Conversation Circles: Taking Time to Talk

This year I've been working with a group of college students. They're taking a course called Transformative Action and they have placements in community activities like Habitat for Humanity or the Sierra Club -- groups contributing to the welfare of the community.

Their placement with me is a little different. We've come together to talk about happiness and higher education. It appears that depression is rising among college freshman – the highest it's ever been. We're asking why and what can be done.

But, you might ask, how does this contribute to community welfare? Why should we care if college students are happy? Well, there are a few reasons: happy people are more likely to vote, to get involved in civic engagement, to care more about the environment, and to be better parents ...among other things.

And just bringing students together to talk makes them happier! Why? Research shows that the chief element in happiness is connection with other people –

something that has been on the decline in this country. And talking together has always been one of the basic ways we come together. In fact, conversation among students is declining.

And what we talk about matters. I look at stories in the news and ask the students about them – things like stories about drugs and campus life. One young woman told her story about trying to get free of smoking too much marijuana. I saw stories in the paper about date rape and asked them about sexual assault issues, and they all had stories. I asked them about social media and they talked about being unable to break away from it. (Thus illustrating MIT's Sherry Turkle's thesis in her book, Alone Together.)

Recently we talked about their career plans and at the end of the evening I thought, "Oh my God, this is so important! These kids really need to talk!"

They're learning to talk to each other! They're connecting with each other. They're expanding each other! You can feel the energy in the room rise!

At the same time, this quarter I've been holding a conversation circle called The Making of an Elder Culture, and certainly everyone recognizes the importance of connection with others as we grow older – too many elders find themselves isolated and cut off from others.

Again, some might say, "A waste of time." We're Americans, we're doers, not talkers.

But Socrates wouldn't have seen it as a waste of time; nor would participants in the salons before the French Revolution; nor the women's consciousness-raising groups in the early days of our modern feminism.

The ultimate example of transformative conversation occurring is at a place called Highlander – an educational center that Rosa Parks credited with preparing her for her historic action. Highlander's belief: bring people together to talk and they can change history.

And of course we always remember Margaret Mead's words: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

A Special Kind of Conversation:

So do these conversation circles require a special kind of conversation? In my work with conversation circles, we do have a major focus – linguist Deborah Tannen has called us an "argument culture." We always see everything as a contest and we want to win. We know how venomous interchanges are in our culture! But conversations must be a barn raising, not a battle. It's something we all need to learn.

Over the years I've led many conversation circles – on topics like voluntary simplicity, on the sharing society, on building community. Subjects that allow people to make positive changes in their own lives as well as affecting public policy.

But essentially, the circles can be about anything. The focus is on connection, reflection, and action. Connecting with each other, reflecting together, and of course, the ultimate goal is action – working for personal and public well-being. We must help people develop congenial ways of making a difference; we must help people learn to act without violence or venom.

To act collaboratively, we must have reflection. We don't reflect in our society. But historian Mary Beard said, "Study without action is futile, but action without study is fatal."

The focus is on understanding societal problems by examining our own lives, not just learning from experts; we tell our own stories and discover how much we have in common with each other. When we tell our stories, we evoke "empathy." We learn to respond with compassion, a value that is spreading around the world.

I always start these groups intending for them to last a few months, but they often continue for years.

Why? Because conversation circles bring caring, belonging, and meaning to people's lives – all necessary for happiness.

Conversation circles are so basic, yet so important – as the American philosopher John Dewey said, "Democracy is born in Conversation, and democracy is the highest form of conversation there is."

It's vital that we begin to take time to talk!