In Praise Of… Deep Conversations

Do you ever think about how many meaningful conversations you have in a day? When was the last time someone really listened to you?

Research by University of Arizona psychologist, Matthias Mehl, has found that people who engaged in deep conversations, rather than endless small talk about the weather or TV shows, rated higher for happiness and life satisfaction. Mehl concludes that deep conversations may help us find more meaning and satisfaction within our lives.

So, how do you do this? How do you initiate a deep conversation? This is especially challenging today, when most conversations take place amid phone checking, texting, and the multiple distractions of our digital life.

A few years ago, we — Doris and Kerry — began an extraordinary conversation. We met at a book launch but didn’t have time to talk there, so we decided to meet the following week for a proper conversation.

A psychologist, author, poet, and psychotherapist with Jewish heritage (Doris), and a humorist, journalist, author, and mathematician of Irish Catholic background turned sworn atheist (Kerry), we make an odd couple.

But we share several traits — curiosity, creativity, laughter — and we connected instantly. We were passionately, obsessively interested in other people and their stories, and within half an hour of meeting, we had decided to embark on a project together.

We wanted to run a ‘salon’: a place where people could come together to talk, laugh, and think about their lives. The stories — courageous, hysterical, moving, inspiring, large and small — are the ones that we have all lived but rarely get to share. When was the last time, for instance, someone really listened, all the way through, as you recounted a meaningful story from your life?

After working out some discussion questions to elicit those stories, we invited 10 women, all strangers to each other, to the first salon. We had no idea how it was going to turn out.

We had both hosted groups — as a psychotherapist or as the leader of large workshops — and knew that it takes time for people to relax. We thought we’d need a few icebreaker activities before people felt safe enough to trust the group with their stories. We were wrong: all we needed were the right questions.

As soon as we turned to the discussion questions, the magic happened. Women who hardly knew each other dropped their usual defenses and told stories; wonderful, hilarious, sad, heroic stories about their lives. The energy in the room could have run a dozen power stations and the buzz remained with us all for hours after the salon had ended.

We have been running salons for four years now and every salon has had that same wonderful energy. Many of us have experienced coming to the salons exhausted after a long week or stressed by difficult events in our lives, and have come away reenergised and refreshed by the magic of sharing and listening to each other’s stories, sometimes through tears of laughter, and sometimes tears of shared empathy. And indeed, research is now showing that connecting through face-to-face conversation is as good for our physical self as it is for our psyche.

The salon discussion questions are thought provoking, imaginative, and playful. They encourage us to travel through the narrative of our lives: the internal compass we have followed or not followed, the chance occurrences that have shifted our course, the people who have shaped us, the intentional and the forced choices, the expected and the unexpected. All the topics that we rarely have the chance to sit down and think about, let alone speak about and be heard.

There is no jostling for space — each of us, introvert or extrovert — responds to the discussion questions in turn. We laugh, we widen our eyes in amazement, we nod in sympathy, we groan with recognition. Everyone is listened to.

From TED talks to podcasts, there is a growing hunger for the old-fashioned nourishment of personal stories. In the salon, we hear them from people we don’t know at all, know a little, or sometimes, know well. But even those who know each other very well are surprised by the stories that come out.

We, ourselves, are sometimes surprised by our own stories — the ones that emerge from invisibility in response to the discussion questions. The salon format gives us a space in which we can be in touch with our deep, and perhaps forgotten, selves as well as those of others.

We leave the salon still talking and thinking about the issues, questions and experiences raised. Our discussion questions get taken home and raised around dinner tables and even 10-year-olds have chimed in.

A sample question, for instance, is: "The Fairy Godmother is able to make it to your birth, has remembered to bring her magic wand, and can bestow upon you one gift and one gift only. It can be a talent, a life circumstance, or anything you choose. What will it be?"

Ask someone today, even a 10-year-old — you might be surprised at the answer.

Do you think the digital age has made it more difficult to have meaningful conversations?

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