How to have a good conversation about ideas.
My youngest daughter Laura has never had a filter on her conversations. I am sure she got that from her father.
I remember well one day, when she was about 5 years old, a close friend of mine came by the house for a visit. He was a hawkish looking man with skinny legs, a large chest, and an equally long nose that hooked across his upper lip. His broad yet thin-lipped grin was welcome enough and gave evidence to a peace with himself. Yet, his deep black eyes closely set above his boney long nose always made me think he was out for a hunt. At times, he could tear into a topic with ferociousness. Our conversations were always filled with wisdom, truth-seeking, sarcasm, and laughter.
Laura sat on the couch next to him and observed my friend for about 10 minutes as we talked about the issues of the week. Her observation soon became a stare and then she blurted out,
“Why is your nose so long?”
“LAURA!!”, Vickie (my wife) shouted in short blast of horror from the next room.
“Don’t say that!”
“Why?” Laura responded with absolute honesty. “He has a very BIG nose.”
I grinned and looked at my friend, trying to contain my laughter at the situation. My friend smiled broadly, exposing his large and perfectly white teeth as his eyes rotated toward Laura in his hawkish surveillance of the situation.
“Well Laura,” he gently and honestly began,
“That is the way God made me, and I rather like it. I can smell really good. And, it always arrives before I do to smell out the situation”
Then, he laughed out loud, and we joined him.
Most of us, I think, were taught at an early age to avoid direct comments and controversial topics in order to have good relations with others–not to offend. You may have been warned not to talk about politics, or religion, and of course not sex (which is often a cultural taboo–except in the media these days which has no limit). Social media has broken all the rules, but the rules still exist in many places.
As we begin the semester and you are asked to comment and dialogue about the ideas of this course (and other courses) here are some suggestions to avoid offending others, and at the same time have deep and meaningful conversations.
1. Be civil. Be respectful of others based on their idea of respectfulness–and not your own.
2. Get to know your classmates or other colleagues. Spend a little time trying to understand who your classmates are. Maybe search for them on FaceBook and read about their family (that can appear a little creepy to some–yet employers do that all the time before interviews). Or better yet, ask some open ended questions about their lives, families, work and interests. Soon enough, you’ll learn about their ideas, theological and political positions.
3. Don’t assume. Don’t assume that everyone feels the same way that you do.
4. Be objective. When talking about ideas try and take your emotions out of the conversation. It is natural to get emotionally involved in a topic, but emotions can sidetrack the conversation. It can also create an atmosphere of fear where others will be afraid to offer honest feedback and opposing opinions.
5. Don’t talk out of ignorance. It is quite obvious that you have not researched a topic or read the materials if you never refer to them. Read the materials assigned for the class and refer to them in your conversation.
6. Have something to say beyond platitudes. “Thank you for that comment.” “Oh, I really like that.” and “You are so smart.” are platitudes. Go beyond the comment to say why.
7. Be critical. No, I do not mean be negative. Make constructive criticisms that add to the conversations and provide help.
8. Show up. You cannot contribute to a conversation if you are not present. If you are not present in the conversation, you are NOT engaged in the course. If you are not engaged in the course, you are missing a great opportunity to learn something.
9. Liven it up. Don’t be afraid to enliven the conversation with humor and interesting subjects. You never know, people may be waiting for good laugh or a reason to express and opinion.
10. Know when to fold ’em. Know when to stop talking. Listening is also part of the conversation.
So what about Laura. Well she learned. I sent this to her and here was her response.
For me I think 3,4, & 6 are most important to a conversation…
I think for the first 25 years of my life I assumed a lot about the way other people thought and until you start really talking to people about politics, religion, and “real” issues, you realize there’s this whole other way of thinking different than your own.
You often think and assume someone feels the same as you do, why wouldn’t they? It makes total sense to you because that’s the way you feel. But if you take a second to actually ask someone how they feel you realize that’s not true.
Worse than that is if you never talk about it and then you are confronted with a situation, or something is thrown in your face and into your relationship, that’s when it all comes out. And it comes out at the worst time in a stressful situation, no one wants to have an intellectual conversation during a crisis, you have a natural reaction to rely on what you’ve always known. You don’t have the capability of understanding someone else’s point of view.
And it was shocking for me, as I got older, to realize people didn’t always feel the same as I did. I think a lot of that is growing up around people who did have the same thoughts and views as we did. I mean if you think about it no one in our immediate community thought any differently than we did.