Conversations and Story-Telling

 

My eighty-two-year old neighbor hasn’t been able to walk his dog since he fell off his bike and injured his shoulder. His dog is strong and energetic, and his balance isn’t as good as it once was. We worked out an arrangement where I hold the leash, and the three of us walk together. He’s there to give his dog commands as needed and pull occasional thorns out of her paws, and I’m there for a steady grip and good balance. One reason I offered to do this is because I knew we’d have great conversations. In an hour-long walk, we never ran out of interesting topics. With eighty-two years of engaged, thoughtful life plus a great sense of humor, my neighbor is a delightful story-teller, and I was happy to prompt him to keep going.

At a popular fishing spot on the curve of the Rio Grande, we ran into another gentleman of advanced years with his dog, and the men immediately struck up a conversation about fishing, dogs, and various other things. Normal T or C behavior—talking to strangers.

Later in the day, I went out to dinner with a friend, and when the server came to check if we were okay, since our meals hadn’t arrived yet, we’d been so busy getting caught up with each other we hadn’t noticed the kitchen was a bit slow. A young couple came in and was seated across the room from us. I had a view of them in profile, each hunched over a phone, heads bowed, making no eye contact and no conversation. They looked like a satire on smart-phone addicts. I wondered about the state of their relationship. First date and painfully shy? Together too long and bored? Or was this, to them, normal?

Maybe they’ll stay in T or C a while and put the phones down. I’ve seen local young people doing things like skateboarding the wrong way down the middle of Broadway, earbuds hanging loose and blasting music to passersby (I can use that for one of my characters—Misty Chino would do that), but so far I’ve never seen them doing the blind-to-the world phone-walk my college students so often did. I imagine the young tourists, phone-walking, bumping up against a cluster of locals yakking on the sidewalk with someone who pulled a truck over to the curb to join the conversation. And the couple makes eye contact with the strangers. They answer friendly questions and tell their stories, and go on their way, talking with each other.

 

 

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Dialogue and Discomfort

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This isn’t about writing dialogue in fiction, although it’s related in a way. In fiction, an author has to sustain conflict. In real life, we have to resolve it. Keeping the drama up can be engaging for readers, but it can be destructive when people actually need to hear each other. Contrived and exaggerated conflict is the meat of reality TV, but that’s not reality. And we’re not on TV.

My college, like many across the country, has a Dialogue Club. Students are trained to facilitate conversations on difficult topics. These conversations give students a method for expressing their experiences, opinions and feelings without attacking, blaming or accusing. The participants learn to listen without arguing back. The purpose is not to persuade anyone, but simply to understand each other.

I had already planned a Dialogue Club activity in my freshman seminar this week, and the timing was right. We talked about the topics my students had chosen in advance: Black Lives Matter, and athletes who kneel during the national anthem. And then, once we had practiced our skills in civil discourse, I asked if they would be willing to share their thoughts on the election in the same way. They did. It was amazing. My class found this dialogue process valuable enough that they want to do it every week. This is so promising, I’ve volunteered to part of an upcoming campus-wide dialogue about the election results.

The origin of dialogue clubs, to my knowledge, is with a group of women in Massachusetts who had pro-life and pro-choice views and were tired of the anger and even violence that had arisen in disagreements about abortion rights. Their purpose was to hear each other, and they found that there were not just two sides. If there were ten people in the room, there might be ten sides to the issue. Venting to our like-minded friends is a relief, of course, and we all need to do that. But then, we need to move out of our comfort zones, our echo chambers. Reducing our stress often begins with raising it—by doing what makes us uncomfortable. Getting involved in anything controversial (in a role other than audience) can make most people uncomfortable, unless they are the type that thrives on conflict. The rest of us need to be as engaged, or even more so, than the people who enjoy being angry.

Dialogue clubs have been used not only on college campuses. They have been effective working through national conflicts, in places like Rwanda. Talk doesn’t replace action, of course. What it does is do is give people the courage to become part of the public conversation, the first step toward peaceful, constructive action.