The art of conversation - or how to talk turkey over tough issues

Elizabeth Ayorinde makes her way down the line of diverse cuisine that was available at the “Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers” dinner earlier this fall outside Reading Terminal Market.

 

We’re at that time of year when many will gather around a holiday table, preparing to enjoy food and fellowship with friends, family, and neighbors.

It’s against this idyllic backdrop that the banquet feast could explode into name-calling, profanity, and broken relationships all because the discussion turns to one volatile issue or another.

It could be politics.

It could be race.

It could be any topic that has the potential to have its own “night to remember” for all the wrong reasons.

The main cause for this conflict is not necessarily the topic in question. It’s more the manner by which it is brought up, handled, and debated.

For most of us, we consider ourselves gifted conversationalists. In an era of nonstop social media interaction, we could argue that we are “conversing” all the time. However, the reality is that our exchanges are not so much conversations as responses and reactions. You share with me, I might “like” or “retweet” it, but I’m not really interacting with this in the type of dialogue that requires more than a limited number of character counts and emojis.

Conversation is a learned skill and not everyone does it well.

For almost 10 years, I’ve worked with a group of leaders from various faith (and nonfaith) traditions who gather every month to hear from a “guest conversationalist.” These speakers are invited to simply share their story about their personal life journey and our job is to intently listen. At the end, we ask questions to probe deeper.  We seek clarification of what they said. We accept their story as their truth.

We don’t argue about what was shared. We don’t dispute what was presented. We don’t challenge the veracity of the facts that were given.

We listen.

We take it all in.

We grow in the process.

This practice was developed and refined during membership in the New Conversation On Race and Ethnicity (NewCORE). We were formed a decade ago and have committed to this practice of conversation to form relationships, find common ground, and build bridges with people from all walks of life.

Since we started, we’ve had hundreds of conversations around tables that resemble the very same ones that will draw thousands of others during the holiday season. While we don’t purport to be experts in the art of conversation, we have learned a few things that might be helpful in keeping the peace among friends and strangers.

First, learn to listen. If we carefully listen, we may find a deeper meaning that is frequently missed in the split-second reactionary times in which we live.

Second, strive for understanding. We may not always agree, but if we can better understand each other, then we’re one step closer to a better relationship than we were before.

Third, try to relate — not recruit. The ability to relate to one another is too often overshadowed by a penchant to pit one side against the other. Finding middle ground is always a more noble pursuit.

Finally, when the topic of the table seems to turn toward trouble, there’s nothing wrong with simply letting the storm cloud pass. There’s always going to be someone seeking to provoke an argument, or bait a fight, or challenge a belief. We can’t always control those situations, but we do have the power to control how we react to them.

It’s important to remember that these conversations have the power to transform relationships over time — not overnight. We owe it to each other to share them wisely, if they’re worth having at all.

 

The Rev. David W. Brown is a member of  the New Conversation On Race and Ethnicity and an assistant professor of instruction at Temple University. davidwbrown@temple.edu