The Conversation

conversationIn 2008, the city of Perth in Western Australia adopted a program called “Forgotten Spaces.” Focused on the city’s central business district, the plan focused on revitalizing the downtown area by updating its laneways and arcades; the narrow streets and alleys located between the towering office buildings. These spaces offered intimate potential settings for small shops and bistros – just the kind of environment city officials hoped would bring people (and their money) back to the city at the end of the workday.

As part of the plan, the laneways needed a facelift. At the time, they were used by delivery vehicles, for storage, and as trash dumps. They were dirty and uninviting; definitely not the kind of place you’d want to spend your evening. After addressing these logistical issues, officials invited local street artists in to paint murals in these forgotten spaces. This move helped to spur curiosity and the laneways slowly transitioned into desirable hangouts.

I recently toured some of these laneways and saw firsthand the results of this revitalization effort, including the artwork. On a wall overlooking Howard Lane, this piece drew my attention and really made me think. It was created by local artist Stormie Mills and is called “The Conversation.”

I don’t know about you, but there doesn’t look to be much conversation taking place in this scene. Given the goal of the “Forgotten Spaces” project, to bring people together, this piece of art appears to represent the opposite. One character isn’t even part of the discussion, while the two that are don’t appear to be very happy about it. Rather than conversation, it seems to depict isolation and exclusion. But perhaps that was the artist’s point.

Much of what passes for conversation today is anything but. In my opinion, most interactions with other people are short, one-sided, and do little to bring people together. In our rush to accomplish the next task, we’ve stopped talking with other people in favor of talking at them. In other words, we’ve forgotten what real conversation is.

When I think of meaningful conversation, here’s what comes to mind:

  • It starts with an invitation. All of the great conversations I’ve been a part of began with someone asking me to participate. They’re kicked off by one person expressing a desire to share in discourse with another. They aren’t demands, or official meeting requests; they are invitation to explore ideas with someone else.
  • It includes good questions. In a meaningful conversation, I’m asked what I think, how I feel, and how I would like to proceed. I’m not merely subjected to someone else’s ideas or given a task list. My thoughts matter.
  • It involves a lot of listening. When I’m engaged in a meaningful conversation, I’m allowed to share my thoughts without interruption. I’m not talked over, shouted down, or ignored. The other party doesn’t just hear me, they listen. That means they aren’t simply waiting for me to stop talking so they can voice their next point. They’re actively engaged in processing what I’m saying so that they understand me.
  • It’s a two-way street. A conversation is a dance. It’s a give and take. I ask a question, and you share your thoughts. Then I share some information as well. Conversations are not one-sided, so both parties honor the obligation to balance the speak/listen dynamic.
  • It’s positive. Great conversations leave you happy they took place. You walk away enriched in some way – educated, inspired, affirmed. Meaningful conversations end with both parties looking forward to the next encounter.

Perhaps Mills was trying to spark meaningful conversation through this piece of art. Maybe the intent is to create a spark so that people visiting this particular laneway would stop to think about their interactions with others. I invite you to share this image with your team and see what conversation takes place.