The almost lost art of conversation, finding common ground and communicating with kindness

December 12, 2020
Dianah Walter

I had lost track of time paddling around in my sanctuary this particular late Spring evening.  The tide and increasing wind vied for my attention as the Sun tumbled effortlessly towards the horizon.  The oars dug into the cool, emerald green water as I changed course and headed towards shore.

Nearing the first intertidal sandbar and the shallows beyond, I altered course again to where I had wet my feet wet an hour, or maybe more, earlier.  I retrieved my kayak, its belly salty and dripping, and deftly bundled it onto its cradle. 

As I laboured to drag my kayak along the beach, the damp trolly wheels encrusted with sand and seaweed grabbing at beach beneath, I noticed my near neighbours walking towards me. 

This couple, husband and wife of more than half a century, are delightfully unassuming and ever-so skilful in the art of conversation.  We greet each other with a warm hello and remark about the weather.  They help me lift the trolly and its burden off the sand and onto the boardwalk – a task best shared. I am grateful for their assistance, admitting to my ‘paddling fatigue’.

We stopped at the top of the short boardwalk and chatted about the past week’s events.  We agreed how blessed we are to be living in this place and pondered the state of the nation.   The conversation flowed, family, life, work, COVID.  Each of us listening, leaning in, nodding and sometimes lightly prodding for more detail when clarification was sought. 

During the conversation there was a moment in which a most powerful sentence was spoken.  My dignified and distinguished neighbour, quietly spoken and ever so respectful, uttered these words, “You know, when my father had a problem he wanted to talk about, he simply picked up the phone to Tom” – Tom? I enquired, “Tom Playford” he said evenly. To be clear, not every problem, just the ones that he felt had the potential to impact more than just a few, his community.

He continued; I wish our current leaders would ‘simply talk about things’…. ‘none of this letter writing stuff’…and ‘why do they have the need to publish the letters?  His, was a rhetorical question.

This fascinating conversation ducked and weaved from years gone by to present day.  To people and politics, communities and caring and what the future might hold for our children, their grandchildren and maybe one day mine. 

Time, as it does in these moments, moved too quickly and as dusk fell around us, we cordially agreed to catch-up again soon and headed to the comfort and sanctuary of our respective homes nearby. 

Usually, the salty air and physical exertion of kayaking calms and soothes me, mind, body and soul.  Tonight though, I could not calm my mind and I wondered how things might be if the art of conversation, respectful conversation, was to be applied more lavishly these days, especially in the process of decision making. 

I thought about the elements of a conversation.  How one seeks information and how one gives. How one muses, asserts, proposes, supports, and summarises.  How one is inclusive, how one listens, truly listens; and how one tests understanding and nuance.  Importantly, how one adds to ideas and works collaboratively to broker solutions.

My thoughts then turned to the adversarial nature of our legislators and leaders.  The self-promotion, self-interest, exclusion of others, avoidance, refusal to listen or consider an opposing view.  The attack, personal or otherwise the defending of actions, often when there is no defence and the barries and blocks deliberately or unconsciously put in the way of finding common ground.

I thought about the last time I had had a conversation without the other party, admittedly sometimes me, did not break eye contact or lose track of the conversation to check their mobile device, respond to a call or message.  Sadly, those instances are few and far between. 

What has happened to the days of looking someone in the eye, making a human connection?  It is bad enough that COVID has all but robbed us of the connection of a handshake, a hug, a kiss but what of the conversations which would usually ensue?

Do our legislators, of differing colours, still sit across from one another, aside from when in their their House or Council, and attempt to nut out bi-partisan or multi partisan solutions to problems that effect their collective constituency?  

Do they rise from their seats, electorate or otherwise, and knock on the door of a fellow MP as seek counsel?   Do they admit they do not have all the answers and look to share the burden of issues that will likely live beyond their terms?

If they do, tells us about it.

Do not tell us about the letter you have written, published via mainstream media, and your strong opposition to or resistance to a plan, project of blueprint. Offer up your middle ground, common ground, your solutions.

It is a sign of strength, not weakness, to collaborate and cooperate on issues so much bigger than them, their party, or their personal view. 

A problem shared, it is said, is a problem halved.  A solution brokered, with the collaboration and support of others, is also far more likely to succeed.

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