How to Have a Meaningful Conversation | Not in Our Town

How to Have a Meaningful Conversation

Community members talk at the 2014 NIOT National Gathering in Billings, MT.

Community members share their experiences at the 2014 NIOT National Gathering in Billings, MT.


When Margaret Wheatley published her book Turning to One Another in 2002, she says she made a rash statement: “I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again.” Over a decade later, she says she still believes it to be true.

"The world always only changes when a few individuals step forward. It doesn’t change from leaders or top-level programs or big ambitious plans. It changes when we, everyday people gathering in small groups, notice what we care about and take those first steps to change the situation... If we turn to one another, if we begin talking with each other – especially with those we call stranger or enemy – then this world can reverse its darkening direction and change for the good."

But how do we begin having these sometimes difficult conversations? In this excerpt from her thoughtful book, Wheatley lays out her six principles for simple conversations to restore hope to the future.

Turning to One Another book jacket

There are many different ways to host a meaningful conversation. 

Although I've been hosting dialogues since 1993, my trust in and love for conversation is more recent, a direct outcome of what I've learned from the work of two colleagues and friends, Christina Baldwin and Juanita Brown. Each of them, with several colleagues, has pioneered different and extraordinary ways to host conversations that generate deep insights and actions, and a strong sense of community. They are expert teachers for how to host conversations and I hope you will seek out their work.

I first fell in love with the practice of conversation when I experienced for myself the sense of unity, of communion, that is available in this process. Most of what we do in communities and organizations focuses on our individual needs. We attend a conference or a meeting for our own purposes, for "what I can get out of this." Conversation is different. Although we each benefit individually from good conversation, we also discover that we are never as separate as we thought. Good conversation connects us at a deeper level. As we share our different human experiences, we rediscover a sense of unity. We remember we are part of a greater whole. And as an added joy, we also discover our collective wisdom. We suddenly see how wise we can be together.

For conversation to take us into this deeper realm, I believe we have to practice new behaviors. Here are the principles I've learned to emphasize before we begin a formal conversation process:

We acknowledge one another as equals. Conversation is an opportunity to meet together as peers, not as roles. What makes us equal is that we're human beings. A second thing that makes us equal is that we need each other. Whatever we know, it is not sufficient. We can't see enough of the whole. We can't figure it out alone. Somebody sees something that the rest of us might need.

We try to stay curious about one another. When we begin a conversation with this humility, it helps us be interested in who is there. Curiosity is a great help to good conversation. It's easier for us to tell our story, to share our dreams and fears, when we feel others are genuinely curious about us. Curiosity helps us discard our mask and let down our guard. It creates a spaciousness that is rare in other interactions. It takes time to create this space, but as we feel it growing, we speak more truthfully and the conversation moves into what's real.

When I'm in conversation, I try to maintain my curiosity by reminding myself that everyone here has something to teach me. When they're saying things I disagree with, or have never thought about, or that I consider foolish or wrong, I silently remind myself that they have something to teach me. Somehow, this little reminder helps me be more attentive and less judgmental. It helps me stay open to people, rather than shut them out.


the greatest barrier 
to good conversation is that 
we've lost the capacity to listen.


We recognize that we need each other's help to become better listeners. I think the greatest barrier to good conversation is that we've lost the capacity to listen. We're too busy, too certain, too stressed. We don't have time to listen. We just keep rushing past each other. This is true almost everywhere these days. One gift of conversation is that it helps us become good listeners again.

When I'm hosting a conversation, I ask everyone to listen as best they can, and to help each other listen better. We consciously agree on this as part of our purpose for being together. In making this agreement, we are acknowledging that it's hard work to learn how to listen, and that we're all struggling with it. If we talk about this at the start, it makes things easier. If someone hasn't been listening to us, or misinterpreted what we just said, we're less likely to blame that person. We can be a little gentler with the difficulties we experience as we try to become good listeners. And of course, we can't learn to become a good listener alone. We need each other if we are going to learn this skill. 


Listening is one of the requirements
for a good conversation.
Slowing down is the second.


We slow down so we have time to think and reflect. Listening is one of the requirements for a good conversation. Slowing down is the second. Most of us work in places where we don't have time to sit together and think. We rush in and out of meetings where we have hurried, not thoughtful, decisions. Conversation creates the conditions for us to rediscover the joys of thinking together. There are different techniques for slowing down the conversation. One, the talking piece, has been adapted from Native American tribal practice.

We remember that conversation is the natural way humans think together. In coversation we are remembering perhaps as much as we are learning. Human beings know how to talk to each other — we've been doing this ever since we developed language. We're not inventing conversation in the 21st century, we're reclaiming it from earlier human experience. Humberto Maturana, a wise Chilean biologist, believes that human beings developed language as they moved into family groups and wanted to be more intimate. Language gives us the means to know each other better. That's why we invented it.

Community members talk at the 2014 NIOT National Gathering in Billings, MT.

Community members share their experiences at the 2014 NIOT National Gathering in Billings, MT.


If you're hosting a conversation, you can rely on this history. We humans know how to do this. It does, however, take time to let go of our modern ways of being in meetings, to get past behaviors that keep us apart. We've cultivated a lot of bad behaviors when we're together — speaking too fast, interrupting others, monopolizing the time, giving speeches or pronouncements. Many of us have been rewarded for these behaviors. We've become more powerful through their use. But none of these lead to wise thinking or healthy relationships. They only drive us away from each other.


Life doesn't move 
in straight lines and 
neither does a good conversation.


We expect it to be messy at times. Because conversation is the natural way humans think together, it is, like all life, messy. 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. Everyone will speak from their own perspective. Thus, they won't say the same things, at all. It can feel as if you're watching a ping pong ball bouncing off a wall as the conversation veers from one topic to another. If you're hosting the conversation, you may feel responsible to draw connections between these diverse contributions (even when you don't see them).

It's important to let go of that impulse and just sit with the messiness. Each person's contribution adds a different element or spice to the whole, If we connect these too early, we lose the variety we need. If we look for superficial commonalities, we never discover the collective wisdom found in the depths. We have to be willing to listen, curious about the diversity of experiences and ideas. We don't have to make sense of it right away.

This messy stage doesn't last forever, although it can feel like that. But if we suppress the messiness at the beginning, it will find us later on, and it will be disruptive. Meaningful conversations depend on our willingness to forget about neat thoughts, clear categories, narrow roles. Messiness has its place. We need it anytime we want better thinking or richer relationships. The first stage is to try and listen well to whatever is being said. Eventually, we will be surprised by how much we share in common. The deeper order that unifies our experience will show itself, but only if we allow chaos early on.


The practice of conversation 
takes courage, faith and time.


The practice of conversation takes courage, faith and time. We don't get it right the first time, and we don't have to. We settle into conversation, we don't just do it. As we risk talking to each other about something we care about, as we become curious about each other, as we slow down, gradually we will 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 we have always done. 

Since 1966, Margaret Wheatley has worked globally in many different roles: a speaker, teacher, community worker, consultant, advisor, formal leader. From these deep and varied experiences, she has developed the unshakable conviction that leaders must learn how to evoke people’s inherent generosity, creativity, and need for community. 


Related Links

  • Tips for Holding a NIOT Screening — A screening of a Not In Our Town film can help you and your community open the dialogue about preventing hate and helping all people feel safe. Here are some helpful hints for coordinating your own screening or event. 

  • NIOT: Waking in Oak Creek Screening Kit — The Waking in Oak Creek Screening Kit gives community groups, law enforcement, faith leaders, and educators resources for showing the film and opening the conversation about extremism, religious intolerance and how to prevent these acts of violence. 

  • NIOT Video Portal — Browse trailers and clips from over 200 videos produced by NIOT, purchase a DVD and screening guide or visit our YouTube channel

  • Videos by Category — In addition to the original Not In Our Town story, our site features a collection of other videos that might be effective in your community. 

  • About NIOT — Learn more about what we do and all the ways you can get involved with the NIOT movement.

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