Guidelines for “Adult” Conversation, #9 – Conversing in Order to Learn, Understand and Gain Clarity, Rather than Trying to Teach, Persuade or Disprove*

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at

*Conversations exist in which the parties agree that the nature of the discourse involves teaching, persuasion and/or proof/disproof – e.g. formal debate, litigation, scientific research, and professional trainings of various types. These are not the focus of this essay or this series.

Imagine engaging a disagreement (or agreement) with a friend, family member, acquaintance, colleague or stranger with the intention of learning from and more deeply understanding the other’s perspective and further clarifying your own. Imagine not being concerned with or interested in trying to convince the other of something, pointing out what he doesn’t know or why and how she’s wrong, ‘winning’ in some way or other, or making him or her look bad. Imagine showing up in conversation with authentic curiosity, the ability to listen deeply, and a desire to ask and respond to genuine questions, the only purpose of which is mutual learning, understanding and clarity. That does require imagination, you may be thinking.

The three general imaginings above are not a prescription for the right way to be in conversation. They are, I believe, practical and essential components for any authentic verbal exchange to have a chance of evolving beyond the alternating combative monologues, often vitriolic, that masquerade as ‘dialogue’ or ‘conversation’ in contemporary public and private life – and they would arguably have something to offer the formal debate, litigation, research and trainings exceptions mentioned above.

Engaging, as used here refers to listening, speaking and asking questions, again, with the intention to learn, understand and clarify with, from and through an authentically curious and open mind and heart. The curious and open mind helps us inquire, speak and understand accurately and skillfully; the curious and open heart allows us to accept and respect the other, and the common humanity we share.

One Approach That Helps

A deceptively simple clarifying question, even more effective when repeated, is something like1 When you say ____, what do you really mean by that / what does that really mean to you? I use this type question2 as part of a writing practice – and it works alone, with a partner or group, and also with coaching clients. For example, I’ll write a sentence, or some longer unit of writing and ask myself, What do I mean by that? I’ll respond to that question in writing, and then ask again, perhaps with different emphasis, What do I mean by that?  I’ll respond again and continue the cycle until I can no longer fine-tune my meaning. Once I get to that point, I may ask, How does this make me feel? Depending on my intention, I can then inquire into the meaning of my response to that feeling question. If you’ve never done this, try it.

To be effective in conversation, the question What does that mean? or What do you mean by that? must come from a place of curiosity and with a desire for learning and clarity. There are lots of ways to ‘soften’ these questions so they’re not heard as criticisms (What the %?*@! do you mean?!). Here’s one: The story I’m telling myself about what you just said is _______, and I’m wondering if that’s close to what you really meant. If so, great. If not, what did you mean? I really want us to be on the same page as we move forward (or something like that).

When it comes to listening through and with an open mind and heart, it’s essential to remember the importance of our awareness of the ‘lenses’3 through which we’re listening, even with our minds and hearts open. Each of us can open his or her mind and heart. Not every mind or heart is equally open.

I’ll leave you with a wonderful guideline that I first learned sitting in council when I enacted a Vision Quest in 1998. I don’t know its origin, but I learned it from Bill Plotkin and the guides at Animas Valley Institute. I believe it can serve anyone, anywhere.

                                Speak from your heart.

                                Listen from, with and through your heart.

                                Be of lean expression.

                                Be spontaneous (in the sense of being in the moment and not rehearsing).

In essay #10 we’ll explore the impact of holding the intention of finding similarities, and not just differences, with those with whom we disagree.


1I use the phrase “something like” here to emphasize that there is not exactly one correct question to use here. What’s important is what the question allows/invites us to do next.

2For more on this type of inquiry, find out more about proprioceptive writing (the example above in no way is intended to represent the teachings of Linda Trichter Metcalf, Tobin Simon).

3See essays two, three and four in this series for more on these lenses.

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