The art of conscious conversation
By Julie Scipioni on September 24, 2011
As I anticipated meeting an old friend for coffee the other day I found my thoughts riding a predictable trajectory. I recalled how we'd met, what role our relationship played in my life, and the circumstances around which we'd parted ways. I looked forward to catching up, which to me meant hearing about the changes in his life over the past several years, and deciding how I would frame my own stories to share.
Then I realized that even though our meeting was hours away, I had already designed our conversation, what I would give to it, and what I would take from it. I hardly even needed to show up.
Aside from this need to control or understand an event that hung suspended in a unknown uncontrollable future, I saw that I was also putting my friend in a sort of a box. By thinking of him in terms of the past, I was confining him, insisting in a sense that he wriggle his way out of my outdated perception of him. I was putting myself in that box too because I was viewing him through the eyes of who I once was. I often think about what my worldview was like back then, the decisions I made and what drove those decisions, and I shudder. I am different now, and surely he is too.
I also assumed that I would walk away from our meeting all "caught up." I believed that by hearing the stories he had to tell me of his life in recent years, I would be able to fill in the blanks, and so know him again, label him. But people are not the sum total of the experiences they've had - what about the ways in which he responded to what had happened to him, how it changed the way he saw himself, the way he thought of his life and of the world around him? What about the growing he did, the regrets he had, the new dreams that had undoubtedly germinated and were being nurtured?
And really, did I think that I could tell him a few quick stories about myself, and thereby establish instant intimacy? There is no way I could adequately relate everything to him about my experience with yoga, my failed business attempts, the evolution of my career, my dreams, the changes in my family, and how all of those things had kneaded themselves into this new (and I hope improved) version of me. Even if it were possible to know all the nuances of another, it couldn't happen in two hours over a cup of mint tea at a sidewalk cafe.
The most sobering realization was that I intended to approach this visit without any expectations. Yet as I observed my thoughts, it became apparent that my expectations were many; it's just that they were unconscious.
So I took a few moments and identified my highest intentions for my time with my friend. Below are two brief lists I came up with. I wanted to respect both of us and our history by:
- truly listening to him. Instead of thinking about all the stories I wanted to tell, I wished to remain receptive and curious to his stories, to be present as he shared bits of his life with me.
- being with him with a beginner's mind, and letting go of what I thought I knew about him, so that he could have space to be who he is now. Likewise, I promised myself that I would not allow him to promote old ideas about me without challenging him if I thought he was putting me into a box.
- being genuine. Pull no punches, be open and honest about what I was doing and how I was thinking these days, without any investment in trying to control what he would think of me, or if he would be shocked, disappointed, or even bored.
I did not want to repeat patterns of the "old" me, such as:
- acting self-deprecating, poking fun at myself for the things that might embarrass me or make me feel self-conscious.
- being automatically deferential. Rather, I wanted to have the self-possession to confidently express my own thoughts and opinions.
- playing the coquette.
I learned much just by formulating this list. As I review it now, I see that it boils down to a set of guidelines for having what I refer to as "conscious conversation" - an art that honors each individual but also recognizes that a conversation between people has a purpose, a life, and a consciousness of its own that requires space, awareness, and respect. I offer you these guidelines and encourage you to look for opportunities to practice them with others, regardless of who the people are or the circumstances surrounding your conversations.
- Give others permission to be who they are, not who you think they are - or worse - who you think they should be.
- Allow yourself the same courtesy. Be yourself and let go of how others see you - it's a game you can't win anyway. You can't know how someone else perceives you. Even if you could, there would be absolutely nothing you could do about it.
- Let go of how you think the conversation will evolve, or what the outcome will be. To quote my friend Wendy, "Don't conclude."
- Be aware of opportunities to break old habits. If you tend to exaggerate, be more truthful. If you're critical of others, engage the maxim of "If you can't say something nice, say nothing at all." When you practice being aware of and dismantling destructive patterns of behavior, not only are you growing, but you are offering a more fulfilling, gentler experience to the other, as well.
- Listen. Don't interrupt, and don't plan your response while the other person is talking. Just pay attention. Be in the moment. It's a skill you can use all the time and everywhere.
This isn't a comprehensive list on how to have meaningful communications, but it did help me to enjoy my time with an old friend, who will hopefully now also be a new one.