What was the last good conversation you had? Think about that for a second…
What made this conversation “good” for you?
As I consider this question, I can think of a number of conversations in just the past week that I would consider good (By the way, I feel fortunate but have also made many personal and professional decisions that allow me to have good conversations on a regular basis). These conversations range from friendly banter over a beer with a co-worker to a phone call with a high school friend while sitting in traffic to deep strategic planning for the launch of a statewide college access network. They can be about nothing, or they can seemingly be about everything. They include short (less than five minutes) conversations and they include conversations that can go into the hours or even span days.
So, what is it that makes these conversations good?
For me, as I distill these and other widely varied good conversations I have had, the following criteria seem to arise consistently:
- The conversation is the extension, or creation, of a relationship. It could be the flicker of a new relationship or the growth, or clarification, of an old one. By default then, I also know in the conversation that I am not only safe to be who I am, but I am willing to let others be safe in who they are.
- I learn something. Sometimes I learn facts, but usually in my good conversations I learn something about myself and about others. I learn what I don’t know, and what they do. I learn what I do know, and therefore what I have to share. I learn how I think and process the world and how they think and process the world. I learn the value of the conversation itself and the subtle thrill of being truly present in the presence of others.
- I leave wanting to do it again. To be clear, I don’t necessarily leave wanting to continue the same content, but I am motivated by the process. A good conversation makes me feel alive, reminds me I am not alone, and keeps me humble in my relationship to those around me and the broader world.
Relationships, safety, learning, teaching, sharing, motivation: all of these outcomes can be found in and developed through a good conversation and, most importantly, regardless of the content of that conversation.
Back in 1964, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase: “The medium is the message.” In other words, because the means through which content is delivered determines how it will be received, the mode of delivery is in itself content, or is at least symbiotic with the content and not discernable. For this reason, content (think everything we test students on) cannot be conceived of outside of its mode of delivery.
So, what if we taught conversation? Every day. What if we invested explicitly in the medium through which our youth can communicate effectively their own ideas, develop their own positive relationships, create safety, express their challenges, their explorations, their questions? What if we truly valued and assessed conversation knowing it may be the most vital and valuable life skill we can teach? What if we practiced having and modeling our own good conversations every day?
Could we increase safety? Improve relationships and motivation? Open a more equitable process of teaching and learning?
I wonder what schools would be like if we included conversation in our core curriculum?
Anderson is currently working on his Master of Business Administration at the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University. He received his B.A. from Wake Forest University and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art. Email Anderson Williams