Conversations for a learning society

“People don’t know they count in such a malordered, destabilized world, don’t know they are of value. A healthy global civilization cannot be constructed without building blocks of meaning, which are hewn of rights and respect,” says writer and environmental activist Paul Hawken. Isn’t it essential for people to know that they count, that they are of value, that they are directly or indirectly connected to the billions of other souls on this planet?

Much has been written in recent years about increased alienation, apathy, and the drive for individualism in North American society.  Plugged up with iPod earbuds, insulated in our cars, alone in front of our laptops or TVs, is it any wonder if we’re apathetic, alienated and all alone? Our dependence on digital connectivity crept up on us as a society, but it has greatly affected our ability to connect with others in a meaningful way as we stay in touch at arm’s length.

We’ve become a society of highly-specialized experts, believing that we somehow need a PhD (or at least to have written a few books) for our opinions to have value, for our lived experience and perception of the world to matter. We feel more secure in regurgitating a professional soundbite than in formulating our own thoughts.  We draw on facts and statistics, and forget that this information is created by human beings, just like us, doing the best they can with the knowledge they have.

It is not easy for each of us to engage, to feel connected, to understand the “malordered, destabilized world”. Many of us ask ourselves: “What can I do? Where do I start? Who should I talk to? How can I understand what is going on? Why should I even care?” Instead of renting our opinions from so-called experts, could we not give ourselves permission to engage with complex information, struggle with dissenting views and help each other come up with our own response? A very old-fashioned concept called “conversation” can help us figure out how.

Conversations are possibly one of the most effective ways in which we can learn, connect with others, and find meaning. Often it is the informal conversations in our life, rather than the structured formality of the classroom, top stories on the 6 o’clock news, or 30-second soundbites from experts, which teach us key lessons about  the world. For most of us, conversations are at the heart of our relationships. They are the primary way with which we communicate and relate to friends, family, and even strangers on the bus.

Our familiarity with “conversation” as part of the everyday also means that its potential and power is often overlooked as a learning tool or community-building exercise. We need to reclaim the simple conversation as a valuable way of fostering learning, critical thinking, participation and belonging.

By its very nature a conversation is a relaxed, casual interaction between more than one person: a back and forth exchange of words with no single person dominating and where ideas can take many different orbits and trajectories. A truly engaging and respectful conversation is an opportunity to create something anew: a new idea, a new perspective, a new understanding – something that helps our lives, or indeed, our communities, succeed.

The ideal conversation involves thought-provoking topics and eager and attentive participants. It has enough room for reflections, questions, opinions, half-formed thoughts and the occasional silence. The ideas will flow and build upon each other, new connections will be made, contentious comments or tense moments will rise and then fall away as we actively seek to understand each other, rather than be right. There will be room for awkwardly-phrased sentences, the proverbial “stupid” question, and hypothetical wonderings – all in an atmosphere of respect and inclusivity. The air will be heavy with thoughtfulness. In a really, really good conversation, we will be thinking about the topic, what we heard, what we said, and what we learnt for days to come. An excellent conversation will inspire positive change, change in thinking, change in habits, and bring about some form of action: a true ripple effect.

Maybe we need to get used to the idea that our conversations have value, that they are legitimate ways of learning, and that we don’t need to be an expert to have an opinion. Maybe we need to be patient with ourselves as we discover or re-discover what it means to engage in a conversation. Maybe we need to give ourselves permission to struggle with what we think, to challenge what we are told and to pave our own way.  Maybe we need to remember that the most profound way of learning is available to each and every one of us. It is as close as the nearest person. Your boyfriend, girlfriend, mother, brother, the cranky person sitting next to you on the bus, the teenage boy who bags your groceries, your pal’s three-year-old daughter, your 97 year-old neighbour, or the folks gathered in your local café all have a point-of-viewing different from each of ours, and each interaction holds the potential for a life-changing conversation – if we only took the risk to dig a little deeper.

This article originally appeared in the 2009 edition of the Green Consciousness Guide.

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