only stir yourself up uselessly by being serious.

But in a dialogue you have to be serious. It is not a dialogue if you are not – not in the way I’m using the word. There is a story about Freud when he had cancer of the mouth. Somebody came up to him and wanted to talk to him about a point in psych-ology. The person said, “Perhaps I’d better not talk to you, because you’ve got this cancer which is very serious. You may not want to talk about this.” Freud’s answer was, “This cancer may be fatal, but it’s not serious.” And actually, of course, it was just a lot of cells growing. I think a great deal of what goes on in society could be described that way – that it may well be fatal, but it’s not serious.

~ David Bohm from, On Dialogue

Everything, everywhere, in every moment does not need to be serious. That’d be exhausting. But if there’s too little in my life that is serious, my behavior starts to polarize. Moments where others want to introduce some levity become to me strident and annoying. I’m finding there’s a balance—but that’s not quite the right word because I’ve not yet discovered how to actually balance this…



If we can accept the idea that all real change is a shift in narrative—a new story as opposed to the received dominant story—then the function of citizenship, or leadership, is to invite a new narrative into existence. Narrative begins with a ride on the wave of conversation. For greatest effect, we need a new conversation with people we are not used to talking to.

~ Peter Block


Bias toward the future

The insights from large group methods have a bias toward the future and devote little or no time to negotiating the past or emphasizing those areas where we will never agree anyway. The most organizing conversation starter is “What do we want to create together?”

~ Peter Block


Generous silence

Generous silence provides space for the other person to be with their own self, for you to be with them for presence to show up. It allows them to take a breath. It whispers, “this is an interesting place to be. Let’s hang out here for a moment.” […] Generous silence can allow the delicate insights of a conversation to blossom and bloom.

~ Michael Bungay Stanier


Just ask

If you’re a pole vaulter, you need a long runway to pick up the speed required to plant the pole and flip over the bar. Odds are you are not a pole vaulter. You don’t need a runway of context, justification, and general flim-flam to be curious. It’s not really about you. Save everyone the time, and just ask the question.

~ Michael Bungay Stanier


Thank you

When someone reveals something that they’re struggling with, or something painful that happened to them, I often find myself saying, “I’m so sorry, thank you for sharing that with me.” Let’s acknowledge that you’ve just said something, that there’s nothing I can say that’s gonna lift that pain. By saying that, you’re focusing the conversation on what they’ve disclosed to you. You can also talk about how you’re talking about it. You can say, “I don’t know what to say right now. But I just want to tell you, I’m really sorry to know that.”

~ Anna Sale



The results of fully listening are profound and couldn’t be more relevant today in times of immense distractions and a world constantly in a rush: Others feel accepted.

They feel heard. They take their own words more seriously. By thinking out loud, they are discovering their own words and, by that, their own true selves.

~ Klaus Motoki Tonn from,

This article touches on a number of different things which are interesting about conversation. I was surprised to realize that despite its having several great quotes from famous authors, this bit from Tonn was the part I kept returning to. It’s just deposited quietly in the middle of the whole thing which made it all the more delightful to discover; if I’d only skimmed I’d surely have missed it.

Let’s be fair: In today’s world, no one actually listens and every thing is intentionally distracting as it clamors for our attention. That makes what should be the “simple” act of listening into something profound. I’ve encountered the effect Tonn’s highlighting many times. The more I listen, the more each guest seems to be on a journey of self-discovery. The more I implicitly promise not to interrupt them, the more confident becomes their self-exploration. And it’s made all the more special by their not expecting it.