Conversation as a spectrum

Communication between two people falls on a spectrum, and that spectrum has more than one dimension. In fact, I imagine it has many dimensions.

Information could be flowing predominantly from person A to B, evenly, or in the other direction; this can be imagined as one dimension of the communication. The tension—antagonism, slight repulsion, a neutral first meeting, mild interest, intimate whispers—can be negative or positive; this can be another dimension. Communication can be durable (recorded, written, notes taken, etc.) or ephemeral; that’s another dimension. It can also vary in the dimension from private to public.

It’s interesting to consider how real scenarios could be characterized using those dimensions. Consider: An interrogation involving torture, an interrogation of a subject with their rights observed, a private investigator seeking to solve a case, a journalist interviewing a war criminal, a journalist interviewing a cultural icon, two friends talking while sharing a meal, single-serving sized friends on a plane (hat tip to Chuck Palahniuk), or lovers sharing pillow talk. The scenarios, like life, are endlessly varied.

All of that is a reductionist analysis; How do I simplify the real scenario to find some principles that are durable across scenarios. That’s useful. But I could also turn my analysis around. While having a conversation, I could consider those principles as a way to guide my efforts to create a certain kind of conversation.

Direction of information flow? …should I be talking more or less? Tension? …is there, should there be, more or less? Durability? Privacy? There are certainly more dimensions, and therefore more principles, than those I’ve listed. And the insight gained from understanding every principle could be evaluated in the context—the right-now in each moment’s context—of every conversation.

What would happen if I continuously, (as often as is possible in a conversation, but also by reflecting on each conversation and planning for the next,) made conscious adjustments? What would happen if I did that over 100, 500, or even 1,000 conversations? Now that’s a good question.

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Oration

A speech is like a love affair. Any fool can start it, but to end it requires considerable skill.

~ Lord Mancroft

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Conversations are difficult to end well. I’ve spent considerable time thinking about how to end them, and talking to people about how to end them. (I am aware it’s awfully meta to have conversations with people about how to end conversations.) As with anything, (making toast for example,) it’s good to first figure out common ways to horrible muck it up, (try burning the toast,) and learning to consistently not muck it up.

Here are three ways to muck up a conversation so as to avoid having a good ending.

First: Drag the conversation on until your conversation partner is exhausted. One might think it could make for a good ending—just the sheer relief of it ending! But alas, (poor Yorick,) it’s just an ending and not a good one.

Second: Get the last word in. If you’re the host, (of the podcast, the dinner party, etc.,) insisting on being the last one to touch the conversation baton is guaranteed to make a bad ending.

Third: If it’s going well, always keep going. That way, you only end when it’s not going well. In other words: Actively choose a bad place to end.

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Tolerance

Tolerance is becoming accustomed to injustice; love is becoming disturbed and activated by another’s adverse condition. Tolerance crosses the street; love confronts. Tolerance builds fences; love opens doors. Tolerance breeds indifference; love demands engagement. Tolerance couldn’t care less; love always cares more.

~ Cory Booker

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When I’m having a recorded conversation for a podcast, “being loving” or “loving the other person”, aren’t the words I’d choose. Low-brow jokes aside, it just doesn’t feel like the right word choice. Booker’s phrasing is obviously rhetoric. But there’s a reason rhetoric is like that: It works.

When I read Booker’s rhetoric I was thinking how shifting one’s context to coming from being loving changes the way I’d approach those situations. …or at least, how I might approach those situations. Changing my mindset would enable me to see opportunities I’d otherwise miss. (While still allowing me to rationally choose when it might be wise to walk by, cross the street, build a fence, get on with life, etc..)

And my new mindset—coming from being loving—made me think of a conversation I had a little while ago with Andrew Foster.

Ruh-roh, there might just be something to this “love” thing.

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PS: *gasp* I too have been misattributing “ruh-roh”, as in “ruh-roh rhaggy” to Scooby Doo. “ruh-roh” is Astro’s catch-phrase. Both dogs were voiced by the same actor though…

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Framed dialogs

And I mean dialog which is set up with certain agreed-upon concepts and boundaries, not literally framed for hanging on a wall.

A while back—January 4th, 2021 to be specific—I made some notes about an idea tickling my brain. I had had a conversation with two people. We had decided to get together to talk about… something. I’m not sure what. It probably was something like:

I feel like I need to talk to someone. But, I’m in this place where too many people—basically, all the people I regularly interact with—see me in a certain way. They know me in a certain context. Anything I say or do, they evaluate it as a continuation of what they know about me. That’s not a criticism of them, but simply a statement of reality.

…something like that. Not saying that’s it exactly. I’m asking for a friend. ahem.

We three hopped on a call and it didn’t really go well. We didn’t have an agenda, (which was probably a good thing). But also, we didn’t have a purpose nor clear idea of why we wanted to have the conversation. We expended an hour, (of our expected 694,700 total available,) shrugged, and moved on with our day. After my mind moved on from the experience, when I returned to thinking about the tickling idea, and the conversation, somehow I felt like the conversation had been useful. So in hindsight, it felt like the conversation was much closer to being useful, then I thought it was in the moment.

Since I’m generally interested in conversation, I scratched some notes—as I mentioned, in January a year ago—about what I thought might have been the magic: Time limit, ephemeral, minimal structure, and anticipation. Those four properties seem to be the essentials for my having felt the conversation was useful in hindsight. This isn’t about “talk therapy.” But, somehow, those features (which would be a part of a talk-therapy session) still facilitate… something.

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Oxytocin

“We often see it discussed in relation to attachment and social-related behaviors, including empathy and bonding,” says Lily Brown, PhD, Director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania. But it’s a lot more than a fleeting chemical high. Oxytocin is a hormone that functions as a neurotransmitter in the brain. It’s thought to be a driving force behind attraction and caregiving, and even controls key aspects of the reproductive system, childbirth, and lactation.

~ Alexandra Owens from, https://www.psycom.net/oxytocin

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I regularly have conversations with people. I am fascinated by how the privacy, exclusivity of attention, and close proximity of a good conversation works. There’s magic— deep seated, ancient, evolution-driven, psychological and biological affects—in a good conversation.

The other day, I stumbled over a post mentioning the hormone Oxytocin being produced by eye contact. I wanted to leave a link for myself, and perhaps you’d be interested too.

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Difficult questions

What would be a good question to ask? How do I evaluate a potential question, in real time during a conversation, to decide if it’s good? What can I do to make this guest enjoy this conversation? In the same vein: What should I do? And what, if anything, must I do? What does this person really want to talk about? What don’t they want to talk about? And if I figured that out, is the right thing to, to honor their desire to avoid it, or to help them face it? Can I help them more by letting them find their own energy level, or by trying to help them change their energy level? Would calming down enable them to communicate more effectively? Would riling them up help them work through their feelings? Should we explore how they are feeling, or how this event we’re discussing made them feel? Should I be more open, and share more with them? Or would my consuming our time doing that, block them from doing what they need to do, or from saying what they need to say? Should we be having more fun? Should we be more serious? Should we instead do the opposite, (make light of a serious subject, or vice versa,) of that society would normally expect? Should I ask them a deep question? Should I ask a question on the same line-of-thought and take us even deeper? Deeper a third time? Or should I pivot to indicate that I want to follow them, not drive them into a corner?

What’s that? …oh, you thought I was going to be talking about the actual questions one might ask another person. Yeah no that’s another question altogether. :)

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Two people is magical

I often find things scattered about which make little connections appear in my mind. That’s literally what the word composition means when it’s used in the context of writing and literature; writing which composes something new from some number of other things already found. This little missive has been laying in the pile of such things for far too long… and so I’m putting up here to see where it leads us.

Way back in March of 2021 I listened to this podcast episode:

Decoding the Patterns of Human Connection with Marissa King from the Masters of Community podcast, March 22, 2021.

Around 46 minutes in David Spinks asks…

Marissa King: What she found is people consistently underestimated how much their partner was enjoying the conversation. So the short answer to this is you’re actually more likable than you think just the way you are.

David Spinks: That’s really interesting. What are the steps then? …for somebody to become a better conversationalist?

Marissa: Do they just have to become aware of that fact, and stop worrying about it so much? I think that’s part of it. And what I try to do throughout my book is actually to give people the tools of social science to allow them to apply this in their own life. […] So for instance, imagine you’re walking into a cocktail party. What we know, based on human interaction is when I walk in, I often will just see a wall of people. […] But we know that people actually don’t just form walls, that they tend to form small groups or clusters. The question becomes, which cluster do you go to? And people will have all sorts of different ways of choosing this. […] It turns out, that people are in these clusters, because of just the way that humans are built, that we have two eyes, and we have two ears, almost all conversation actually happens in dyads—groups of two. And because of this, if you look for an odd number group, whether it’s 1, 3, 5, 7… When you join that conversation, you’re giving someone else a conversational partner, and so you’re really creating balance. […] oftentimes if you apply this, or you imagine that you are one of these people who feel this aversion, or you feel like I don’t know how to do this, by applying these basic tools, it actually allows you to engage in these types of activities more comfortably.

(I did that transcription by hand and edited it all lightly for clarity.)

That show is all about communities. It’s intended for community builders, managers and moderators. A lot of its content is about health and wellness, as well as the more obvious topics of strategies and tactics for community building.

But this part of this episode really grabbed my attention from my “I record conversations with people” podcast creator point-of-view.

TWO PEOPLE

I’ve long believed that two is the perfect number of people in a podcast. Yes, there are exceptional instances of podcasts with the other numbers of people in them. But there’s magic in two.

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PS: In the above, that small idea about “composition”… that came from some other reading which I unpacked in, Thank you Miss Merrill.

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The resources of others

The great charm of conversation consists less in the display of one’s own wit and intelligence, than in the power to draw forth the resources of others. […] The true man of genius will delicately make all who come in contact with him feel the exquisite satisfaction of knowing that they have appeared to advantage.

~ La Bruyère

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Bitter is better

Remember that anything really worth doing is probably hard work, and will absolutely require you to do things you don’t currently do, which will feel uncomfortable for a while. This is a “hard truth” we must all face. If it was easy, everyone would already be doing it.

~ Shane Parrish from, https://fs.blog/2016/10/eat-the-broccoli/

Somewhere along the way, I learned to like vegetables. I mean, really like vegetables. I know you think I said, “give me a lot of vegetables,” but what I actually said was, “give me all the vegetables.” Brussel Sprouts? Do you remember when they used to be bitter? …because, yes, they really did breed them differently in recent decades to be less bitter. Artichoke—not just the hearts, but the whole thing… yes, I know how to make them, and keep your hands out of the way when I eat them. But a good one is hard to find these days as they’ve been bred to be more “palatable.” Peppers, yes of all sorts. Tomatos, I ate them all. Beans, kale, spinach, turnips, cucumbers… steamed, raw, tossed as summer salad (aka, with EVO and red wine vinegar)… nom nom nom nom.

A little over a year ago, I settled on my personal mission: Creating better conversations to spread understanding and compassion. To make progress on that, I need to eat my vegetables. And—as discussed—I love me some vegetables. I’m currently, slowly working on adjusting my life to be focused on two things: Recording kewl conversations with people, and writing; writing about those kewl conversations. It’s not that I currently have responsibilities to eschew, but rather there are still too many off-focus things I do which I’m working to eliminate.

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This might get personal

these nine principles for interviewing people about tender, personal, tough subjects are tactics that are helpful in any hard conversation. You want to be clear about your objectives for the conversation, to be prepared to listen closely and actively, to prepare the person you are talking to for a different, deeper sort of exchange. You need to respect the dignity of the person you’re talking with, and respect yourself enough to speak up when you disagree.

~ Anna Sale from, https://transom.org/2021/treat-an-interview-like-a-relationship/

Whether or not you’re doing recorded conversations with guests, there’s a bunch of great advice in that article. I’m particularly drawn to Sale’s point about how her interviews are enabled by the fact that she is creating a relationship with the guest. In any conversation, everything we do either builds up, or tears down, a relationship bit by bit.

In any conversation, it’s my experience that the more intentional I am, the better it goes. Part of that is intentional listening; listening primarily to understand. Another part is being mindful of the other person; deploying empathy and compassion. Another part is keeping sight of where you are headed, and also where it is not possible to get to; knowing what to stretch for and what to let pass is critical.

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