One Small Step: the lost art of conversation

A few months back I was lapsing on my commitment to stay off of social media and scrolling through my Facebook feed (<side note> if Apple really want to give people control over their lives again, they should add a feature to screen time that limits the number of scrolls you can have per day in the bottomless bowl apps like Facebook and Instagram </side note>). I happened to see a promotion of a new initiative from Story Corp called One Small Step. I was familiar with Story Corp from hearing some of the interviews they captured aired on local radio stations, but the One Small Step project was something different.

The usual Story Corp format is to have a couple people that know each other tell a story. They’ve done series on people’s immigration stories, cancer stories, childhood stories, etc. One Small Step was all about getting two people that didn’t know each other and were coming at things from different political viewpoints to sit down with each other tell / listen to each other’s stories.

Needless to say I was all in. This pushed so many buttons for me: the art of the conversation, seeking to understand, expressing yourself clearly, getting your ideas tested by someone, healing polarization, doing something physical / face to face instead of digital, going deep…I could go on for pages.

I clicked the link, filled out the survey (to determine my political leanings) and submitted my application. All from my phone. At dinner….sigh… I tried to answer the questions as truthfully as I could, but I also have a natural resistance to the left – right political paradigm, so I think I ended up describing myself in one of the few open text answers as a “anarchs-syndicalist” (which was intended to be ironic, but which I might actually have some sympathies towards).

I heard back about a month later that I was “accepted” with a quote from my story partner to tell me a little bit about who I would be talking to:

“I’m pretty damn liberal, but with a few areas of more traditionally conservative views (I tend towards pro-life, for example, but not the sign-waving, pray it away types.) I swear a lot. I honestly think a real apology is worth as much as a good public policy and I suck at both. I’m excited to meet you.”

I recorded my interview on Feb 15th at NKU. There was someone there from StoryCorp to run the equipment and to make sure things didn’t go too far off the rails (you can hear him a bit off Mic at the start of the recording below). I was a bit late to arrive (stupid Google Maps!) so didn’t have much chance to talk with my partner before the we started recording.

I was more than a little nervous. Who was this other person? Would we have even close to enough common ground to have a reasonably coherent conversation or would we be talking past each other the whole time? Would I be able to express myself clearly? Were my ideas even worth considering? Would I talk too much…or not enough?

All of that quickly faded away as I simply focused on the person across the table from me with the intention of sharing my experience with them and listening to what their experiences were. I covered things that I had no intention of talking about. We both commented on how this conversation ended up being a bit like therapy ;-). You can listen the conversation in the player below (it will also pop up on my podcast feed in iTunes).

I think you’ll hear that we ended up being far more similar that different. Not sure if that means that StoryCorp needs to find a better test or maybe it just doesn’t account for “off scale” people like me. Or maybe if we had met in cyberspace we would have fought and its just that when people are face to face they take the time to understand each other and have more than 140 characters to respond react.

Overall this was a fantastic experience and has provided more motivation for me to find opportunities for deeper conversations about things that really matter with small groups of people in face to face situations. In other words pretty much the opposite of what we all spend more time doing everyday, staring at screens. One Small Step made me realize that its just as interesting and valuable to do all of that with people I don’t know and/or don’t agree with.

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