Space in conversation

Have you ever been able to identify what it was in a conversational process with another person that left you feeling drained and/or frustrated as you walked away from the interaction?

Space defines existence

During any conversation, there is always an interactional/energy exchange and an information/idea exchange between the participants. These exchanges are inter-connected and feed into and influence each other.

A conversation unfolds best if (a) you both feel emotionally safe (with non judgement) and (b) where there is ‘space’ for ideas to expand into. However, this space is not a given; it is actually a creation. And in order to assist in this creation the participants need to be mindful of how dominant or controlling they come across as they convey their opinions and perspectives to each other.

On a fundamental level, space is best created by a caring or curious question; followed by silence. This is an invitation that opens up space for the other to be heard.

In our Western society we have a need to be heard by others. We attach value and importance to our voice (perspective). We have been taught to express our opinion; usually in a competitive manner. So generally it is not difficult for us to give a perspective in an expert authoritative way.

I remember doing a workshop with a group of creative directors in an advertising agency. Everyone seemed to be attached to their own ideas as if that idea was defining who they were. There was a lot of competition and debate about who had had the best idea. They had learned to ‘fight’ for their idea and try to convince others about the value and importance of their particular perspective. Paradoxically, no one felt heard in the group despite everyone being forceful in their opinion. They felt undermined and frustrated. There was no receptiveness in the group.

I felt exhausted as I attempted to facilitate a group process that offered everyone more space in which to contemplate the ideas that existed in the group. But being receptive requires you to drop your defense and to allow an external piece of information (or idea) to enter your own mental structures. This can be an overwhelming experience for some since they may have learned to ‘defend’ themselves from external prescriptions when they grew up as children (where parents closed down space by constantly telling them what to do and how to think in a authoritative prescriptive way).

Being receptive may have negative implications of being controlled, dominated and/or emotionally abused by an external force. So instead of being receptive; it feels emotionally safer to ‘talk’ with more conviction and control.

On a metaphoric level, a conversation is a living process that needs to breathe. Breathing has to do with inward and outward flow in a rhythmic, balanced way. Space is the oxygen for a conversation to evolve to deeper meaning – it is a gift. When you are feeling closed down in a conversation and overwhelmed with another person’s opinion just breathe without trying to defend yourself.  As you do this, you will be able to create more and more internal space (which feeds positively into the interactional process). If you are in conversation with someone who values you; a point will be reached when his or her outflow will be exhausted and you will be given the opportunity to offer your insights. If this does not occur; the conversation will leave you feeling emotionally drained since all of the space will have been consumed by the other person.

Sounds easy; but oh so difficult.

3 thoughts on “Space in conversation

  1. Giaco Angelini

    Great piece, thanks Ken, it resonates with me very strongly and I feel empowered by this knowledge. I’ve never heard this put into words but I feel as though I subconsciously always knew it.

  2. Ken Jennings

    Thank you Giaco – it is interesting to get a sense of how space and ‘words’ interact with each other. Without space, meaning has little chance to evolve. I feel that schools and families need to assist our children develop conversational skills (listening skills) that help create space in their relationships with others in a co-operative, co-evolved way. Sensitivity to others, coupled with gentleness will help create an ecology of understanding of life and how healthy relationships should function and in the process I believe will help alleviate domination, conflict and wars. Maybe this sounds off the wall; but this is my belief.

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