Can We Talk?

The spiritual practice of hosting conversations

| September / October 2004

Our policy choices flow from our politics, our politics flow from our values, and our values flow from our personal stories. If we're going to create a new politics in America and the world, we need to start at the level of story. We need to talk to each other -- and to 'the other,' the one we think is dead wrong. It's risky, but good hosts make such conversations so safe that people stumble past their fears into a kind of grace. Hosting conversations is not just inviting people over and putting out cookies. It's deeper -- actually, something like meditation.

But while meditation strives for one-pointedness, hosting goes for three-pointedness: It's focused on each speaker, the host's own responses, and the entire conversation. Meditation is private and quiet. Hosting is public and noisy. Meditation is cool. Hosting is hot. Rather than escaping 'the world,' hosting works with the rough grain of the world, creating coherence in our multitasking 21st-century minds.

A host gathers people to make meaning together, setting the stage with a welcoming spirit, a few ground rules for safe speaking, and a juicy topic (see A host is free to listen like a lover and speak like a sage. A host can act like a fool and ask the unaskable, like 'We all agree, but what if we're wrong? What if the opposite were true?' A host wonders. As in awe. As in 'it's a wonderful life.'

The first mind of hosting is listening to what each person says with absolute attention and utter fascination. It's like wading into the worldview and life experience of another without any need to change them. If a host wants to dive deeper, she's free to say 'Tell me more about that' or 'How did you come to that point of view?' Mind you, she's not facilitating or helping. She's contemplating a work of art called a human being.

The second mind of hosting is listening with attention and fascination to one's own thoughts as they arise while others are speaking. As with solo meditation, this empty attention lets you really look within. You see your foibles -- your dysfunctional family of warring selves with their conflicting needs. Your 'tolerant self' gets shouted down by your 'righteous self.' Your open mind shuts when your tribal mind worries what your clan would think if you dared agree with 'them.' At the same time, you discover your higher mind -- finding answers to questions you didn't know you'd asked, feasting on insights arising from depths you rarely plumb. Your heart opens and you fall into a space that feels like love.

The third mind of hosting is attuning not to self or other, but to the meanings that begin to arise from the rich, bubbling stew of interactions. You sense that something is trying to be said through this word-and-thought jazz -- this riffing and harmonizing, calling and responding. You now speak not to assert yourself but to stir this communal pot, bringing attention to how ideas mate and give birth to insights, adding a dash of heart when it's too heady or a dash of reason when tempers flare.