Some friends and I started talking...

All social change begins with a conversation

| July/August 2002 Issue


A Canadian woman told me this story. She was returning to Vietnam to pick up her second child, adopted from the same orphanage as her first child. On her visit two years earlier she had seen challenging conditions at the orphanage and had vowed this time to take medical supplies. "They needed Tylenol, not T-shirts or trinkets," she said to a friend one day. The friend suggested that the most useful thing to take would be an incubator. The woman was surprised (she’d been thinking bandages and pills), but she started making calls, looking for an incubator. Weeks later, she had been offered enough pediatric medical supplies to fill four 40-foot shipping containers! And 12 incubators. From a casual conversation between two friends, a medical relief effort for Vietnamese children emerged. And it all began when "some friends and I started talking." Stories like this are plentiful. Nothing has given me more hope recently than to observe how simple conversations give birth to actions that can change lives and restore our faith in the future. There is no more powerful way to initiate significant social change than to start a conversation. When a group of people discover that they share a common concern, that’s when the process of change begins. Yet it’s not easy to begin talking to one another. We stay silent and apart from one another for many reasons. Some of us never have been invited to share our ideas and opinions. From early school days we’ve been instructed to be quiet so others can tell us what to think. Others have soured on conversation, having sat through too many meetings that degenerated into people shouting, or stomping out angrily, or taking control of the agenda. But true conversation is very different from those sorts of experiences. It is a timeless and reliable way for humans to think together. Before there were classrooms, meetings, or group facilitators, there were people sitting around talking. When we think about beginning a conversation, we can take courage from the fact that this is a process we all know how to do. We are reawakening an ancient practice, a way of being together that all humans intimately understand. We also can take courage in the fact that many people are longing to converse again. We are hungry for a chance to talk. People want to tell their stories, and are willing to listen to yours. I find that it takes just one person to start a conversation, because everyone else is eager to talk once it has begun. "Some friends and I started talking. . . ." Change doesn’t happen from a leader announcing the plan. Change begins from deep inside a system, when a few people notice something they will no longer tolerate, or when they respond to someone’s dream of what’s possible. It’s easy to observe this in recent history. The Solidarity trade union movement in Poland began with conversation—less than a dozen workers in a Gdansk shipyard in 1980 speaking to each other about despair, their need for change, their need for freedom. Within months, Solidarity grew to 9.5 million workers. There was no e-mail then, just people talking to each other about their own needs, and finding that millions of fellow citizens shared their feelings. In a short time, they shut down the country, and changed the course of history. To make important changes in our communities, our society, our lives, we just have to find a few others who care about the same thing we do. Together we can figure out the first step, then the second, then the next. Gradually, we grow powerful. But we don’t have to start with power, only with passion. Even among friends, starting a conversation can take courage. But conversation also gives us courage. Thinking together, deciding what actions to take, more of us become bold. As we learn from each other’s experiences and interpretations, we see issues in richer detail. This clarity can help us see both when to act and when not to. In some cases, the right timing means doing nothing right now. Talking can be enough for the time being. If conversation is the natural way that humans think together, what gets lost when we stop talking? Paulo Freire, the influential Brazilian educator who used education to support poor people in transforming their lives, said that we "cannot be truly human apart from communication. . . . To impede communication is to reduce people to the status of things." When we don’t talk to one another in a meaningful way, Freire believes, we never act to change things. We become passive and allow others to tell us what to do. Freire had a deep faith in every person’s ability to be a clear thinker and a courageous actor. Not all of us share this faith, but it is necessary if we are to invite colleagues into conversation. Sometimes it is hard to believe that others have as much to offer as we do in the way of concern and skill. But I have found that when the issue is important to others, they will not disappoint us. If you start a conversation, others will surprise you. Near my home in Utah, I watched a small group of mothers cautiously begin meeting about a problem in the community: They wanted their children to be able to walk to school safely. They were shocked when the city council granted their request for a pedestrian traffic light. Encouraged by this victory, they started other projects, each more ambitious than the last. After a few years, they participated in securing a federal grant for neighborhood development worth tens of millions of dollars. Today, one of those mothers has become an expert on city housing, won a seat on the city council, and completed a term as council chair. When she tells her story, it begins like so many others: "Some friends and I started talking. . . ." For conversation to become a powerful tool in society, we must take it seriously and examine our own role in making it successful. Here are some basic principles I’ve learned over years of hosting formal conversations around the country (see accompanying sidebar). We acknowledge one another as equals . One thing that makes us equal is that we need each other. Whatever any one of us knows alone, it is not enough to change things. Someone else is bound to see things that we need to know. We try to stay curious about each other. I maintain my curiosity by reminding myself that everyone has something to teach me. When others are saying things I disagree with, or have never thought about, or that I consider foolish or wrong, I remind myself that I really can learn from them—if I stay open and do not shut them out. We recognize that we need each other’s help to become better listeners. The greatest barrier to good conversation is that as a culture we’re losing the capacity to listen. We’re too busy. We’re too certain of our own views. We just keep rushing past each other. At the beginning of any conversation I host, I make a point of asking everyone to help each other listen. This is hard work for almost everyone, but if we talk about listening at the start of a conversation, it makes things easier. If someone hasn’t been listening to us, or misinterprets what we say, we’re less likely to blame that person. We can be a little gentler with the difficulties we experience in a group if we make a commitment at the start to help each other listen. We slow down so we have time to think and reflect . Most of us work in places where we rarely have time to sit together and think. We dash in and out of meetings where we make hurried, not thoughtful, decisions. Working to create conditions for a true spirit of conversation helps rediscover the joy of thinking together. We remember that conversation is the natural way humans think together. Conversation is not a new invention for the 21st century; we’re restoring a tradition from earlier human experience. It does, however, take time to let go of our modern ways of being in meetings, to get past the habits that keep us apart—speaking too fast, interrupting others, monopolizing the time, giving speeches or making pronouncements. Many of us have been rewarded for these behaviors, becoming more powerful by using them. But the blunt truth is that they don’t lead to wise thinking or healthy relationships. We expect it to be messy at times. Life doesn’t move in straight lines, and neither does a good conversation. When a conversation begins, people always say things that don’t connect. What’s important at the start is that everyone’s voice gets heard, that everyone feels invited into the conversation. If you’re hosting the conversation, you may feel responsible for pointing out connections between these diverse contributions, but it’s important to let go of that impulse and just sit with the messiness. The messy stage doesn’t last forever. If we suppress the messiness at the beginning, it will find us later on and be more disruptive. The first stage is to listen well to whatever is being said, forgetting about neat thoughts and categories, knowing that all contributions add crucial elements to the whole. Eventually, we will be surprised by how much we share. The practice of true talking takes courage, faith, and time. We don’t always get it right the first time, and we don’t have to. We need to settle into conversation; we don’t just do it automatically. As we risk talking to each other about things we care about, as we become curious about each other, as we slow things down, gradually we remember this timeless way of being together. Our rushed and thoughtless behaviors fade away, and we sit quietly in the gift of being together, just as humans have always done. Another surprising but important element of conversation is a willingness to be disturbed, to allow our beliefs and ideas to be challenged by what others think. No one person or perspective can solve our problems. We have to be willing to let go of our certainty and be confused for a time. Most of us weren’t trained to admit what we don’t know. We haven’t been rewarded for being confused, or for asking questions rather than giving quick answers. We were taught to sound certain and confident. But the only way to understand the world in its complexity is to spend more time in the state of not knowing. It is very difficult to give up our certainties—the positions, beliefs, and explanations that lie at the heart of our personal identities. And I am not saying that we have to give up what we believe. We only need to be curious about what others believe, and to acknowledge that their way of interpreting the world might be essential to us. I think it’s important to begin a conversation by listening as best you can for what’s different, for what surprises you. We have many opportunities every day to be the one who listens, curious rather than certain. If you try this with several people, you might find yourself laughing in delight as you realize how many unique ways there are to be human. But the greatest benefit of all is that listening moves us closer. When we listen with as little judgment as possible, we develop better relationships with each other. Sometimes we hesitate to listen for what’s different because we don’t want to change. We’re comfortable with our lives, and if we listened to anyone who raised questions, we might feel compelled to engage in new activities and ways of thinking. But most of us do see things in our lives or in the world that we would like to be different. If that’s true, it means we listen more, not less. And we have to be willing to move into the very uncomfortable place of uncertainty.
We may simply fear the confusion that comes with new ideas in unsettled forms. But we can’t be creative if we refuse to be confused. Change always starts with confusion; cherished interpretations must dissolve to make way for what’s new. Great ideas and inventions miraculously appear in the space of not knowing. If we can move through the fear and enter the abyss, we are rewarded greatly. We rediscover we’re creative.
As the world grows more puzzling and difficult, most of us don’t want to keep struggling through it alone. I can’t know what to do from my own narrow perspective. I need a better understanding of what’s going on. I want to sit down with you and talk about all the frightening and hopeful things I observe, and listen to what frightens you and gives you hope. I need new ideas and solutions for the problems I care about. And I know I need to talk to you to discover them. I need to learn to value your perspective, and I want you to value mine. I expect to be disturbed by what I hear from you. I know we don’t have to agree with each other in order to think well together. There is no need for us to be joined at the head. We are joined by our human hearts.