Let’s Talk About It

“Let’s talk about it.” Unfortunately, these four little words are capable these days to create a significant amount of nervousness, anxiety, suspicion and outright resistance. The ‘it’ in this suggestion doesn’t much matter…the response seems to have become almost Pavlovian. When it comes to public issues, however, our ‘conditioned’ resistance is immediate and strong. It’s very disturbing to me that, when we need more conversations on our increasingly complex and inter-connected public issues, we seem less and less likely to talk with anyone about anything.

For almost a year now, I’ve been working on a project of the California Center for the Book as the primary researcher and writer of an issue guide for conversations on California water priorities and choices. Now that the issue guide is published, we’re working with libraries around the state to convene small groups for this important discussion. Unfortunately, we’re finding that some counties feel the topic is just too controversial to approach at all, even in a totally non-partisan conversation where all voices are respected and valued equally. One county appears to be ready to sponsor a local conversation as long as we can provide a “moderator who can keep the small crowd away from becoming upset.”

Over the past weekend, President Obama spoke at the commencement ceremonies for the University of Notre Dame. There was, of course, a vocal controversy at the event and across the media, concerning the abortion issue. In my opinion, he addressed the most important part of the issue…the need for more conversation on the topic with “open hearts, open minds, and fair-minded words.” For too long, both ‘belief’ extremes in this issue have clung to their assumptions about ‘others’ views and their own dogmatic certainty, making meaningful conversations impossible.

“Let’s talk about it.” If you spend a few minutes with your favorite search-engine, you can find that our inadequacies in conversation skills are well documented…and numerous suggestions are offered in retraining us. “Critical conversations” are discussions between at least two people in which the stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong. “Crucial conversations” are interpersonal exchanges at work or at home that we dread having but know we cannot avoid. “Difficult conversations” involve especially sticky situations–and we know these encounters will be uncomfortable. “Fierce conversations” require gentle honesty, a willingness to listen, and enough time to make an impact. “Essential conversations” reconnect parents and teachers in healthy ways. Books are being written…consultants are being paid…training sessions are being organized. Holy cats!

We don’t know how to talk with each other any longer about what really matters to us!In the age of Twitter and Facebook and texting, the art of personal and small-group conversation might seem to be passé. Our increasingly complex dilemmas and problems, however, will never adequately be understood or solved without a revival of conversation. I know it’s scary! I know most of us would almost prefer to have a root canal! Be brave! It doesn’t really matter what the ‘it’ might be. Start anywhere…there aren’t any wrong topics as we learn and teach the art of conversation. “Let’s talk about it.”

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