What are the ingredients of a good conversation? Remember, a conversation is not the same as information-exchange or lecture.
First, a good conversation (and therefore a good conversationalist) requires a safe environment. By this I mean space — somewhere to feel comfortable; and I mean at least two people with listening skills; and I mean the ability to disagree if necessary but not denounce, condemn or berate.
Illustration: most of us think this blog is safe; when someone joins us at the table and starts denouncing someone we feel uncomfortable. (Not the same as disagreement; we are more than happy for this to occur. I thought Mark Devine’s comments Tuesday night were solid, crisp disagreements with me. No problem for me. I’ll avoid specific examples of denunciation.) The reason we feel uncomfortable when someone denounces another is because we assumed we were in a genuine conversation in a safe environment.
I believe many today, and this is characteristic of young emerging Christians, are looking for a safe place to air differences and raise questions. Many have turned to the blog world because they are having difficulties finding a safe place. I can’t tell you the number of pastors who have written me privately and said “I can’t say this on your blog, but I want to converse with you about the post today” or about something else.
Second, a good conversation requires a good topic or a good question. This one is clear: what is a good topic for some is not for others. It is also clear that some topics are better than others. Some topics are off-limits for one person and on-limits (neologism?) for another. There is a social skill involved here: some people perceive immediately what is on-limits or off-limits; others don’t.
Third, a good conversation operates on the basis of frequently-unexpressed but nearly always assumed, shared assumptions. I find this to be a regular hang-up on the blog. Many of us operate with a set of assumptions — and it would be fun to bring to expression what these really are — but we don’t talk about them. When someone violates them, we raise our eyebrows or start to wiggle our fingers and maybe even break into a sweat. Perhaps it begins with the viability of the question we ask. I have asked in our women and ministry series for participants to recognize that women in ministry is a viable question; some don’t. That assumption is needed, so I think, for a conversation to occur. Without it, the conversation breaks down.
Fourth, a good conversation requires the spirit of exploration and experimentation. If I ask my good friend, Greg Clark, who happens to be a philosopher and therefore practiced in the art of conversation and one who finds it delightful to turn over each stone somehow, a question, I expect him to tell me what he is thinking on the subject and he will probably explore his mind and he’ll ask me what I think and then I’ll ask him back and it goes on and on.
The major problem here is when someone gets too dogmatic. If in conversing we want to explore something together, we can’t have someone say “here’s the answer, buffo, and there’s no other possiblities.” The shared assumption is that we don’t get too dogmatic and that we explore and think together.
Fifth, a good conversation desires wisdom. I have very little use for a conversation that goes nowhere unless a few of us are gathered just to chat over beer or coffee or about a football game (go Bears!). No, a good conversation with a good topic or question leads to mutual exploration so each of us can learn and grow in wisdom. As a Christian, we want the conversation to lead us into the wisdom of the way of Jesus.