conversation

Dan King over at High Calling BlogsThe Secret Ingredient” today about community in our culture … and how Americans don’t really seem to talk much anymore; how we don’t truly connect. posted ”

His post reminded me of a time when we were making plans to have another family over for dinner. As we were discussing the get-together, they said, “So, after we eat at your house, what will we do? I suppose we’ll just sit around and … talk?”

“Um, yes. What would you do at someone else’s house?”

“Watch a movie or maybe a football game.”

“Oh, well, we just talk. I hope that’s okay. We’ll ask lots of questions if things drag a little!”

They came over and not only did they survive an evening without “entertainment” filling in the slower, quiet moments, but I think they actually had a good time.

I’ve thought a lot about their concern that we would just talk. They wondered what we would do and how we would fill all that time. We Americans are so used to noise and entertainment, this may be one of many challenges to building community and conversation in our culture.

I agree with Dan that the speed at which we live in our “microwave-fast culture” is also a major hurdle. Few of us take time to stop and sit down and talk, whether as a family or with friends. The culture itself works against this value, so we have to be intentional to make it happen.

This is so important and so hard.

Sometimes I take inspiration from my European relatives, who are located in Belgium and France. When we’re visiting, we’ve been part of multi-course meals that stretch out all evening.

And what do they do during each of those courses and in-between?

How do they fill all that time?

They talk.

If you long to slow down, you can do the same.

Invite people over.

Share a meal.

Talk.

It’s a way to counter the culture without making a dramatic, disruptive, long-term change. Plus, you’ll have a chance to build community while you’re slowing down!

Try to schedule a dinner in the next few weeks with some friends.

Don’t schedule it around a football game (I know that’s almost impossible this time of year, but try).

Don’t rent a movie as a back-up plan.

Just plan a meal (it doesn’t have to be a multi-course affair; in fact, Americans don’t seem to mind a pitch-in).

And then?

For one night, reclaim conversation.

Does the thought of sustaining that much conversation intimidate you like it did my friends? Here are some slow-down solutions to help you enjoy connection and reclaim conversation:

  • Ask curious, open-ended questions. Decide how in-depth this group of people will want to go. If this is a group of friends from church intending to dig deeper into each other’s lives, you can ask different questions than you would with a group of neighbors who are just getting acquainted. Either way, however, open-ended questions are the way to get people responding with more than one sentence or one word. 
  • Listen. Our culture is influenced by creative media presentations on TV and film that overlap images, sound and text; plus, almost everyone is accustomed to multi-tasking and dividing attention, half-listening to a conversation while texting someone else, for example. This encourages and supports interruption, which stifles and shuts down meaningful conversation. Fight the urge to overlap or interrupt. Try to focus completely on the speaker and listen carefully and actively to what he or she is saying. Even repeat back part of what was said to be sure you understood completely.
  • Ask follow-up questions. Sometimes people will cut themselves off for fear of dominating the conversation. If everyone seems to be enjoying the direction of a person’s story or response, ask a follow-up question to bring them out a little more.
  • Encourage stories. When people tell their stories, we get to know them better. Plus, one story may spark a memory in someone else, leading to more stories.
  • Use pre-fab questions. Check out Garry D. Poole’s The Complete Book of Questions (you should be able to sample 99 “Light and Easy” questions from the book at this link). Though it might seem a little contrived to pull out a book of pre-printed questions, this simple tool can get people laughing and sharing right away should things drag a little. Pinpoint five to ten questions ahead of time that may fit the group that’s gathered around your table (or living room, if the meal is finished and you’ve migrated to couches with coffee and dessert). There are other books of questions available, but Garry’s is organized so that the questions go deeper and deeper as the numbers go higher, moving toward more spiritually focused topics.
  • Be vulnerable. Without overwhelming or oversharing, be willing to offer something a little vulnerable to take a conversation deeper than small talk. The appropriate depth depends upon the group and the goal of the evening. You can lead the way without hogging the conversation by modeling a vulnerable response.
  • Relax and have fun! Regardless of the flow of conversation or topics explored, one key to reclaiming conversation is to be relaxed and enjoy yourself. If the host is uptight, the conversation might be stilted and awkward, as guests might be concerned about doing something upsetting. Lead the way with a smile, mood and tone that encourage a comfortable atmosphere.

I invite you to report back on your gathering with observations, lessons learned, and valuable recommendations.

Photo of Europeans in conversation by Ann Kroeker.
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