Conversation Skills You Needed Yesterday

by: EJ on 12/06/2012
Posted in: Community

Today's preparedness post comes to us from Cecile Andrews, author of Slow is Beautiful: New Visions of Community, Leisure, and Joie de Vivre; Less is More: Embracing Simplicity for a Healthy Planet, a Caring Economy and Lasting Happiness with Wanda Urbanska, and the upcoming Living Room Revolution: A Handbook for Conversation, Community and the Common Good.

No one knows better than Cecile that communication is critical to successfully pursuing a sustainable lifestyle, and yet it may be the one skill that we are most lacking. In this post, she leads us through four key components of real conversation.

Sometimes you come across a piece of information that just blows you away. Robert Putnam, in his book, Bowling Alone, says that if you are not in a group now, and you join one, you will cut  your chance of dying this year by fifty percent!

Of course maybe your chance of dying was really low anyway, but the percentages do seem to be going up for all of  us, what with climate change and weather disasters. But whatever, the research shows that the importance of social ties is huge! Social ties are the biggest factor in health and happiness for societies as well as individuals. (For instance, wealth inequality is the biggest predictor for declining longevity because it destroys social cohesion.) So, if there any skills we need, it’s social skills! In particular, conversation skills. It’s pretty hard to relate to people if you can’t talk with them. And obviously we have to talk together in a disaster. So why not learn conversation skills now  and maybe we can even avert some disasters. There are four aspects of conversation skills we need to learn: to be proactive, positive, collaborative, and egalitarian.


You need to learn to be shameless. Talk with everyone, everywhere, all the time. You be the one who says hello,  who introduces yourself at a party, who turns and starts a conversation at the bus stop. Yes, even bus stop conversations are apparently good for you! The book Consequential Strangers by Melinda Blau shows that casual conversation not  only boosts the individual’s morale, it creates a community where people feel like they belong! Good for the citizen and good for the democracy. So start reaching out.



I hate mentioning the word positive, because it sounds like we just want people to go around with a smiley face ignoring all the problems and injustices. But it’s become pretty clear that you don’t change things by complaining all the time. John Gottman of the University of Washington, an expert on relationships. says that we need to avoid a “crabby habit of mind.” It’s easy to get started complaining because there are so many things wrong. But I’ve  learned to say to my husband, when he starts on one of his familiar rants, “Rant #24! Duly noted! No need to continue!” Instead of talking about what’s wrong — which we all know anyway— tell stories about what’s going right — people tackling the problems. It’s inspiring and more interesting and you won’t turn into an old crank.



The most basic skill we need to learn is to work together. Conversation is a perfect place to practice this. Just  remember that conversation is a barn raising, not a battle. Of course we’ve been taught that everything is a  competition and that we always need to win. Even in our daily conversations we try to prove we were right! (You did leave the milk out last night!) When you have a good conversation you affirm what the other person says; you listen with fascinated interest; and respond with something like “ I know what you mean! “That happened to me too!” “I agree!” “That’s an interesting point!” Too often people argue, and sometimes even attack in anger! No,   conversation must be collaborative -- you’re working together to make connection, explore a new idea, or make a decision. Conviviality is one of our most important gifts.



Earlier I said that wealth inequality destroyed social cohesion. Any kind of inequality does that. We just don’t feel comfortable with status difference. But they’re present in our society anyway. We can’t avoid them, but we can learn to resist them. What we need to do is learn to act equal, to create opportunities where people can experience being equal. Places where we don’t show deference or subservience. Where we don’t put someone else down or be dismissive. Where we make sure everyone has an equal time to talk. Whenever you can, create opportunities for people to experience being an equal. Have lots of potlucks! Or garden together. Or sing together. Anything where the status differences can disappear as people get together.


In fact, if you’re an activist or in an organization, give people the opportunity to practice all these social skills: being proactive, positive, collaborative, and equal. Set up lots of events and always make sure that people introduce themselves and get a chance to talk together and have convivial, congenial conversations instead of competitive discussions. You’re whetting people’s interest in being an equal among many and to understand the value of conversation. In particular, set up community conversations or study circles. These are ways we can structure conversations that make sure people enjoy themselves, get to know each other, collaborate, and experience being equals. (For information on these, contact me at cecile [at] cecileandrews [dot] com).

For yourself, make sure you’re in a group. You’ll not only have a chance to live longer, you’ll be happier. Denmark has been rated the happiest country in the world and 95% of its citizens are in some kind of group. So it doesn’t matter if it’s the Sierra Club, a turtle group, or a ukulele group. Anything will do. Just make sure it encourages conversation. No more evenings in a group where you sit silent. Drop out of that one and join another one or start your own. Any place you can have good conversations!

 Don’t forget that John Dewey said that “Democracy was born in Conversation.”


Links to the rest of the series:

Day One: It's the End of the World as we Know it...or is it?

Day Two: It'll all turn out in the end.  Or will it?

Day Three: Collecting Rainwater

Day Four: Building Awareness of your Surroundings

Day Five: The Beginning of the Gaian Calendar







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