Discover more from DIALOGOS - Meaningful Conversation
Conversation by the number
Is there a finite number of possible conversations?
I don’t know about you, but it seems like so much of our day is stuck in small talk. I was talking with a retired individual who admonished society for no longer engaging in enough robust conversation. The youth of today, he said, too often would rather check their phones than have face-to-face conversation. I suggested that maybe it’s a two-way problem? We don’t speak the same way or have entirely the same language. We certainly don’t have the same priorities and interests. And, most saliently, we’re more often than not really prepared to make the adjustments ourselves. As we look at developing the skill and room for more meaningful conversation, we need to be very self-aware about what we are bringing to the game. Are we present? Can we be still and listen? What baggage are we bringing to the chat? Some topics are more engaging than others. Some people are more interesting to talk to than others. Our commitment to the conversation will vary according to our context. We can’t always be on. But we can sometimes take a step back and recognize the situation as well as our own weaknesses to make the connection and discussion more powerful. Are you ready?
In my previous segment, I tried to lay out the sum total of all possible topics between two adults. In that children are far more prone to uninhibited creativity, it seemed that I had better keep it to us, more mundane adults. Having established that there are 33 topics, the next two axes of this three-dimensional graph involve the relationship between the two conversants and the intensity (and/or context) of the conversation itself. Let’s start with the relationship, because that, for me, is at the crux of any conversation. Your history or lack thereof necessarily impacts the exchange.
Axe 2: Relationships
The continuum of relationships along the scale may be a little choppy, but broadly speaking it ranges from being complete strangers up to being intertwined, interdependent people. At some level, the status of each relationship will vary. For example, if you’re friends, how close are you? If you’re family, is it a strained long-term relationship, or is it family you see only on happy occasions? Equally, whether it’s a stranger, acquaintance or lover, the level and intensity of the relationship will depend on other elements, not least of which is the subject itself. Some topics are easier to navigate according to the person in front and the nature of the relationship. I name seven categories of relationship. I’m sure that others, more qualified, will have a viewpoint on this, but here goes:
· Interdependent (based on some meta bond such as business)
I remember some wise cracks at work that went along the lines: With colleagues like that, who needs [external] competition. In the private sphere, it goes like this: With friends like that, who needs enemies. And there are inevitably nuances and finer labels possible, for example, around friends. There’s a big difference between the way certain cultures – and people – will characterize a friend. For some, it’s enough to have met once. For others, there are only ever a handful of people that will ever deserve to be called friends. Similarly, with family, some people can have closer relationships with step-siblings than their real siblings, or with an uncle more than a parent, etc. People will have different ideas of what family entails. I added interdependent since there are certain roles where each relies on the other by nature of the interaction. For example: a patient and a doctor, two colleagues at work, a supplier and a buyer, a priest and the parishioner, members of a [sports] team, etc.
While the relationship between two people will nominally be the same for both, that may not always be the perceived case at the outset, nor at the outcome. Some relationships will warm up and others cool down through a conversation and that can alter the nature of the connection.
Axe 3: Intensity
Once we have established the seven forms of relationship, now comes a much harder term to define: the context and intensity of the conversation. Here, I’ve created six “levels” of intensity. That’s because, depending on the context, the conversation may be more or less constrained. It may be more of less powerful. How ‘present’ is each person? How much time do they have? What happened before or what is about to happen? And here’s the rub: both sides may not have the same perception of the intensity or context. When one person is talking about one topic, the other person may well be thinking another thought or associating the topic with something else.
Herewith are the six levels:
· Chatter (light / small talk / jokes)
· Factual (reporting)
· Engaged (being present)
· Argumentative (banter, devil’s advocate…)
· Disengaged / distracted
· Hostile (combative, abusive…)
Of the six, being fully present and engaged is the ideal. But, it’s hard to just switch it on. More often than not, it takes a process, moving through other phases or topics to get to a deeper, more meaningful connection. For example, a joke, an exchange of facts or an argument can all ignite a deeper conversation. Ultimately, the whole purpose of laying these three axes down was to establish a way to understand how conversations meander, shift and grow differently for us. If the cheeky proposition was to give a finite number of topics (33), relationships (7) and intensity levels (6), by multiplying those numbers out we could come up with a total number of conversational moments. As such there would be 1386 nodes or moments to any conversation. Topics and intensity will typically vary, while relationships will only change from time to time. By having more deep and meaningful conversations, there’s a good chance for better connection.
As you go through your next conversation with someone or reflect on a recent chat, what was your path like? Chart your path on the graph below!
The finite number of infinite conversations
P.S. Time will tell
I was tempted to add a fourth axe to allow for the time factor. The amount of time you have – whether it’s short, fixed or unlimited – will absolutely shape the nature of a conversation. In a further article, I will delve into the role of time and how it will shape or inform the style of conversation. But for simplicity’s sake here, I have stuck to just three axes.
Does this stimulate any thoughts? Have a great weekend!
As we look at developing the skill and room for more meaningful conversation, we need to be very self-aware about what we are bringing to the game. Are we present? Can we be still and listen? What baggage are we bringing to the chat? Some topics are more engaging than others. Some people are more interesting to talk to than others. Our commitment to the conversation will vary according to our context. We can’t always be on. But we can sometimes take a step back and recognize the situation as well as our own weaknesses to make the connection and discussion more powerful. Are you ready?