Great Conversations

The other day I noticed I was feeling really good. What had I done?

Not that I live in perpetual darkness, but let’s just say I’m continually acculturating to joy — when she does a two-step in my heart I like to backtrack just to see what I have done to beckon her arrival.

In this case, it was a great conversation — not with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years but with someone I interact with almost every day. A spontaneous chat turned into a talk that turned into a joy-generating exchange.

What distinguished this particular conversation from the dozens of others I had had that day? I think it was that both of us ended up at a destination neither of us had planned for. Instead of trading quick, static snapshots from our minds, we broadened each other’s views. My experience rolled around with his experience and a universal lesson was born. Heads started to nod, gesticulations became more animated, phrases like “yes! yes!” and “you’re exactly right!” peppered the air. Conversations like these generate the excitement of travel, really, because both people have moved from their point of origin to a new locale where the view is stunning.

I love it when there is a constellation of good conversations. There’s nothing like a dinner party where deep talk clinks across the room. Such moments are in fact what I seek at social gatherings; when small talk reigns, it feels like a shell hardened around the nuggets I want to get to. Why am I even here? I wonder to myself as I bump my head into perfunctory pleasantries. When I have a series of real conversations, on the other hand, I am enlivened by the gathering and the feeling inside lingers long after I’ve returned home. My answer to “Did you have fun at the party?” depends entirely on the conversations I did or didn’t have.

The key ingredient seems to be vulnerability and candor. Sometimes when I’m stuck on the surface with someone, I think, C’mon. Just throw me a few scraps. Dig in and bring up a chunk of your truth. I’m not talking about gushing with all of one’s messy particulars, but good conversation inherently involves risk-taking. What’s worse than being the provocateur while your potential conspirator moves her lips without opening her heart? I feel exposed in these moments — the guy who says too much. But I push forward with the hope that my vulnerability will invite that in the other, and that we will relish the intimacy this brings.

At a party you won’t often find me at the center of the room; I’m more likely standing in some dimly lit corner, trying to engage in what the Sufis call sohbet: a mystical conversation on a mystical subject. The Nigerian writer Ben Okri once wrote that “you can travel the world and still not move an inch.” I’ll stay there all night long if the road to somewhere keeps opening up.

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