What do we mean by "Conversations"?

At one level you’ll find us using the word “conversation” like everyone else – a word that we unreflectively mix in with words like “talk”, “chat” or even “interaction”. We don’t actually have that many words in our lexical stock for an action that is amazingly general and yet powerful, all pervasive and yet transformative. But at times you will find us using the word “conversation” to mean something more focussed. And that is that we are specifically interested in how we can talk together to get things done when we are focused on an outcome.

It is our belief, our assertion, and our distinctive when we talk about conversation is that we're talking about the systems and structures of language that allow us to cooperate in purposeful human enterprises.

Take an example. In Euro Western culture (perhaps now more as an aspiration than as an achievable goal), an imaginable topic of outcome-focussed conversation could be about how we might build our own home. What typically happens in such a conversation? Well, it usually takes some time (it might be measured in years) and yet it is a single topic of conversation that converges on an outcome – a house that you and your partner can move into.

The conversation begins when you allow yourself to dream or speculate about what you would want. Do you want a house in the bush? Or a house at the beach? Or a house in the bush at the beach? Do you want a house that allows the kids to stay after they finished school? Or to come back with their kids? Or do you want a house that is for you in a stage of life that creates some boundaries – the kids can stay in town?

Eventually such conversations, perhaps supported by a scrapbook, certainly the occasional sticky note on the refrigerator, or the occasional drive down interesting looking roads where a vacant block might beckon – eventually such conversations become more or less settled on what you want.
The conversation now enters a new stage - the stage of drawing up plans, a serious stage, with serious choices - often guided by an architect. The architect will point out the grim realities of engineering on the steep block that you have chosen, the way it drives choices of materials, and of room size, and of orientation.

And again, eventually that conversation reaches a conclusion as well. Not only do we know what we want. Now we know how to get it. We have a design. We have made choices, especially trade-offs. We have come to terms with constraints. And we have found a way of expressing our voice in the design of something that will meet our desires.

So now we enter a third major phase in our conversation's of purpose. Now we have to build. And these conversations are very different again. Now we speak in terms of deadlines: “We want to be in by Christmas!” Now there are costs, and cost overruns, and schedules, and PC items, and fine-grained choices, and fixes. And don’t dare have the kind of conversation with the builder that you had with your partner 12 months before when you wondered out loud about changing from bricks to Hardiplank!

This sounds like a pretty ordinary (if increasingly inaccessible-in-reality) story. Yet it carries the DNA of something very powerful about how we coordinate together in all kinds of purposeful conversations, from planning a picnic to running a church. You’ll find that pattern turns up in a lot of our conversations about conversation.


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