THE POWER OF CONVERSATION
by Ronald Gross and Elizabeth Cohn
Ronald Gross co-chairs the University Seminar on Innovation in Education at Columbia University, and is the author of Socrates’ Way and other books.
Elizabeth Cohn, PhD, RN, is the Director of the Center for Health Innovation and an Associate Professor in the College of Nursing and Public Health at Adelphi University, and a Robert Wood Johnson Nurse Faculty Scholar.
We Need to Talk…As We Always Have
“Conversation is the iconic human activity. It’s who we are. Learning from each other – enjoying the sounds of our voices, yours and mine, exchanging thoughts and feelings, articulating, thinking beyond what we have in our own personal bank of resources. It is the main means by which we move forward together to create a future good for all.” Sondra Myers, author of Democracy Is a Discussion: Civic Engagement in Old and New Democracies
“Conversation is the most basic, most varied, and occasionally the most elevating of all human activities. It is the way we convey information, inspire each other, and achieve understanding. Conversation is the way we challenge, amuse, and amaze each other.” Jaida n’ha Sandra, The Joy of Conversation
Conversation has provided these joys and uses in virtually every era and culture. It has enhanced the quality of life, nurtured relationships, and strengthened communities — sometimes through sharp challenges to the status quo. For example:
¶ Native American tribes and other indigenous peoples traditionally have sat in a circle and talked together to deepen friendships and make collective decisions.
¶ Socrates and his companions strolled the streets of 5th-century Athens, engaging in face-to-face conversations which laid the groundwork for the Western tradition of critical thinking.
¶ Britains turned the new coffee shops of 17th-century London into “Penny Universities” where constant conversation challenged conventional wisdom and official policy to such an extent that they were periodically shut down by the authorities.
¶ Jewish women in 18th-century Europe, finding themselves doubly marginalized and excluded from cultural life, transformed their parlors, bedrooms, and attics into the salons which became hotbeds of philosophical, artistic, and cultural innovation.
¶ Artists and intellectuals in the early 20th century in New York, Paris, and elsewhere, pioneered avant-garde thinking by convening in restaurants, bars, and people’s homes, as exemplified by the gatherings that anchored the Harlem Renaissance.
¶ Mid-20th-century women throughout the world found each other by “Calling the Circle,” discovered their own voices, and achieved greater fulfillment through the Feminist movement.
¶ Protestors identifying themselves with the “99% of disenfranchised Americans” assembled in Zuccotti Park in 2011 to launch the Occupy Movement, and put income inequality on the political agenda.
Towards a Renaissance of Conversation
This perennial tradition is being revived today. A renaissance of conversation is being eloquently championed by thought leaders, and passionately implemented by community-based enthusiasts – for both personal fulfillment and civic benefit.
“Look up, look at one another, and let’s start a conversation.” That is the powerful plea of Prof. Sherry Turkle of MIT, author of the acclaimed Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. She urges us to transcend the digital gadgetry which has impelled us to “sacrifice conversation for mere connection….”
People are rediscovering the value of meeting face-to-face in small groups to discuss exhilarating and important subjects. They convene in coffee shops, bookstores, libraries, churches, community centers, parks. Projects like Conversation Cafes, Socrates Cafes, Café Philos, and even Death Cafes (to enhance living by talking candidly about death) are reviving the art of conversation. They are encouraging participants to pose challenging questions and consider different points of view, using a variety of simple but powerful guiding methodologies – or being boldly spontaneous.
The trend is not confined to the U.S. – Britain’s Financial Times reported recently that “public forums for the discussion of ideas are flourishing everywhere, from festivals to pubs.” One group in London has 2,000 members.
At the same time, conversation is emerging as essential to collaborative thinking and action. Organizations of all kinds, from non-profits to corporations to government agencies, are adopting innovative processes of conversation – most notably, the powerful technique called Dialogue — to address challenges more effectively.
Most promising in this public arena is a sharpening focus on the outcomes and benefits of these activities. Theorists and practitioners are asking: Does conversation lead to public decisions and actions, so that participants are encouraged by seeing tangible consequences of their participation?
Projects, Programs, and Ideas
The power of conversation is being manifested in two dimensions of our lives: personal fulfillment and collective achievement.
Conversation enhances our enjoyment of life, our health, and our happiness through projects and programs, including:
Café Philos, www.nycafephilo.org/
From its origins in Paris 20 years ago, these grassroots forums for philosophical discussion have spread widely in Europe and the U.S., in cities ranging from NY, DC, and Boston, to Orlando, Denver, Atlanta, and Indianapolis.
Death Cafes, www.deathcafe.com
The objective of Death Cafes is to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their lives, by meeting socially, usually with food and drink, to share thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
Socrates Cafes, www.philosopher.org/Socrates_Cafe.html
Over 600 ongoing groups worldwide, inspired by the books and peripatetic activities of Christopher Philips, regularly bring people together to exchange ideas and experiences on the Socratic tradition.
The Family Dinner Project, http://thefamilydinnerproject.org/
The Family Dinner Project helps families, schools, and community groups to engage in enjoyable, meaningful conversations while eating more quality meals together.
Conversation Cafes, http://www.conversationcafe.org/
Open, hosted conversations in cafés as well as conference rooms and classrooms, using a simple process that helps to shift from small talk to big talk – conversations that matter.
Happiness Clubs, www.happinessclub.com
A widespread network of conversation groups focused on happiness.
Second, the power of conversation strengthens our capacity to achieve worthy goals in organizational, professional, and civic life, through projects such as:
The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, www.ncdd.org
NCDD is a network of thousands of professionals who bring people together to tackle challenging issues. The Coalition serves as an on-line gathering place, a resource clearinghouse, a news source, and a facilitative leader for this community of practice.
National Dialogue Network, www.nationaldialoguenetwork.org/
The NDN seeks to coordinate local conversations into mindful national dialogues. Its design and function is meant to strengthen local civic infrastructures.
Democracy Is a Discussion Handbooks, http://www.sondramyers.org/books/democracy-is-a-discussion/
This series of handbooks and related materials created by Sondra Myers are used throughout the world as a gateway to understanding democracy and the role that citizens play in making democracy work.
Interactivity Foundation, www.interactivityfoundation.org
The Foundation works to engage citizens in the exploration and development of possibilities for public policy through small group discussions.
Conversations New York (CNY)
Conversations New York (www.conversationsnewyork.com) is a not-for-profit, volunteer initiative to enhance the quality of our lives and the healthfulness of our communities, through conversation.
LET’S TALK, NEW YORK! is the invitation extended by CNY for New Yorkers to come together in small groups of neighbors and fellow citizens to discuss topics that are enjoyable, interesting, and important, hosted at no cost and at convenient locations and times, and inspired by simple guiding principles. Such conversations celebrate the city’s diversity, creativity, resourcefulness, friendliness, and civic vision.
A website has been launched (www.conversationsnewyork.com) with a monthly calendar of such conversations, which is already enabling over 1,000 followers and many more daily visitors to use the web to get off the web – to find or create opportunities to talk face-to-face.
CNY has two specific objectives: More Conversations, and Better Conversations.
More Conversations are promoted by “curating” from those already occurring throughout the city, and by initiating new ones. Better Conversations are promoted by providing resources and consultation on best practices in designing, moderating, and evaluating conversations for continual improvement.
Recent popular books (and some classics in the field) are inspiring and guiding people towards making better conversations part of their life and work. There will be a comprehensive selection of these titles on display at the Symposium, thanks to Jennifer Govan and her associates at the Gottesman Libraries at Teachers College.
A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation, Daniel Menaker
Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, Stephen Miller
Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives, Theodore Zeldin
Conversation—The Sacred Art: Practicing Presence in an Age of Distraction, D. Millis
Conversational Intelligence, Judith E. Glaser
Creating Conversations: Improvisation in Everyday Discourse, R. Keith Sawyer
Democracy is a Discussion Handbooks, Sondra Myers
Dialogue: Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation, L. Ellinor and G. Gerard
Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, William Isaacs
How Conversation Works, Ronald Wardhaugh
I and Thou, Martin Buber
On Dialogue, David Bohm
Socrates’ Way, Ronald Gross
The Art of Conversation, Catherine Blyth
The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict Into Cooperation, Daniel Yankelovich
The Tao of Conversation, Michael Kahn
Why Can’t We Talk? John Backman