It’s Time to Have a Conversation About Conversation

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Don’t quote me on this, but Anne Morrow Lindbergh once wrote something to the effect that a good conversation is just as stimulating as black coffee — and just as hard to sleep after. That’s part of the problem with the Internet these days. It’s an endless warren of conversation, but these exchanges have become angrier, more and more polarized, and no one, it seems, is having a real conversation.

The internet did not cause people to reinterpret the rules of conversation, and neither did the 2016 presidential election or the more recent political events. But the tension seemed heightened in the lead-up to that race, and, by the time it was over, our inability to empathize with each other was increasing at an alarming rate.

If you’ve been on social media at least since 2015 you know that those platforms are driven by algorithms that serve up content that will engage you based on your likes and activity. Chances are — we’ve been told — that your social media feed is an echo chamber of ideas, conversations, products, and politics that reaffirm your worldview over and over again. You’ve also no doubt noticed that it is almost impossible for users with opposing worldviews to reach any sort of agreement. Or have a real conversation.

The social division during the Vietnam era. Nixon’s resignation. President Clinton’s sex scandal. Sarah Palin. These all brought about some pretty spectacular conversational skirmishes; however, I’ve been in the conversation science industry for almost a decade, and I don’t think it’s ever been this bad. The internet did not cause people to reinterpret the rules of conversation, and neither did the 2020 presidential election. But the tension seemed heightened in the lead-up to that race, and, by the time it was over, our inability to empathize with each other was stronger than ever.

In the last week the world’s largest social media platforms have made the unprecedented decision to ban a prominent user. Twitter basically said that their recent bans are a first attempt to “protect the conversation”. But will making sure that I only see content that I agree with is the way to protect conversation? That’s not the way conversation works.

General George S. Patton said, “If everybody’s thinking the same thing, then nobody’s thinking.” And while I know that General Patton was a problematic leader, I have to agree with him. I’m not going to learn anything or grow as a person if I’m only offered one side of the conversation. It’s a tribal mentality that promotes a narrow worldview, encourages polarization, and impedes any form of healing.

Recently the New York Times held a very compelling and significant experiment. The newspaper invited teenagers to come to their site, and via the comments section, have “productive and respectful conversations” about some of the most divisive issues of the 2020 election. There were almost 13,000 responses from teens all across the country. These teens, unlike many adults, were able to engage in polite, meaningful conversations that crossed ideological and demographic divides.

One of the students responded, “The most frustrating part of politics is the culture of dismissing someone as a bad person for having a different belief system. They are not.” Out of the mouths of babes.

It seems to me that the rules of conversation are pretty simple even when you’re on social media. Let’s keep it simple:

  1. Listen more than you talk. Ernest Hemingway said, “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” You simply can’t learn and discern if you don’t listen.
  2. Try to find some common ground. You know what’s common to all of us? We’re not perfect. We’ve all made mistakes, so start there. A little vulnerability is good for the soul and the conversation.
  3. Make an effort to understand and be understood. Seeking real understanding affirms the other person and what they have to say. That’s what they want. That’s what we all want — to be understood, valued and affirmed. Which leads to #5.
  4. Ask questions. Questioning is a uniquely powerful tool: It spurs learning and the exchange of ideas, it fuels innovation, and it builds rapport and trust. What’s the most common complaint people make after having a conversation, such as an interview, a first date, or a work meeting? “I wish [s/he] had asked me more questions”
  5. Be respectful. My mom always said, “Be nice or leave.” It’s a maxim that’s stuck with me. Nothing ends a promising conversation faster than calling someone “stupid” even if you think they are.

When it comes to having a conversation online, you’ve got to meet people where they are. You have to talk to people who aren’t like you. You’ve got to listen and process what they say. Finally, you have to take their input into account and respond in a thoughtful manner. In other words, you have to engage them in a meaningful conversation. It may not seem like much, but conversation is important. It wins business, elections, and wars. And it might just win the day as we start to rebuild trust in each other and the country.

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