This year I’ve been wondering about the possibilities of conversations. Have we, despite our social advancements, underestimated a core practice and skill that affects every fabric of life? The face-to-face conversations which happen in real time, that can’t be edited and can range from messy to magic.
I reflected on my own struggles and realised I need to be more open, less attached to being right, listen and inquire more, and take more risks in my conversations. I started to look for projects that shine a light on conversations and their potential to build bridges and not walls within our communities and discovered a local gem.
Conversation Salon, a model for conversations
In December, I met with Heather Bourke, founder of Conversational Salons. The salons are a social space that Heather states "are about using the power of conversation to connect people, build community and celebrate diversity".
Heather was inspired to create the Salons in 2014 after she noticed "so many conversations were superficial and formulaic or weren’t happening at all because of people’s busy stressed lifestyles, smartphone addiction and the erosion of community spaces".
I went to see a Conversational Salon in action, which was held in a Dublin café setting. After a warm introduction by Heather, I joined a table of three people. We were then given a conversation menu to choose thought-provoking and stimulating questions. We listened, shared stories, with a conversational style that was open and with a refreshing lack of debating or advice giving - just honesty and respect.
Heather summaries the salon's success in terms of meeting an underlying psychological need. "I think there is this hunger for deeper conversations. Once we create this space and invite people, conversation happens very easily, we need spaces that are different from a book club or a pub setting". The salons exist as a third space outside the home or work where people meet and connect.
Ask better questions and change the script
If you're wondering how to use this set up in an everyday sense, it couldn't be easier. The home or work version of a salon can be conversation cards, which are becoming a booming business in themselves, such as those from The School of Life, an educational company based in London.
I also came across a video by couple Danna and Nick Wester on Kickstarter, who shared their struggles to juggle the busy demands of work and raising kids and staying connected to each other. They started to experiment with their own conversations, asking a different question every day to spark a conversation and make fresh discoveries about each other. After road testing questions with friends, they captured their favourite 200 ones in a card deck called 'Uncommon Questions'.
Reclaiming space and having structure helps.
I bought and started to use the 'Uncommon Questions' for a couple of months, at dinner parties, coffee catch ups, and family events. Initially, I had doubts as to whether people would feel it was too socially engineered. However, after a simple explanation people really went for it. I learned things about friends and family that without the cards may never have happened.
The structure and random nature of the questions helped us, as it took the pressure off trying to find things to talk about and would lead to new conversations and stories. In our busy lives, we often lack the space to reflect and revisit chapters of our lives or have the energy to come up with new and interesting questions.
So, we go for the low hanging fruit of catching up, gossip and what’s in the entertainment world, which is fine but to truly stay connected we need to go deeper.
Conversation is a dance
More recently I am more conscious and curious about the questions I ask and break new and interesting ground more often. Author and activist Margaret Wheatley challenge us to be brave enough to have a conversation that matters.
So maybe this Christmas and beyond, take a risk and give the gift of an inspiring question but be prepared to really listen to create the right conditions. Just like a good dancer, the intention is to make your partner feel comfortable, look great and discover something new together.
To find out more about Heather Bourke, visit www.conversationsalons.ie