The Conversation: Do We Know How to Have One?

I have lived in New York for 24 years. It was early in the summer of 1991 that we packed up our stuff and moved to Manhattan’s East Village after many years in Japan. I rarely regret that decision, but there is one thing I dearly miss from my life before, something I have never once experienced in New York—a collaborative conversation.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’ve had many great and enlightening conversations here, but they all fall into one of two very particular patterns, and in this respect they are always the same.

The Conversation

Conversation Pattern 1:

Moderated discussion in which a discussion leader keeps everyone in line and focused on the topic or leads the group.

Conversation Pattern 2:

No moderator, in which case conversations spontaneously break apart, spawning multiple, fragmented two- or three-person conversations around the room.

These were some of the richest, deepest and most enlightening conversations I can remember.

In my experience, these are the only two basic patterns of group conversation we have. Living in Japan, I frequently experienced something quite different. It was an unmoderated, spontaneous multi-participant collaborative conversation. I participated in such conversations (always in Japanese) at parties, in bars, and around a dinner table. They often involved large numbers of participants. In every case, everyone in the conversation contributed, but no one took over or splintered off. These were some of the richest, deepest and most enlightening conversations I can remember. At the time I thought they were what adult conversation was. I still think of these conversations as a kind of ideal. I sorely miss them.

I have some speculative theories about why such conversations do not spontaneously occur in New York, the most obvious one being that we New Yorkers (and possibly Americans in general) are just too self-focused. We are unable to sit by and listen while a conversation develops around us. We need to be in it either as the speaker or the active listener, and while we will submit to listen to an authority or a presentation, we will not sit patiently while our peers talk spontaneously.

I also think there may be another cause: we are too diverse. There are—in New York at least—few situations in which our commonly held assumptions provide a safe and stable foundation for discussion. Always some fundamental principal is at odds. It’s too hard to really sort that out, so we don’t. We just move to a smaller world (a smaller conversation) where such fault lines are fewer or can be ignored.

In our current mode, we are either followers, leaders, or co-conspirators in a protected micro pod.

This situation costs us the opportunity to extract from a spontaneous gathering something more profound than a serendipitous personal connection, or the satisfaction that comes from an engaging one-on-one conversation. It robs us of the substantial richness that is possible only from collective contribution and collective insight applied over a dedicated stretch of time. It also may deprive us of a natural sense of community. In our current mode, we are either followers, leaders, or co-conspirators in a relatively safe micro pod. We do not afford ourselves the opportunity to be the creators of truly collaborative conversations.

Curious to know if what I once experienced in Japan could be replicated in New York, I asked this question as part of a long conversation over dinner with a friend, Catherine May Saillard. Catherine owns ICI French Country Kitchen, a wonderful farm-to-table restaurant in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn. When I posed this challenge, “Can a group of diverse and interesting New Yorkers sit around a table for dinner and have a SINGLE sustained conversation for at least two hours—no moderator, no side conversations—just a single, contributive, collective, shall I say it … civilized, conversation on a given topic?” She immediately said, “Let’s do it!”

And thus was created “The Conversation.” The first one took place a few days ago, on July 17th, 2014, at ICI around a long table on the main dining floor of the restaurant. The restaurant was busy and festive, the food and wine absolutely wonderful. We had selected 7 strong-willed attendees with the intent of making for ourselves a challenge. They ranged from 40ish to 60ish, and were from diverse backgrounds, four European-born, three American-born.

After a short introduction to the idea of The Conversation, and some light chatting as we waited for late arrivals, the topics of conversation were introduced by Kira and Tanya of Tronvig Group, who also served as referees for the evening. The Conversation started at 7:45PM and was brought to a close at 10:15.

I had expected that after a rough beginning during which the referees would be kept busy enforcing the rules, we would achieve something spectacular in the second hour.

That’s not how it went at all.

That’s not how it went at all.

The topic selected by the group was “Design the ‘new university’ for a complex future.” The Conversation started smoothly with the only yellow card being handed out to me for trying to guide things too much. The first hour was actually tremendous, fluid and inspirational. Then, somewhere early in hour two, we landed on the subject of race, and it was like an invisible giant entered the room and stamped out all creativity, all freedom of conversation. Participants retreated into their safe zones, and the dialogue stalled for about 45 minutes, stuck circling back on itself.

This collective detour into the wilderness was hard to understand while it was happening. I only realized what occurred as we assessed The Conversation in its aftermath. It’s enlightening to me to see the power that the subject of race wields even among a formidable group of well-educated and well-meaning adults.

It nearly shut us down. Nearly, I say, because it did not shut us down. It only misdirected our efforts for a long while. The Conversation came back in a surprising way, and it actually took a day for me to process all of this.

Can a group of diverse and interesting New Yorkers sit around a table and hold a single sustained conversation with no moderator for two hours? The answer is resoundingly, yes.

Is it easy or natural? No. In fact, the moment Tanya announced that The Conversation was over at 10:15, everyone reverted almost instantaneously to their natural behaviors—three small, independent conversations broke out all around the table.

What does such a conversation achieve that our default modes of communication do not? Well, The Conversation changed the way I look at college education, and beyond that, it changed the way I am going to approach the college experience for my own children. I am now thinking more deeply and expansively about the whole subject.

When was the last time a single conversation did that?

For me, it was more than 24 years ago in Japan.

The Conversation was held again with some minor format adjustments and a new topic on February 5th, 2015. We will do it again soon.

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1 thoughts on “The Conversation: Do We Know How to Have One?

  1. Juan says:

    I only can say thank you for sharing this amazing and enlightening post about what I thought was a simple and siloed topic—the conversation. I have realized reading this that it is possible to reach above and beyond with people during the course of two or three hours. It is possible to drill down in an issue and reach a clarifier and general conclusion. I am looking forward to putting this into practice so I too can enjoy real conversation. Thank you.

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