What makes a good conversation?
Most conversations—including many that I’ve participated in—are unproductive.
I’m writing this to clarify what I mean by that statement—more for myself than for others.
I’d like my understanding to lead me to change my behavior so that my conversations are more productive.
If you know me, I’d like you to help me change my habits.
I want to be more conscious of the degree to which I am helping or not helping a conversation be productive.
And I’d appreciate ideas on how to do better.
Definitions first. Operational,, of course.
By an “unproductive conversation,” I mean one that yields no new knowledge for any participant.
If a participant can truthfully say: “I learned something useful” and say what it was, then, by my definition, the conversation was productive for them. If not, unproductive.
If a conversation is not productive for any participant (or audience members), then it’s an unproductive conversation.
One goal I have: to help make conversations more productive.
Worse than unproductive
A conversation—or part of one—can be worse than unproductive. It can be that way for a participant, or everyone
If a part of a conversation that’s worse than unproductive, I’ll call it a “destructive element.”
A conversation can be productive or not and yet have destructive elements.
There’s a destructive element in a conversation if, as a result, someone feels they understand someone less; think less of another person’s views; think someone else’s views make less sense; like someone else less; want to avoid further interaction.
How can I make conversations productive?
In my definition, a conversation is productive to the degree that someone is learning something.
I can help make a conversation more productive by learning something.
I can raise the odds of learning something by asking a question whose answer I’d like to learn, and which I don’t already know.
I might also help by asking someone a question that no one has asked them before.
I could ask them a question that invites them to become aware of the current conversation—and how it might be better.
Questions whose answers interest me
Coming up with such questions should be easy, but it’s not. It’s a skill. Not one I’ve practiced. Or even thought about.
So now it’s time to think. Why is it hard? And what might make it easy?
One reason it’s hard: I’m a besserwesser. I believe I know more than most people about things likely to interest me. So why ask? I already have a better answer than the one they are likely to give. Indeed, asking is likely to cause me to think less of them. So asking is worse than unproductive.
But everyone knows things that I know little or nothing about, and I’m interested in almost everything. So with a bit of thought and creativity, I might be able to think of some questions.
Another: people have often already volunteered their answers to many questions I might ask. Or they might have provided me enough information about their worldview that I believe I already know how they will answer. Confirming my belief that I knew what they’d answer does not constitute knowledge. And neither does hearing what I already know.
But if I’ve got someone identified with a particular school of thought, I could ask them questions whose answers I might not predict. I might ask them, “When did you learn that?” or “Have you always believed that?” Wading into more dangerous territory: “Is there anything that could convince you that wasn’t true?” Or less provocatively: “Imagine something happened that led you to conclude that wasn’t true. What would that be?” Or perhaps: “What’s the best argument you’ve heard against that view?” Maybe Byron Katie’s Four Questions would be helpful.
There are lots of questions that I might ask, but the answers don’t interest me. But that’s because I’m too focused on what doesn’t interest me, not what does.
Another: there are questions I might ask, whose answers might interest me, but I imagine people might be offended if I asked. This deserves more thought and exploration.
Not done yet
A conversation can have productive elements, non-productive elements, and destructive elements.
My goal is to understand how I can make the conversations that I can influence as productive as I can and to minimize their destructive elements where I can.
Unproductive conversations waste time. They waste our lives. They have an enormous opportunity cost. Destructive conversations, of course, are worse.
I want to make the world better.
Helping make conversations better is one way to do that.
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