“So...how do you create a meaningful conversation?”
Earlier this month, I was part of an exhibit at the Superfine! Arts Fair in Washington, DC. I wasn’t with any traditional art exhibitor; I was a part of a small collective of conversation consultants with CuriosityConnects and The Art Island there to engage attendees in the “art of conversation.”
As people milled about the many exhibits speaking with artists that lined the industrial Dock 5 event space at Union Market, our booth received many inquisitive looks from curious art enthusiasts. These looks said, “you’re dressed in a lab coat, you aren’t displaying art, per se, so what are doing here?” This was my queue to engage so I entered into the conversation. “Art is a catalyst for empathy and engagement. Today we are talking to people about how to create meaningful conversations…so how do you create a meaningful conversation?”
I saw bodies both relax and open, or appear more guarded and apprehensive as they entered the conversation. Regardless of body posture, each person paused to think more deeply. Responses sounded like, “Well, I try to find a common interest. This creates a natural opening for a more meaningful interaction.” A person who identified himself as an internist (a general doctor for adults) told me that he asks his patients about their pets as a pathway to more openness, especially when he experiences people who are struggling to talk about health challenges. To me, these responses make sense. Especially when I think about the unconditional love and companionship that furry friends lend in people’s lives, it makes sense that people are more comfortable engaging when they come from a place of openness and joy.
Over about two hours, I spent at least a solid ten minutes with each person or couple that approached the booth. The question was perplexing for some and eye-opening for others. In the course of that afternoon, it struck me: this isn’t a question that is either asked or contemplated with great frequency, but it is one that is welcomed by many. People’s eagerness to stay in the question and conversation told me they wanted to engage more deeply and meaningfully.
I believe people want to be a part of dynamic conversations that are rich and inviting, and where there is a real back-and-forth dialogue. People (myself included!) want to engage in hard questions that go below the surface-level conversation that we all so often default to. It also struck me that, when asked, many people are willing to look at themselves, their practices and patterns that keep them in the status quo. In other words, meaningful conversations are a catalyst for being seen and heard, and therefore understood. When we have greater understanding of a person, their perspective, and experience, we can cultivate greater empathy.
To me, this Superfine! exhibit curated a space where curious people could engage in more generative and meaningful discussion because, as a conversation consultant, we asked better, open-ended questions and we were poised and ready to listen. The questions weren’t about getting the right answer, which directly counters our cultural conditioning. The questions also weren’t ‘yes’ or ‘no’, which leaves little room for expounding, or holding multiple truths. I believe it left participants with a more focused lens on engagement.
When we engage people differently, what happens? What do we see and experience, and what shifts?