The Sacred Art of Conversation
Rebuilding the art of conversation with exercises based on three main parameters.
Our ability to have open and free conversations with others, especially with those we don’t agree with seems to be getting lost. Word wars are waged on social media, but we no longer seem inclined to sit and actually discuss how we feel about the big issues in our lives.
My son is a born conversationalist. He’s curious and open, and isn’t afraid to ask questions. He’s also twelve—and doesn’t have a phone. His natural tendencies are toward conversation, but I fear that our culture and the pervasive use of technology could allow that skill to wither. Sakyong Mipham, head of the Shambhala community, wrote The Lost Art of Good Conversation as a guide for remembering how to relate and feel authentically connected to one another. He writes, of conversation, “The point is to reconnect with the sun of goodness in our hearts and use speech to awaken naturally good qualities in ourselves and others.”
The old saying that we are all connected by six degrees of separation is probably mute in this day of age where we can send anyone a direct message on Twitter, but with all this instant access, we have lost depth of connection. “The danger”, writes Mipham, “is that while we are more connected now to the whole world than we ever have been before, we are less connected to people in our everyday life.” Losing this direct and personal connection leaves us adrift, and unable to access our feelings.
In addition, the digital world highlights the individual, giving them a sense of “false power.” The focus on individuality is creating a loss of civility between individuals—each person feels their perspective is most important. “Civility is based on putting another person at ease. Long-established norms of civility such as respect and tolerance for other’s views, appreciation of the truth and embarrassment about shameful behavior are in free fall.” Mipham continues, “By losing civility in daily life, we further lose touch with our capacity to feel.”
The solution, suggests Mipham, is a return to the basics of conversation, or being present with another individual and listening to their point of view, and responding respectfully with your own. He lays out the tools for rebuilding the art of conversation with exercises based on three main parameters:
- Be mindful. Your intention matters, and it deeply affects your interactions with others. If you intention includes only yourself, than you will have little patience when a conversation turns towards something other than your own interests. By expanding your intention to include the interests of those you interact with directly and also the larger community, you open yourself up to having more “versatile and enriching” conversations.
- Be kind. Mipham describes starting a conversation as an “act of bravery.” We can all recognize that feeling of initiating a conversation and not knowing how it will go. By allowing yourself to feel vulnerable, and yet be brave enough to initiate a conversation, you open yourself to all kinds of connections.
- Enrich your world. One key component of this idea is that it takes patience to have rich conversations. You might remember interacting with someone who was clearly waiting for their turn to talk. Mipham writes, “Patience is related to good timing and self discipline in keeping our heart and mind open, and letting go.” He suggests noticing when you have the urge to jump in and say something- and listen a bit longer instead- as a way of cultivating patience in your conversations.
By bringing mindfulness and compassion to all of your interactions with others, you’ll be fortifying your capacity to engage in meaningful conversations. The truth is, it doesn’t matter if you agree with the person you are talking to; if you are both being conscious and respectful, you can stay with any topic without losing your temper and storming off or saying something you will regret. By focusing on simple tools with powerful foundations, we can bring this elementally human form of communication back to the table.