‘Nothing’ has value. Or rather, there is value in the absence of ‘something’.
I had a six hour conversation today that felt part journey, part experiment and part self-discovery. It was a conversation that had rules, written rules, which were enforced. The conversation felt different, it sounded different and it was different.
I have Lloyd Davis to thank for today’s journey. I’ve known of Lloyd through his involvement with UKGovCamp and his role as the father of the Tuttle Club. Until today, I’d not had a conversation with Lloyd. Until today I’d not had this sort of conversation with anyone. What’s most remarkable about it is that it took place in the middle of the most dense gathering of techies from UK government, not the kind of people you’d peg for a social experiment involving conversations.
Our everyday conversation are defined by unwritten rules:
- Societal rules: such as the drive to be polite by appearing to be interested in what the other person is saying, usually by asking questions or interviewing.
- Fear rules: such as wanting to impress, desperately trying to think of something highly intelligent or insightful to say while the other person is talking, so as to not appear to be stupid; or trying to sell or validate your viewpoint by forcing an argument and trying to win it.
These rules in their various guises prevent us from actually listening to and concentrating on what the other person is saying. Today’s session(s) replaced these unwritten rules with a set of rules designed to increase the overall value of the conversation.
- No more than 6 people in a circle.
- No interviewing.
- No arguing/disagreeing.
- Avoid circumventing rules with body language.
- Remember it’s a game, no-one will die if you break a rule.
- Try not to interrupt. Let people speak until they’ve completely finished.
It was challenging at first. There were lots of natural pauses. I would previously have said ‘awkward pauses’ but as time went on they felt less awkward. The rules felt less like constraints and more like foundations.
As you might expect, the conversation spent some time exploring the rules themselves. and exploring whether the supported a better quality of conversation. I keep referring to this as one conversation. To me it was one conversation, separated by lunch, albeit with different people at different times.
One of the themes that kept recurring was that of ‘nothing’. How the natural pauses became less awkward as time went on, how we strip pauses and filler noises such as ‘um’ and ‘err’ out of a conversation when transcribing it. How ‘efficient’ communication makes no place for gaps, and how much information is contained in the gaps between words; how silence in a song can add an undefinable quality; to what extent our self-image is defined by others’ opinions of us, creating a space within which our self-image exists.
Primarily though, the real value in nothing was to be found in the spaces between each speaker. These rules allowed more time between each speaker to consider what has just been said and to think without feeling the pressure to fill the gap with more talk. The stretches of nothing gave us all the space to properly listen to each other and with that there was more respect and greater understanding.
I really suggest you try these rules next time you want to have a proper conversation with someone. You’ll both benefit.
PS Thank-you to everyone I heard and spoke to on Saturday and over the course of UKGC12