Over the past year, I’ve been hosting a series of Unhurried Conversations. Here are a few reflections on what I’ve learned.
I came up with the idea with my friend Antony Quinn. We both really like the idea of practicing an unhurried approach to things. Originally, we applied it to improv theatre, which we both dabble in from time to time. When improv becomes manic, it seems to lead to absurd scenes of marshmallow motorbikes. When the pace is right, things connect and wonderful things emerge spontaneously.
When things are unhurried, we don’t necessarily go slow, but we create enough space for connection to happen. So our aim with our series of unhurried conversations has been to do that. We’ve hosted a dozen or so in Cambridge, and a couple in London.
We invite up to 12 people via MeetUp. We don’t specify a topic, rather letting people talk about whatever they want. Apart from briefly describing our idea, we use one very simple device to support the conversation.
It’s a talking piece. We pick an object and whoever holds it gets to talk. And everyone else listens. Which means the speaker won’t get interrupted. (And I add that you can hold the object and not speak… you can hold silence until you’re ready to speak.)
Some people using talking pieces like to use some deeply significant object with a history of use. We deliberately go for something mundane, like a sugar bowl. We don’t want to create too much reverence, especially for an object. It can become a bit portentous and create a pressure on people to be “deep”.
In fact, the longer we’ve run the process, the less I worry about whether the experience is deep or not. The conversations often move between light topics and more personal and profound ones. And in the end, I often find that all these are connected.
For instance, in one conversation, someone started by saying he liked the design of the teapot. On the face of it, small talk and trivial. But it led to a series of thoughts about design, and in the end to a whole series of observations about how our humanity is or isn’t supported by our work and organisations. In the end, we find depth without trying.
And trying to be deep can lead to all sorts of dead ends and frustrations.
There are sometimes concerns expressed at the start of the process. “What if someone grabs the bowl and talks for an hour about politics I don’t agree with?” Well, I have to say that has never actually happened. But I’d be relaxed even if it did. When people talk for a long time we have lots of choices about how to respond. We could, if we liked, see it as a kind of Alan Bennett monologue.
(One of our regular participants described our conversations as Pinteresque. He meant it as a compliment.)
In fact, what we find is that by suppressing interruptions we actually support greater succinctness of expression. When people know they aren’t going to be interrupted, they worry less and think, and express themselves, more clearly. Also, when people really feel listened to, it seems to increase their focus and the sense that their speech has meaning. They can slow down, and they tend not to repeat themselves.
Sometimes there are long silences, sometimes not. The silences are always fascinating. People worry about not being able to get a word in edgewise, and then we find no one speaks for quite long chunks of time.
I think in those silences we become aware of more connections that exist between us than appear in everyday conversations. That awareness can be a bit uncomfortable at first, but then it can be truly companionable.
After lots of these conversations, I am appreciating more and more how surprising people can be, given a bit of space to think and express themselves. Conversations are rich and complex, with much less of the battling for attention we often experience.
I love processes that are simple, but which stimulate human complexity. I think we need more of that. And less of the overelaborate and complicated ways we sometimes try to make things efficient. Simple devices promote complexity; complicated ones often squash it.