Welcome to this symposium on the power of conversation to enhance our social and cultural well-being; to strengthen our capacity to achieve worthy goals in organizational, professional, and civic life; and “to advance our understanding of the power of conversation as both a personal and a public good.”
“The power of conversation.” Look it up and you will find numerous references: Amazon – listed books on power and peace; leadership and management by walking around; as well as salons for art and politics as illustrated by the exhibit of the same name organized by the Jewish Museum and “The City of Conversation” in theater.
I think of the “Camp Ritchie Boys,” Jewish immigrant soldiers in the U.S. Army assigned to interrogate German officers captured and sent to Camp Ritchie in Maryland. Unlike the failures of interrogation in Guantonimo, they used chess and conversation to gain essential intelligence in World War II.
Now hear Shakespeare:
Conversation should be pleasant without scurrility, witty without affectations, free without indecency, learned without conceitedness, novel without falsehoods.
Talk about pressure!
When I consider conversation, I think about listening carefully as well as speaking clearly; watching intently so as not miss nuance as well as to acknowledge my partner; affirming what I hear so as to be certain I understand. Conversation requires memory as well as comprehension.
Ernest Hemingway said: “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”
We all have experienced someone who is so busy thinking of a rebuttal that his or her comment is no longer germane.
We also have probably experienced this scene, which I saw portrayed in a theatrical drama but put in my own words: Figuratively pressed against the wall, he said what he thought you wanted to hear, and you heard what you wanted to confirm.
No listening there!
Conversations can take place with two or twenty, and often more. They take place at home, in the office, at play, and at prayer – but, we hope, not during a play. Often, when talking about the art of conversation, we hear about the shouting on Talk Radio and the preoccupation with devices – even at the dinner table.
When I think about the divisiveness in politics, I am reminded that conversation is necessary for honest compromise and that such compromise of position without a concomitant compromise of principles is necessary for democratic progress.
As an educator, I have always thought about academic advising as a time for conversations about learning and life.
I meet with students, faculty, and staff in small group sessions, public events, and at casual encounters. On these occasions, I almost always ask, “How is it going?” “ What do you like about Adelphi?” “ What do you wish we had changed last week?” I am often surprised by what I learn— and then ask a vice president why we do or don’t do something. Conversations with those on and off campus, whether donors or employers, lead to personal awareness and often to needed action.
Each spring, a group on campus selects a book we all, including new students, should read over the summer for discussions, i.e., conversations, in the fall. We often invite the author to engage in these conversations following or preceding a lecture.
We also encourage conversations about the curriculum and student learning. Every meeting to raise funds is a conversation about the students, faculty, and staff who make the campus live.
Our goal today is to develop an approach to an action agenda for a renaissance of conversation in each of our worlds as well as in the world we share. So be pleasant, witty, free, learned, novel—and listen.
Be open. Be as the Japanese graphic designer and curator says he is:
I don’t launch a message at my viewers but
instead provide an empty vessel. In turn, I expect
them to deposit something there, their own messages
or images. This is an important aspect of communication,
accepting what the other has to say.1
Invited address, Columbia University, Symposium on “The Power of Conversation,”
Co-sponsored by The Columbia University Seminar on Innovation in Education;
The Columbia University Seminar on Ethics, Moral Education, and Society;
The Center for Health Innovation, Adelphi University; and Conversations New York, July 10, 2014.
1Hara, Kenya. Quoted by Sara Bader in The Designer Says, Princeton Architectural Press, 2013, p. 136.