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Wonder-Talk: How to Open Up Instead of Size Up

In conversation, wonder arises in the space between two people

Wonder appears easily among aspen groves and waterfalls, but enter a social situation, and you might call out, Wonder, O Wonder, where did thou go? When talking with other people, I used to ball up and struggle to listen. Later, once confident, I became obnoxious as if my mother had taught me no Southern graces. In both cases, my mind was busy, my heart closed, and my spirit depleted. I've worked through some of that stuff.

Conversations, it turns out, can become moments of discovery and wonder.

In fact, talking correlates with happiness. Kristin Vukovic Psychology Today (June 2010) recently cited Matthais Mehl's study of conversation reported in Psychological Science this March. Over four days, Mehl and his team used unobtrusive recording technology to "eavesdrop" on participants. After correlating the types of conversations with participants' personality types and levels of happiness, Mehld concludes that happier participants spend 70% more time talking than unhappy participants and that they spend more time having substantial conversations.

Oh, the hunger for substantial conversations! I aspire for something like a mix among Plato's seminars, My Dinner with Andre, and the two innocent kids staring up at the stars in My Life as a Dog. That is, a true conversation might focus on stimulating topics and be rife with questions, surprising disclosures, and wide-eyed wonder.

Wondrous conversations are like two people volleying a balloon back and forth. You don't know exactly how your words will fly or what will come next, but your focus is more on keeping the balloon afloat and not on yourself. How do we keep the balloon in the air?

Here are three types of "volleyers" who are assured balloon busters.

The Narcissist - The narcissist steals the balloon and tries to do tricks with it and won't give it back. The narcissist speaks to show off, to brag, or to prattle endlessly about his own thoughts and problems. This balloon reminds me of how I once theorized about helium...

The Utilitarian - The utilitarian grows frustrated with the balloon because it's inefficient. The utilitarian wants something from you and speaks to you to get it, nothing more. Who has time for balloons?

The Combatant - The combatant would rather play dodge ball than volley ball. Accustomed to debate or punditry, the combatant speaks to compete and defeat. A needle in your balloon!

These traits lead to what philosopher Martin Buber calls I-It relationships. In an I-It relationship, you treat another person as an object to be used. You speak to that person for your own purposes. (I've been and can be all three of these.)

Shortly after World War I, Buber learned the hard way that he was such a person and committed much of the rest of his life to cultivating what he would later call I-Thou relationships. In I-Thou relationships, you value another person not for what she gives you but simply because she is another human being worthy of value.

Something special happens between two such people, Buber says. Maybe you've been lost in rich conversation when you fell in love with someone. The two of you danced in talk, staying up way past midnight musing about quantum physics, Mad Men, and families. Or maybe "something special" happened with a stranger, say, on an airplane. The two of you have nowhere to go, so to speak, so you both open up and see where your words take you. You might feel especially receptive since you have nothing to lose with this person whom you'll likely never see again.

What happens in such relationships, Buber says, does not happen within either person; it happens in the "between" space. That is, something is created in the exchange itself, between two people and outside of each person.

In true conversation, wonder arises in the space between two people.

How can we cultivate that space between? These three tips might help when on the receiving end of a good volley:

Open up. Don't size up. We Westerners size up things more so than other people. That's in part what University of Michigan psychologist Richard Nisbett's research has demonstrated (The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why. New York: The Free Press, 2003). Our Western culture encourages our minds to size up, box in, and categorize people and situations more automatically than Asians. We automatically experience the world in terms of objects instead of relationships.

Whether you agree or not, you've probably noticed that when in social situations and dialogue, your mind can race with automatic signals of figuring out even judging the other person - or, worse, yourself. When in conversation, repeat to your mind, "Open up. Don't size up." See what happens. You can use your internal language center as a way to shift the mind's focus, which in turn can affect your emotions positively. Many of the other tips are variations on this theme.

Listen with your whole body. It's a tip I've taken from my background in Zen and Yoga. When someone speaks to you, drop your focus to your gut or even to your hands and feet. Just shifting the mind's focus quiets the automatic analytic processor.

View the person as divine or on the death bed. Both of these practices come from two poems by the Sufi poet Hafiz. One poem says in essence since every person is God, why not be polite and listen? The other says that he tries to listen to each person as if she were on her deathbed saying her last words. Try it especially with people you think you know well and might take for granted. Suddenly, the once-familiar words of a family member or old friend that you thought you had heard a ca-zillion times might ring anew.

These practices keep you from trying to steer the conversation or from trying to "get" what you want from the talk. Instead, you let the conversation itself lead you.

In a recent Tracking Wonder workshop, participants practiced the above tips. One fellow, whom I know to be painfully shy and near-stuttering in speech, told me that in the workshop he felt unusually open and unguarded.

Here are some tips for being on the giving end:

Speak from your feet. The wise teacher thinks with his feet, Lao Tzu says. When you speak, parts of the brain associated with analysis automatically light up. Shift part of your mind to something concrete like the feet, and your words might feel more grounded, more rooted in sensual experience and lived experience. Practice this especially when you observe your words spinning like a hamster on steroids.

Speak from your heart. The title of Laura Bush's memoir has it right in some respects. Let yourself be slightly vulnerable and disclose something personal without crossing inappropriate boundaries or being self-indulgent, and you likely will gain the other person's trust.

Ask questions. Socrates was often more full of questions than answers. To ask a question is a natural way to lob the balloon back to your conversation partner. A genuine question can open up the other person and create a mood of mutual inquiry.

Ask a star-gazing question. Imagine reclining in a field at night with the other person beside you. You're both gazing at the stars and wondering about black holes and nebulas, about the shape of mortality and the dips of a wood thrush's song. Find the opportunity to lift the balloon of a conversation a little higher by asking a question full of wonder. To do so shifts the focus of a conversation toward something greater than either of you.

Focus on the space between. Again, when you shift the mind's focus, you shift your experience. Literally acknowledge the air between the two of you on which words travel from mouth to ear. That fact alone is a miracle.

Conversation, meaning "a state of turning with." You turn with, not against or away from the other. Among Benedictine monks, conversatio is a vow to live as a pilgrim in which the self unfolds moment to moment. Would that some of our conversations could be part of such pilgrimages.

Jeffrey Davis is a writer, creativity consultant, and international workshop leader.

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