Let's strip back the layers
How to develop the right mindset to experience deeper conversations
I don’t know about you, but I relish the feeling of that rush in the brain – the one that starts in the forehead and runs back down to your nape. It is just delicious. I’m no neuroscientist, but it’s full of hormones and I have to believe it’s super healthy. In our desire to enter into more meaningful conversations and create deeper connections with others around us, we have to be intentional. To begin with, we need to create the space and time. We also need to have the right mindset and bandwidth. We need to be open to learning and to expanding our mind. And, along the way, we’ll find ourselves richer for the experience.
I’ve previously written about meaningfulness and what is meaning. And I’ve looked at what makes a conversation meaningful in the broader terms. Now I’d like to introduce how meaningfulness breaks down into layers with a form of hierarchy. Let me start with an analogy: humor. Like conversation, jokes exist along a scale, where on one end the humor is first degree, what you see is what you get. Slapstick is a prime example. On the other end of the scale, where sophistication is greater, you may need to have cultural references and wit just to understand them. Satire is a good example. It could also be subtle plays on words or allusions. I wrote in another post how a comedian in New York chided the audience for not having enough knowledge. If you don’t know anything, he bemoaned, nothing’s funny.
Layers of commentary and observation
I’ve long used a scale of depth of thought when it comes to commentary or observations. To wit, I would characterize as light someone who, after having seen a play, says that ‘it was interesting.’ An entire two-hour play and that’s all one has to say? It’s as bad as saying that a comedy was ‘funny.’ Not that all comedies are genuinely funny, but the label of ‘funny’ is insipidly basic. It reveals little about you and even less of the play. To peel off the layers, we need to talk about what was funny about the play? Why did you find it funny? What did the humor make you think of? To what extent is the humor relatable to today’s context, even your personal situation? A few months ago, my wife and I were invited to see the play, “The Fever Syndrome,” by Alexis Zegerman. It had both of us at once laughing out loud and wringing our hands. After the play we had several good exchanges, starting with our hosts. So much of the play spoke to us, starting with the dysfunctionalities of the family in the play. There were moral questions, criticisms of the medical field, how money warps our relationships, the nature of struggle and challenge, the distended styles of family, and the types of traits we inherit or don’t from our blood relatives. There was also a scene of a writhing child going through a fever-induced seizure, a harrowing scene we had personally visited only weeks before. For a cultural event especially, to the extent art is a commentary on or a reflection of our society, it’s pertinent to have deeper thoughts and considerations. “Interesting” is a cop out. Such conversations require time. You need to create the time, especially to allow everyone to participate when there are many people involved.
Depth in Conversation
In an earlier post, Conversation by the Number, I attempted to provide an ontology of conversations. I categorized them and provided a finite number of all possible conversations. Beyond a binary distinction of small and BIG talk (as Sarah Rozenthuler, author of How to have Meaningful Conversations, called it), there are many possible layers. I say that virtually all topics can have a range of depth. Let’s take a rather banal topic such as football match. For the sake of the exercise, I’ll make it specific. Rather than turning it into a conversation, I will consider only the types of content that might be discussed at the different levels. So, let’s take a recent match between Liverpool FC and Crystal Palace, the second of the season in the English Premier League.
Level 1: The full-time score was 1-1. How dull!
Level 2: The storyline of the game, where Liverpool, the team I support and who were favorites to win the game, had to come back from being 0-1 down. That was after having had Darwin Nunez, Liverpool’s brand new signing, sent off (shown a red card). The fact that this was their second draw and at home, to boot, made this one sting.
Level 3: The tying goal, by the Colombian Luis Diaz, was a thing of beauty. A solo effort. This reminds me of how we need to pull our socks up during adversity. In tough situations, we have two choices: moan and sink or rise and roar. After all, it’s the journey not the end result that counts. Don’t forget to pull your socks up, Minter!
Level 4: While we’re just two games into the season, it almost feels like the season is a write-off since our chief competitors last year, Man City, dropped just 21 points last year (out of a total of 114). Here we are and we’ve already dropped four points. However, let’s put things into perspective. It’s just one game in one season. It’s not that important. There will be other seasons. Anyway, it’s just a game. What counts is showing up when it matters in life. What matters is being true to my values, which are love, courage and honor.
Level 5: Let me tell you a very personal story of how I became a fan of Liverpool. I’ve never written this down before. I had just turned eight years old. My mother had dropped me off on my first day of boarding school, The Old Malthouse, down in a small school in the heart of Dorset. I found myself along with a dozen other boys, in my starched new uniform, standing gawkishly to the side in the headmaster’s study. Haggard was his name and he was an intimidating old man. At a loss for words, I finally mustered up the courage to speak to the boy beside me. He was a thin towhead. I introduced myself.
“Hi, my name’s Minter.”
“Hi, my name’s Charlie.”
At this point, I realized that I hadn’t thought of a follow-on question. After an awkward silence, I thought of something.
“What’s your favorite team?”
“Liverpool,” Charlie replied.
“Can I support them, too?” I asked.
When Charlie agreed, I felt elated. I had made a connection and found a team to support, all in one go. To this day, I’m still friends with Charlie (although now he’s called Andy) and I continue to support the Reds of Liverpool. Charlie on the other hand abandoned them! Oh well. Life’s a funny old thing. One thing that became clear to me through all these years of change -- new countries, cities, schools, and jobs -- has been loyalty. The little story in my head is that being loyal is an honorable trait. With the Reds and friends, it’s about sticking together through good and bad times. So, even a mundane topic such as a boring football match can be a conduit to bigger thoughts and feelings. Now the question is, what makes these different levels?
What characterizes the profundity of meaning?
Even if we all may have different notions of what is meaningful to us at an individual level, there are different ways of talking about topics that can lead to far more powerful outcomes. In the example above, with the ordinary topic of a football match, it’s only too easy to stay on the surface. As we deepen, the material we exchange becomes more insightful. There is no prescription as to the levels, but here’s an example of how the topic of a football match could become more meaningful. At level 1, we report the topline information. At level 2, we create a story, revealing feelings. In level 3, we reveal a belief and some values. In level 4, we present a moral position. In level 5, we share a personal experience and show vulnerability. We can surely debate how ‘deep’ each level is and whether the levels could be switched. For some, for example, being vulnerable and sharing private stories could be a lower level item (although this will depend on the details). To be a meaningful conversation involves having both parties engaging at deeper levels, listening and exchanging. For it to be truly meaningful for both means that it has to stir, to move. In a meaningful exchange, we can create feelings, alter opinions and beliefs, and, ultimately, shift moral positions.
The more the participants enter into the conversation with the intention of having a meaningful exchange, the greater the chances of a fruitful encounter. There are certain attributes that help to get toward a deeper, more meaningful level of conversation, especially when both parties harbor different points of view.
To move forward
Once you’ve had a deep and meaningful conversation, then what? Rob Volpe, in his book, Tell Me More About That, describes the five steps to greater empathy. The fifth and final step is to use “solution imagination,” a process whereby the listener is able to genuinely understand your point of view and imagine the situation and find a possible solution. [See here for more] But, this can only come with the right data points and an open ear. At the end of a long conversation, many things will have passed through the minds of both, lying unexpressed, undigested or even hidden in the subconscious. When having a conversation with a group of people (for example, in a seminar), I enjoy asking what dots were connected, or which patterns were formed through the discussion. As a collection of individuals, what higher level of thoughts did we reach? On an individual level, it can be helpful to record your thoughts. Something I like to do, beyond writing notes, is to doodle. These scribbles and drawings become the raw materials for further reflection on my own.
Or to move on
In conversations where the topic is controversial, sometimes there’s only so much that can be achieved. Just as the student who gave every conversation a 7-minute rule before allowing herself to take out her phone, it’s also reasonable to assume that some (most?) conversations won’t come to a beautiful resolution and you need to move on. If you still have the bandwidth, a good way to consolidate is to recap together the things that you’ve learned from the other person and/or through the process. Then invite the other person to relate their learnings. But, it may just be more appropriate to suggest moving on. Sometimes, you have to know to let it go, especially if you start feeling yourself getting more upset or more tense.
Stripping back the layers
Getting to a deeper level in one’s conversation necessarily requires exposure. If all you do is pontificate and feel the need to convince everyone that you’re right, you are unlikely to engage meaningfully with people who have alternative viewpoints. Getting to a deeper level requires allowing for space for more. It means admitting you don’t know the full picture, including the reason why or how the other person came to their alternative opinion. Sharing stories that aren’t moralistic (i.e. imposing a moral), you can stimulate other stories. By having the courage to be vulnerable, you invite the other to open up as well. When we strip back the layers, we learn more about ourselves. We are better able to understand others. We make connections in unexpected ways. We even may become better for it.
In our desire to enter into more meaningful conversations and create deeper connections with others around us, we have to be intentional. To begin with, we need to create the space and time. We also need to have the right mindset and bandwidth. We need to be open to learning and to expanding our mind. And, along the way, we’ll find ourselves richer for the experience.
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