Renewing Conversation

In the end, our world falls apart one conversation at a time, each misunderstanding playing its small but mighty role in the downfall. We can trace its descent. Each failure to be heard leads to another degree of separation. Our mental and emotional retreat gains momentum, and eventually we abandon hope of being understood. We drift apart, became strangers, jump ship and otherwise lose our way.

If it’s not happening to you, it’s happening to someone close by.

How else to explain the long list of married friends paying a counselor to help put the pieces back together—to strengthen the core—rather than spending that same money on a fun night out together? Why go to therapy when you can go on a date? As much as I value counseling and good conversation, something is wrong with this picture.

The need to be heard by the person we love is great. When did we lose our ability to listen well? To speak and be understood? To connect through conversation?

Marriages aren’t the only institutions enduring the pain of feeling ignored and neglected. People are faltering on many fronts. The chair of my volunteer committee whispers her way through the agenda these days. She’s barely awake, never mind alert and attuned to the dynamics around the table. She is not alone. My in-box is full of unending pleas for organizational support from every quarter. Churches split and lovers part. Projects fail and houses foreclose. In each case, someone failed to watch the signs and respond: to listen well.

There is a famine of inner resources. The well has run dry.

Our capacity to offer another person or project our undivided attention is dangerously low. WITNESS: I spotted only one person wearing a wedding ring in a jam-packed Pediatric Emergency Room on the weekend. I was there for four hours. That’s a lot of tired, semi-attached, courageous parents holding it together through a long night with a sick kid. But it’s a good picture of the deep need for companionship we are facing (largely alone). The need is large and we are tapped. Where do we go from here? Where does our help come from in this moment of profound disappointment and burn out?

While marriages, relationships and organizations are clearly feeling overwhelmed, pulling together instead of apart is still our best hope for survival. For better or for worse, the quality of our interpersonal communication affects everything and everyone.

We need to offer each other that last remaining thread of hope for the future: the desire (if not yet full capacity) to connect. To listen to another person: to hear the well has run dry; the heart is barely holding on and that time is short and the need is great. We need to hear each other.

We also need to hear God, the Great Listener of our Lives, but that might be further down the road…

For now, good conversation—speaking from the heart and listening with the intent to hear—means we take turns filling our relational cups. As we grow to appreciate each other, we close the gaps between us. We cross the distance. Replenish the well. Restock the cupboard. Invest in the future. Hope. For survival.

When we feel heard, we feel loved. We take courage, dig deeper and speak more. The more attuned our listener, the more we share of who we are and what we value. Good communication is a virtuous, life-giving cycle.

To speak and be heard. This is the essence of good conversation, and, I would suggest, hints at the missing power in our lives. Mutual understanding: the slow-to-set relational glue to mend our fractured collective existence. Here’s to making the world a better place—one conversation at a time.