Assessment, Opinion, Well at Work

The Art of Conversation

Discovering the Heart of Communication

I have developed a practice in my own life that, as it turns out, is good for both my body and my mind. I head off to the gym each morning at about 5:00 with a bottle of water, my iPhone and two or three TEDTalks loaded into my playlist. I’ve tried the music thing but it just doesn’t keep me going in the same way that fresh, provocative ideas do. TEDTalks are perfectly keyed to my workout routine—a twenty minute session on the weight machines, followed by twenty minutes on the treadmill. And none of this “every-other-day” thing for me. Unless I make my journey to the gym a daily routine, I find excuses! That means I listen to quite a few Talks over the course of a year!

This morning, I listened to two inspiring pieces. The first was by singer/songwriter, Meklit Hadero who encouraged us to be attentive to the music around us: in nature, language and even in silence. But it was the talk by NPR Host, Celeste Headlee that had me thinking well beyond my 20 minutes on the treadmill. In 10 Ways To Have A Better Conversation, Ms. Headlee reminds us of that, while many of us are great talkers and some of us are great speakers, not many of us are great conversationalists. She points out that, when properly combined, the elements of honesty, brevity, clarity—and a generous scoop of listening will invariably result in good conversation.

Living in a connected world does not automatically mean that the quality of communication has gone up. Some would argue that it has actually gone down or, at least, flatlined. Sure, Twitter might force us into brevity and clarity. Blog writing may encourage a certain level of honesty and a culture of “listening in” to what others are thinking, but it’s the combination of Headlee’s elements in a personal and personalized context that makes for good conversation. As a seasoned NPR broadcaster, Celeste Headlee has interviewed a whole lot of people and she uses what she has learned to give us some sobering insights into conversational practices in our 21st century world.

In my own household, mornings are usually a hectic time. As I prepare breakfast for the family, Zoe gets lunches ready. We’re often working in the same space and, although we share words with each other, we have rarely engaged in conversation that has really connected us. In fact, we normally begin our days rather disconnected—never a great way to begin the day!

This morning, however, was different. I made a point of sitting down with Zoe and, applying some of what I learned from Celeste, attempted to engage in conversation. But it wasn’t until Zoe was heading out the door for the day, that I realized the power of the experience—for both of us. I felt a little more connected and I knew that she did as well. Her last words to me: “By the way, thanks for the conversation!”

I can’t help but wonder about how some of this might apply to our work as people dedicated to nurturing the health and well-being of our young people. You know, Communication appears as one of the “C’s” in whatever list of 21st Century Competencies you encounter. Most often, however, the focus is on the “push” of communication—getting your message out there in a coherent, compelling way. Rarely do we hear about Conversation as a type of “push-pull” process. So, in listening to Celeste Headlee’s TEDTalk I’m left with some questions of possibility:

What might happen if we spent time in our schools exploring the art of the conversation? What might happen to our online conversations—many of which can become polarized very quickly—if we tried to apply Ms. Headlee’s 10 principles for good conversation? How might our family lives be enhanced and enlivened if quality conversation became something around which we gathered? What would it look like if conversation found its way into our approaches to assessment? 

I realize that some of you are likely already playing with some of these ideas. I would love to hear about what you are doing! I would also like to hear what ideas others have for engaging in the powerful conversations that could result in our spouses, our colleagues and our children declaring at the end of the day, “Thanks for the conversation!”

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