How to host a meaningful conversation?
The ten keys to hosting a successful and robust salon in an informal setting.
I don’t know about you, but some dinner parties are so deadly boring that I sometimes just switch off. That’s not exactly true in that I will continue to listen, but the desire to participate in the conversation is driven out of me. Talk of perfect progeny, jolly jobs and the humungous home overhaul all seem to run into one another. I yearn for conversations that surprise me, where I feel I may learn and/or grow. I love listening to emotional stories and personal revelations. I enjoy hearing differing, passionate yet reasoned points of view. It must also be said that I enjoy reading non-fiction and watching well-done documentaries. As my wife likes to say, intelligence is an aphrodisiac. However, when we believe we know it all or that we no longer have need of other people, it’s a dark day for humanity. We should insist on keeping the doors of perception open and thrive by exploring and meeting others who challenge our beliefs. Life is messy, and let’s enjoy the dirt.
If you’re reading Dialogos, you’re presumably interested in, if not concerned about the plight of conversation in society. But maybe you’re not sold on the need to have meaningful conversation all the time, everywhere? Well, don’t worry, I’m with you. I’m not a despot of deep discussion. I’m certainly not wishing to fill every nook and cranny with heavy chats. I don’t spend my day wearing a sort of conversation cowl. There’s a time and a place for having these types of exchanges. Context is absolutely vital. The breakfast meal before the morning rush to the office or doing the school run isn’t propitious. Meanwhile, a Sunday roast or dinner probably offer better settings.
Many a friend, though, has quizzed me on why we’d need to configure a more meaningful discussion: “aren’t these methods a tad artificial?” My answer is that there is nothing wrong with loving your children, enjoying home decoration or even discussing the weather, but much like a company needs a strategy, so must we at times be strategic in how we lead our lives. Just hoping that the conversation will be deep and meaningful isn’t sufficient. Hope is not a strategy. Moreover, in the realm of learning and developing deeper connections, a robust conversation on meaty topics is a meal unto itself. As we have seen in the guest posts by Professor Emmanuel Nuesiri or Dr Philippe Pierre, there’s a great deal of intention and preparation that goes into fostering conversation. In this post, I’ll be sharing an informal method for holding meaningful conversation. I like to think of these as a modern interpretation of the 18th century salons. Then in later articles, more extensively, I’ll address a formal way to have meaningful conversations at home (i.e., with friends), as well as at work or among a cast of strangers. In all cases, the critical starting point is that you must come with the right ‘conversation’ mindset.
Adopting the ‘conversation’ mindset
Being the host of a conversation means leading by example. Below are the key elements of the conversation mindset. Which ones do you feel you have in spades? Are there others that are less easy for you? And maybe there are still others you know you have real difficulty with, especially when it comes to touchy topics? It’ll be worth doing an honest auto-evaluation. Here are the ten components that go into having the conversation mindset:
Ready to engage and prepared to participate fully
Happy to do more listening -- without judgment -- than talking
Genuinely curious to learn
Open to alternative opinions or, put another way, able to gracefully stomach opposite perspectives
Knowledgeable about the topic at hand
Prepared to agree (when appropriate) with the others
Able to admit mistakes
Willing to adjust one’s own position
Courteous in gestures and language
Finally, a good understanding of yourself and sufficient self-awareness to know when you are out of tune with yourself.
Having this attitude in full is perhaps a tall order, especially for topics that are polemical. However, this is the point of the exercise. We need to learn how to adopt this mindset as a way to open ourselves up, continue to grow and to connect with others. Part of the reason we’ve gotten into this divisive, dialogue-of-the-deaf situation is that we are making our belief system so existentially important, that any probe into our belief is felt as an attack on our person. Accordingly, we close down and we view all who carry a different belief as alien. Yet, I believe we are all a bit hurt and in need of connection. Sure, we will have differences of opinion, but:
We are inevitably all different in ways because of our different experiences
Yet, we will also have points of view we share
And just because we have differences of opinion, doesn’t mean we’re monsters.
Finding out why such opinions matter so much to us can be very salutary and lead us to understand ourselves better. It may well be that our beliefs are based on experiences that marked us. Yet, we don’t need to be defined by them.
By practising our listening skills, especially when it’s difficult, we’ll strengthen our empathic muscle and along the way become better people.
The set up
Let’s start here with how to set up an informal ‘salon’. Even if you’re looking to make it less formal, I insist that you need to have a degree of intentionality. One of the keys to galvanising a group is to establish upfront a shared objective. Ideally, everyone invited is party to the objective. Even if they haven’t necessarily participated in its formulation, they must adhere to the purpose. I stress that I don’t wish for the objective to be a destination. Unlike an objective one sets for work, with measurable elements, the purpose of this exercise is more to stretch the mind, to develop a better understanding of the self, learn about alternatives, grow as a person and to connect with others. The reason that it’s important to set a shared objective is that it is an unofficial way to bind the participants together, and it will help to restore order if/when the conversation goes awry. Again, we must let the conversation takes its course; yet must the host know how to rein in comments that are out of proportion or off base. If you’ve established a pre-discussion agreement, you can invoke the objective at the time of a clash to re-center the discussion. Meanwhile, if the term objective is misleading to you, you might think of this concept more as a “guiding principle” for the ensuing conversation.
Should we set up these conversations to take place in a safe space? This is a fundamental question. It’s my belief that the quest for safety has contributed to the dampening of vibrant conversation. At the very least, in the extremes, we can observe that it has led to the extinguishing of certain discussions and the cancellation (de-platforming) of various individuals. As Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff laid out in their book, “The Coddling of the American Mind” (via Amazon), there are two types of safety: physical and psychological. In principle, safety is a good idea; but seeking total safety – especially psychological -- is not advisable and isn’t a good way to prepare ourselves for the rigours of life. When we go too far, problems arise. Haidt Lukianoff wrote in an article for the Saturday Evening Post:
“Safety is good, of course, and keeping others safe from harm is virtuous, but virtues can become vices when carried to extremes. “Safetyism” refers to a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. “Safety” trumps everything else, no matter how unlikely or trivial the potential danger.”
In the same vein, I agree with Shane Snow who wrote in a Forbes article titled, “How Psychological Safety Actually Works,” about his experience in promoting a ‘safe space’ as CEO at his company, Showrunner: “the idea of making a team environment completely comfortable was at odds with growth and problem solving.” As Lukianoff and Haidt expose in their book, the concept of safetyism – especially in the developing stages -- ends up hurting us because it removes perils and experiences that help us prepare and deal with later challenges. Exaggerated safetyism effectively reduces our immunity system from the bugs of life.
So how safe should you make your space for hosting a robust conversation on a meaningful topic? The answer to this will depend on how you set it up and who you choose to have join. If they can subscribe to the principles set out above, I think it’s a good start. To the extent we’re all here to learn and grow rather than pontificate, virtue signal or call out, we are on a better path.
In general, I recommend thinking of your home as a place to encourage hearty discussions, even robust debate. Obviously, not everyone is up for hosting (and even less cooking a meal) at home. This can be for many justified reasons such as location, size or in-adaptability. Some would far prefer to have dinner out. The challenge with restaurants is that you rarely have control over the setting. At home, even if you order in, at least you can set the context. Moreover, although I recognize that it’s a cultural thing and some don’t have the space, I think that we ought to encourage more invitations into our homes. [Let me know if you agree or disagree in the comments!] For this, I really appreciate the Parisian custom of having friends over for home-cooked meals. Inviting people seems rarer and rarer these days – perhaps in part because of the lingering effects of the Covid pandemic? Having people over into the privacy of your home is already a way of building bridges. So, assuming you’re looking to do this at home and that you are going to invite a few people over, there are some basics to review. As host, you need to set the tone and lay out the rules of engagement. You also need to set out whether you plan to play the part of moderator or an active participant.
Depending on just how intentional you wish to be, the people you choose and how you invite everyone is going to be important. If there is a particular topic you wish to address, you’ll want to have people who are engaged – and knowledgeable -- in the subject. But it’s key to make sure that there’s balance. You don’t want to invite an individual who is a dominant expert. You also want to assess to what extent each participant is willing and able to listen to others. For this, depending on how confident you are with your guests, I suggest making clear in the invitation how you wish to conduct the activity. However, one thing is eminently important: you can’t and mustn’t predict the outcome. The trickiest part of being host (or moderator) is finding the balance between guiding and letting go. To the extent you have been clear on the process, you have to believe in it and allow the ebb and flow to happen naturally.
Being the moderator
If you plan to be the moderator, there are three key points to bear in mind:
You need to be honest with yourself about your perspective (aka bias) coming into the discussion. It may be good to say upfront if you know you have a strong opinion.
You need to be meta about the conversation and be aware of the dynamics, especially the non-verbal cues and communications. Your role is to be overseer of the principles and the keeper of the time.
You need to make sure that everyone is getting air time and is being respected for the views they hold.
Whether as a moderator or active participant, it can be highly useful to occasionally insert yourself and reformulate (without judgment) what you’ve just heard. This form of interruption has the added benefit of providing a breather and can help reset if the conversation is veering hors piste.
Much like someone who leads a seminar or teaches a classroom, the context counts. For starters, you’ll want to think of welcoming everyone and then making sure that everyone is immediately and actively engaged. Once everyone has arrived and has been served a drink (with nibbles), it’s useful to formally mark the beginning of the conversation. In terms of seating, you don’t want any one person to be left out or too central. With the space that we have in our living room at home, I try to create a rough circle. Alternatively, we use our larger round dining table. Obviously, you’ll have to adapt to the space you have.
At the outset, you will want to set expectations and time parameters. Insofar as time limits have a way of cramping freedom of expression, it’s been my experience that being flexible on the timing is better for a freer exchange. However, life has its way of getting in the way and we all have imperatives. In this case, best to know them upfront and help navigate the end in a graceful manner. Also, if you’re going to go from cocktails to dinner, you’ll need to think through the timing, especially since the change from drinks to dining table will be disruptive to the flow. Personally, I always like to assign seats at the table, especially since I tend to curate my groups in advance.
On your marks
Something else I like to do is to think carefully of the beginning. I have a tendency to consider a specific warm-up act or ice-breaker. This can be in the form of an easy round-the-table question. However, this should never be a boring “name and function” approach. Make the introduction linked to and a part of the conversation, especially to make it personal and, ideally, a bit revealing. As host/moderator, you’ll want to set the example as to what type of intimacy you’re hoping for. You might want, for example, to reveal your own state of excitement or nervousness.
Rules of engagement
Establishing the rules of engagement, at least in the beginning, will be a learning curve. And you will likely have to adapt according to how tendentious the topic is and who the participants are (i.e. how disciplined they are). I recommend sending out an invitation with the principles laid out above, written in your own words. The ideal is not to have to intervene during the conversation. But to the extent everyone buys in on the mindset and stated principles, the best discussions happen naturally.
Having a robust conversation is, by definition, a messy process. As I discussed recently with a friend, it’s sometimes about being present while at the same time ripping out your heart. Everyone will need to find their balance between espousing a strong perspective yet be willing to listen and learn. There are a number of interesting techniques to suggest (which can be imposed more or less informally):
Ask participants not to interrupt the others. As soon as you see it happen a first time, you need to jump on it in order to set the right tone for the remainder of the event.
Especially in large groups, ideally in a self-managed way, you might consider having a tool or toy that is given to the person who holds the floor and who chooses the next speaker.
Before providing his/her point, the next person might start by reformulating what they heard (without injecting judgment).
Brevity is to be encouraged (for example, “no more than 3 minutes”). If necessary, use a timer.
At the end, invite reflection, including what each has learned, how and why they’ve changed their mind, and connecting dots between what the others have said.
Hosting an informal conversation that is successful according to the prior principles laid out is bound to be a tricky affair. But that’s why they’re great to have. We need to practice hosting and participating in these types of discussions. It will be messy, but so is life. If we don’t learn to fall, we’ll never need to learn to get up.
In the next Dialogos articles, I’ll be looking at how to host more formal conversations, including how to host a themed dinner party to foster deeper and more meaningful connections.
When we believe we know it all or that we no longer have need of other people, it’s a dark day for humanity. We should insist on keeping the doors of perception open and thrive by exploring and meeting others who challenge our beliefs. Life is messy, and let’s enjoy the dirt.
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