- The yearning for meaningful conversations has been heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic as loneliness and isolation has surged.
- Conversations can be transformed from small talk to meaningful conversations that enhance connectedness, understanding of the world and can alter our perspectives to create positive change.
- The four key principles of a meaningful conversation are humility, curiosity, generosity and accountability.
What makes a "conversation" and "meaningful conversation" so different? Any conversation can have many purposes: small talk, diplomacy, misinformation. What makes these conversations meaningful is the power to penetrate humanity, connecting individuals to the social and ecological systems that impact them. They can alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation, heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has certainly provoked interest in more meaningful conversations.
Through these conversations, we co-create and confirm our understandings and seek solutions to personal and societal challenges. A meaningful conversation can, therefore, create bonds of trust that can build collective action. Asking deeper questions, listening more intently and creating shared understanding through conversation is a powerful conduit for transformation.
Such insights around meaningful conversations have emerged from a three-year and counting experiment called "Meaningful Mornings." The conversation space involves people coming together from all walks of life to converse bi-weekly on the pressing issues of our time, e.g. climate justice, economic inequality, gender parity, structural racism, ethical business, faith communities and systems change.
Key questions have arisen: how can we harness the power of conversation to build relationships that solve global challenges? How can conversations inform and foster meaningful action?
Humanity has always used conversation to transform the world around them. It can occur online and in-person to organize, inform, build, create and recreate our collective reality. It can be the starting point for deliberation and decision-making and a portal to discuss difficult subjects like discrimination and race in the workplace.
The multiple purposes of conversations
These necessary conversations can contribute to progress, policy and healing if done in a respectful, open, and just manner. Conversely, conversation can also sow distrust, harm, misinform, and stagnate communities. It can cause confusion and polarization if filled with disinformation and manipulation.
Conversation can also be transactional, like speaking with a barista to order your coffee or a cashier as you buy your groceries.
Conversations can also potentially accelerate impact, good or bad, and are essential to shaping our collective reality.
Conversational spaces in our personal, social and professional lives have been transformed during the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for human connection has been a consistent topic of exploration.
The truth is, most conversations don't move beyond who they're taking place between, especially when ties between you and the person you converse with are weak.
The way we converse with each other mirrors how we understand the "other."
Everyday conversations contain "fillers" – small-talk only meant to fill space or aid an efficient social interaction. Studies show although people are hesitant to have meaningful, genuine social interaction with those they do not know, they are happier when they treat a stranger as a weak tie.
This finding shows that greater connection bridging small talk to more meaningful conversations can positively impact happiness. Social conventions such as meaningless small talk were meant to marry familiarity with efficiency but now leave us unfulfilled.
How meaningful conversations differ
A prime characteristic of a meaningful conversation is it carries within it an intention to leave behind something of value. Simultaneously it seeks out the hidden gems of insight within people's stories. The conversation needn't be conceptually complex or intellectually draining. The subject matter is less important than why and how you speak. We can point to four key principles to how conversations become meaningful.
A meaningful conversation recognises all parties have a limited outlook. In sharing our perspectives and experiences, we transform our thinking. Humility rejects dichotomous logic. We all possess pieces of the puzzle that is our collective truth.
You should have a genuine curiosity in the life, experience and context of whom you speak with. Therefore, listen, process and look for nuggets of wisdom and information to expand the understanding of yourself, the other and the world around you.
In every meaningful conversation, provide your own value. Enter into it with authenticity, kindness and generosity. You don't have to know everything but what you know, offer as a gift to participants. Sometimes this can be as small as a smile.
What each of us says matters and because our words and perspectives can impact our outlook and self, we must hold each other accountable for them. Accountability is a gift because it makes us listen more intently to ensure better understanding while being brave enough to put our views forward, kindly and earnestly.
Making conversations more meaningful
Meaningful conversations enrich the fabric of our daily lives. They bring a sense of wonder, interconnectedness and familiarity to our interactions and serve as the groundwork for a more functional society.
Understanding the "other" as a weak tie can broaden and strengthen our idea of community. In times of crisis, many of our connections become weaker and more isolated, which is something to be more mindful of as lockdowns resurge across Europe.
As meaningful connections create stronger bonds between the wider community, we can combat loneliness and isolation by conversing at a deeper level.
Curiosity, accountability, generosity and humility are values and practices currently missing in the public discourse, which has led to incredible polarization and narrowing space for civil interactions.
Meaningful conversations can transform our interpersonal reactions and our world, which is why we need more of them.