Conversations that Actually Connect Us

It seems incredible, but we have a problem of isolation on this crowded planet. More people report feeling lonely than ever before. In May, The New Republic covered this "public health crisis": one in three Americans over 45 identifies as chronically lonely, up from just one in five a decade ago; and at any given time 30% of Americans don't feel close to other people.

Not all people who claim to feel lonely are actually alone; many of them live busy, social lives. And for those who are isolated physically or geographically, the Internet can open up the world. We're more connected than ever, but we're not connecting.

There are many reasons for this, but one that interests me is the way we're sacrificing the art of communication (verbal, gestural, energetic) for the language of technological efficiency. Speed is killing communion-a practice of sensitivity that requires time and space. Computers can read each other instantly; human beings cannot.

For the past couple of decades, we've been learning consciously and unconsciously how to manage the new reality of having the world's information at our fingertips. Yes, of course it has expanded us-our minds, our horizons. But, it's also contracted us: turning us into speed demons seeking answers and shutting out the possibility of anything unknown. We communicate like machines because we've adopted their language: searching for shortcuts, overriding anything that requires patience.

It may be worthwhile to review-for our tired, wired minds-what makes a successful human connection. I propose three critical factors: presence, spontaneity, and empathy. With them, communication ceases to be about rapid exchange and starts to serve something higher, and words carry meaning beyond mere information.

Presence is about focusing one's attention. A present listener is not making mental to-do lists while he nods politely. A present speaker is considering her words and approach based on signals received from the listener. On a subtle level, presence is the ability to cease overlaying one's personal prejudices, history, and expectations onto what's happening, a habit that takes us out of the moment.

Recently, I heard Thomas Hübl, a teacher of Transparent Communication, describe the implicit pact you make with another when you engage in a meaningful conversation: "I will be here in this moment. However pleasant or unpleasant it is. I commit myself to being you." He says you can tell you are present when you find yourself saying things that surprise you. Which brings us to spontaneity.

Something is amiss when we have to contrive to insert more spontaneity into communication. It seems counter-intuitive. But, it's necessary in a culture driven as we are today by productivity. We seek control, build safeguards against surprises, plan for every scenario. In the race to the finish line of the conversation, we can demolish the potential for magic to happen. We stay in our heads and miss the chance to speak from the heart, the true source of unplanned and unbridled expression. In a technolinguistic culture such as ours is becoming, what's more unsettling than a human being? A creature composed almost entirely of unknowns.

Spontaneity is our birthright, the thing that distinguishes us from the machines. As the dance teacher, Gabrielle Roth, said, "Between the head and feet of any given person is a billion miles of unexplored wilderness." She also said, "The correct response when another human being is standing in front of you is fascination." Think about that the next time you impatiently tolerate a coworker, sales person, or relative. How would the moment change if you decided to become fascinated by them?

Empathy in conversation happens when common ground is established. It's hard to truly connect without it. According to the French philosopher, René Daumal, "Clear discourse presupposes three conditions: a speaker who knows what he wishes to say, a listener in a state of wakefulness, and a language common to both."

He goes on to explain that the "language common to both" is not simply about grammar and syntax, but about the ability to establish a "shared experience." In order to do this, we must be sensitive to others. We must be able to walk a mile in their shoes even if they feel uncomfortable. There has to be a natural curiosity, a willingness to explore together until we bump into the same signpost and say together, "A ha, I recognize this place."  

Presence. Spontaneity. Empathy. What I'm talking about may sound subtle, but it's really critical. Words can unite or separate us. Conversations can connect or divide us. I attended a teaching by the Dalai Lama this summer. Among the many insightful things he said was this: "The 20th Century was a century of conflict. The 21st century will be a century of conversation." If you believe this-and I do-then it follows that the quality of the century will be determined by the quality of our conversations. And not just those happening between heads of state in remote and exclusive enclaves, but the ones you and I have every day at work and at home. Each exchange is an opportunity to breathe life back into our words, to achieve the potential of communing in communication, which will remind us that not only are we not alone, we are in fact, one.

Schuyler Brown