Art of Conversation

Healthy communities are built through conversations. What would happen if we had more of them, getting to know each other better? Let’s work on it.

Stay up to date

Sign-up to get the latest news, updates, and resources to help your organization make an impact.


[This blog is one in a series focused on Collaboration. Visit here to read more.]

As tourists, we often get to know a city or town by its architecture and garden landscapes. Big cities are recognized by their skylines with specific towering buildings of significance.

 The stories of wars, earthquakes, famines, and the “firsts” take us even deeper into the history of a city or town. My town of Summerville, South Carolina claims the title "birthplace of sweet tea." Thirty minutes up the highway is Charleston, where the first shot of the Civil War was fired.

What brings it all together and ushers us into the soul of that place is getting to know the stories of people. When you start diving into that first Civil War shot fired in Charleston, the story told will greatly depend upon the person from whom you hear it. It is interesting to invest the time to hear the story from someone who doesn’t see it your way. Can you do that? Are you able to have a conversation with a person and respectfully disagree, yet learn something from them?

If all we saw in any Holocaust Memorial Museum were pictures of the buildings of Auschwitz and Dachau, the impact and meaning would be limited. Add pictures and videos telling the story of people and the actions of the Nazis, a room filled with thousands of leather shoes, a multitude of personal artifacts, and reading from diaries of those within the concentration camps, and the impact of that museum changes immensely. I still smell the leather of that room of shoes from those led into concentration camps, causing me to feel the story again.

But if in any one of these places, you sat down for a conversation with someone for whom that place was home or they were a survivor, all of a sudden what you experience changes. It goes deeper as you hear the stories face to face.

When was the last time you got to know your city or town face to face? Have you ever gone beyond the work itself to the people? Even if it’s your hometown, are there people in other parts of town whom you have never invested in knowing?

With the focus of this blog being an audience involved in human services and community development, who else engaged in that work do you know? What is the service they provide? Do you know them beyond the work? What is their heart and vision for the city you share? Do they know yours? When was the last time you sat down over coffee or a meal for a conversation with someone from your world of work to get to know each other more? And then there are the people you serve. Do you only know them for their need? What do they have to offer your community?

The lack of conversation disconnects us. We are increasingly feeling the disconnect because we are increasingly disconnected. Social media, text, and email only give us the illusion that we are connected. Video connections such as FaceTime, Zoom, and Google Meet help. They got us through COVID, but will they help us connect in the ways we need to over time? There is something different about me being with a video image of you versus being with the real you, physically present, and us breathing the same air.

If there is a disconnect in our community impacting and developing work, it is probably because the people fueling that work have been disconnected. We are disconnected when we either don’t talk, or the conversation doesn’t go well and we don’t know how to get past the disagreement.

Even neuroscientists note the, “'Flight from conversation,’ which may erode (close) human relationships and with them the capacity for empathy, introspection, creativity, and productivity - ultimately, the social fabric of our communities.”[i] Read that statement again and note all of the losses leading to the erosion of the social fabric of our communities. It’s a strong but true statement.

Where there is erosion there is the need for something to stop that erosion. How do we stop the erosion? We talk. We listen. We have conversations again.

Work tends to be our starting point for sharing about ourselves. This focus on work is especially true in conversations with people about whom we know very little. For many if not most of us, our identity is fairly embedded in our work. In essence, to share my work is to share me. I'm not saying that me knowing what you do doesn't matter. Knowing about one another's work is extremely important to conversations that lead to collaboration. We can’t co-labor if we don’t know the work that we each do. The more detail we share here, the more connection opportunities we find. It may be a starting point, but don't stop there.

[Need ideas of people for conversations? Consider getting to know your CharityTracker network by going to the Agencies tab in CharityTracker for a list.]

From what we learn about one another’s work in an initial conversation emerges the opportunity to extend our conversations around a shared cause. Sometimes it is a shared cause that leads to your first conversations. At the launching of new efforts, I frequently meet new people with whom I have follow-up coffee and lunch. Knowing others who serve for your community's betterment is a wise investment of time.

We do need to share more about our work and community impact resources. But what if we go beyond the talk of business to sharing our being? What if I get to know you and you get to know me? Beyond the work, can we get to our humanity? That might help us in our approaches to fixing things. Walking and talking can be an effective means of conflict resolution and problem-solving. (Read an interesting study here.)

You sharing about you is a different kind of conversation. We will talk freely and openly about what we do, but not so much about who we are. This level of sharing is being transparent and vulnerable. It probably won’t be the nature of the first conversation, but time allows the creation of these relational pathways in the conversation landscape. Regardless when that deeper level of conversation of getting to know the person, not just the work, happens, someone has to start. You go first.

Share about your family. How did you get to where you are in life? What are some of your ideas, hopes, and dreams? What frustrations do you have about barriers to making a better world? The other person across the table may share the same. Now you share it, which multiplies the chances of doing something about that barrier and realizing those hopes. At least you now share the load.

There is perspective in how we listen. When the perspective for listening is to hear the person who is sharing, you listen differently. If the listener only desires to prepare a response, so much is missed! Could this lack of selfless listening be one of our greatest problems as communities and nations in these days?

As you listen to someone, you allow her to apply brushstrokes to the canvas of what she does and who she is. I find every person with whom I have a conversation intriguing. He is who he is because of his life’s work and story up to that point as well as what he sees for his future. I love getting to know how someone sees their life and world. Listening lets them paint that picture for me.

Questions are a way of letting someone know you are listening; however, beware of an abundance of questions. An abundance of non-stop questions can feel like an interrogation. That feeling can lead to the conclusion that you don’t believe me. Feeling interrogated will shut a person down very quickly. Regaining a conversation from that point may never happen. It is better to leave some things unknown than to bring a conversation to an end because you over-question. Use questions sparingly and leave some for the next time.

Great listeners cultivate safety in a conversation. I will apply this idea to collaboration since that is the focus of this blog. In a safe conversational atmosphere, we trust that we can share without anyone being argumentative. When discussing the needs of our community, we may not agree on the highest priority need or the best way to solve a given problem. Safety doesn’t mean total agreement, it just means that it is clear that I am available to understand what you are sharing. To understand is to stand under, which shows an attitude of humility. Understanding doesn’t mean agreeing. It means I have listened. We can discuss diverging ideas treating each other with respect. Can you listen not to argue, but to learn and seek to understand their perspective?

To learn something is to come to know something I didn’t know previously. I must have the opportunity and the attitude to allow for new insight. An opportunity minus an attitude of availability to learn will gain little. Contrast that with the attractional power of an attitude for learning. A desire to learn will help you see and hear the opportunities surrounding you.

There is a shift in a person’s mental and heart atmosphere when a conversation is approached saying, “I’m available to learn.” Learning about each other goes beyond exchanging information. Again, conversations provide an opportunity to learn about the heart, ideas, and visions we each have for a better world.          

Conversations also unveil to us what is out there. When we live with super-packed schedules it's difficult to look and listen beyond the day’s responsibilities and tasks. Getting out moves you beyond just your world to learn about what is in the world around you. This unveiling includes what we can accomplish together. Alison Gilchrist in her book The Well-Connected Community notes, “By talking together, comparing ideas, discussing common experiences and perhaps undertaking some kind of joint activity, people usually come to trust one another. This lays the foundation for collective action.”[ii]

Another way to stretch yourself is to go outside of your normal types of relationships. What group of people do you believe you know a lot about but that belief is primarily an assumption because you have never had a conversation with one of “them”? As Monica Guzman encourages us, let curiosity take you there. When the conversation happens, be ready to say, “I never thought of it that way.”[iii] Let curiosity take you to new and different people.

Over Time
These quality conversations take time, so if you desire collaborations that bring community impact, take the time. Create a schedule allowing for these new conversations that will lead to collaboration. Does someone else determine your schedule? Consider sharing this blog with him or her and request that you have time for regularly scheduled community conversation opportunities. You and your work will be better because of the investment.

The other factor of time is being okay with the progress of conversations moving to collaborations taking time. We have grown accustomed to life-on-demand which cultivates a “what I want when I want it and how I want it” expectation. Growing good relationships takes time. Those community-building relationships moving into collaboration take even more time. Be good with the investment, but also be wise with it.

You may also find through conversations over time that some people need limited time in your schedule. This is not based on assumption but on your experiences in conversations where you gave them a reasonable chance. Unpacking the setting of boundaries is another blog for another day. If you are confident that you have invested enough time with a person to know that limited time with him or her is wise, go with your gut.

Point of Action

As I mentioned in Power of Together, what often prevents these deeper connections we are talking about is an initiator. Someone has to start the conversation. Who can you reach out to right now to get some time scheduled? Maybe there are a few people you sense you need to know better. Commit to cultivating your collaboration atmosphere one conversation at a time and see what begins to develop.

When assessing your conversations, know that some people talk more and some listen more. Make it a point to do a little more of the opposite of what you find yourself best at. If you are a natural talker, listen more. If you are a natural listener, talk more. Think back over your conversations.  What adjustments do you need to make?

Remember, the focus of these blogs is collaboration and community impact, so ask yourself this. If you are already enjoying consistent community conversations, what new layers could take you closer to doing things together to make your community stronger and healthier?

Good conversations have some science to them, but in the end, it really is an art form. Art is a craft to be developed. The more you practice the craft of being a conversationalist, the better you will become. Practice with the people who know and love you the most to develop your sharing, listening, and learning. Then, start exploring your city or town through the stories of the people who live and work there along with you.

To Subscribe and to learn more, visit here.

[i] Hoehe, M. R., & Thibaut, F. (2020). Going digital: how technology use may influence human brains and behavior. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience22(2), 93–97.

[ii] Gilchrist, Alison. The Well-Connected Community. Portland, OR: The Policy Press, 2009.

[iii] Guzman, Monica. I Never Thought of it that Way. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, Inc., 2022.

Do you desire to strengthen your
CharityTracker or OasisInsight network to new levels of collaboration and impact? Reach out to Chuck today to schedule your conversation:

ED645C80-CA25-41C2-8B6E-A6E7FA346EC1_1_201_aDr. Chuck Coward serves as Community Impact Specialist for Simon Solutions, Inc. Chuck has invested over 35 years in fostering human and community development from a variety of places and roles, including as a pastor, non-profit Executive Director, Director of Development, businessman, consultant, university professor, The Struggle Coach, and the founder of Entrusted Foundation. Serving to make people and communities stronger is his great passion. Chuck is the proud husband to Anita, dad to four, and granddaddy to eight.

Similar posts



Sign up for the latest updates delivered straight to your inbox.