These are reflections arising from failed experiments of bringing people together to have conversations about systemic, historical and on-going violence and the climate crisis. These patterns of failure are related to deeply entrenched habits grounded on an escalating sense of entitlement to consume knowledge, relations, experiences and drama on one’s terms.
Depth conversations start when we find ways to trick ourselves out of these habits and patterns to create room for other ways of being together, where we can sit with painful and difficult things without feeling overwhelmed or immobilized. This need not involve any knowledge that we did not already have; rather, it may be a shift in our relationship to that knowledge. This includes the courage and vulnerability to sit at the limits of knowledge and knowing, to risk being changed by what we come to know.
In order to make an invitation to depth and out of habits of consumption, it is helpful to be clear what this kind of conversation is – and what it isn’t.
We have noticed three kinds of conversation that tend to reproduce, encourage and reward habits of consumption. These kinds of conversation may be appropriate in certain circumstances, but it is helpful to distinguish them from what we are talking about here as depth conversation.
Depth conversation is different from:
- Solutionist conversations focused on getting things done
- Therapeutic conversations focused on getting ourselves to feel better
- Neurotic conversations focused on placating chronic/perennial anxieties
Acknowledging the risk of caricature, we have mapped each conversation with a template that addresses the kinds of questions that people would ask themselves (intrapersonally), each other (interpersonally) and on behalf of everyone else (what we provisionally called “meta-personally”). The template also considers the fears, desires and entitlements that may characterise each type of conversation.
Getting things done conversations (solutionist)
Fear of loss of control and certainty, immobilization, powerlessness, helplessness, hopelessness
Desire for purpose, accomplishment, achievement, fulfillment, reward, activity (doing something)
Entitlement to progress (moving forward) and to agency (engineering of progress)
Intrapersonal questions: What do I need to do (to get through the day, to solve this problem, to achieve self-realization and fulfillment)?
Interpersonal questions: How can we work together to achieve success?
Meta-personal questions: What does everyone have to do to achieve success?
Feeling better conversations (therapeutic)
Fear of pain, grief, despair, dis-illusionment, sadness, loss, disappointment
Desire for comfort, consolation, coddling, belonging and attention
Entitlement to sympathy, relief, reassurance and platform
Intrapersonal questions: How can I feel more pleasant arousals (more enthusiasm, motivation, happiness, calmness, affective intensity)? How can I feel heard?
Interpersonal questions: How can we all feel more pleasant arousals in this group?
Meta-personal questions: How can everyone feel more pleasant arousals?
Placating chronic anxiety (neurotic)
Fear of irrelevance, belittlement/demotion, humiliation, emptiness, meaninglessness; loss of status, visibility and platform
Desire for righteousness and rightfulness, authority, arbitration
Entitlement to affirmation, validation, totalizing codifications, leadership, collective space, time and attention
Intrapersonal questions: How can I secure my sense of self-importance?
Interpersonal questions: How can we recognize/endorse my sense of self-importance? How can we feel important together?
Meta-personal questions: How can we find the only way forward? How can everyone see the only way forward (that I see)?
Fear of getting stuck in the circularity of the three conversations described before
Desire for deeper insight, foresight, hindsight, surprise, vulnerability, humility and humour
Entitlement to not having immediate answers or answers (at all)
Intrapersonal questions: How can I be taught by difficult and painful things? What am I avoiding/denying and how is it limiting my existence?
Interpersonal questions: Beyond our ego-logical fantasies and desires, what questions are important to ask in this context and at this time? What have we not been able to tap or imagine because of these fantasies/desires? How can we commit not to expect success and to being taught by the inevitable failures of our experiments?
Meta-personal questions: How did we get stuck? What do we systemically deny or negate to keep business as usual? How deep does the rabbit hole go? How do we prepare for what will happen when these denials are no longer possible, when we have to reckon with the consequences of our collective choices/humanity’s wrongs?
Decolonial orientation to depth conversations
Consideration of how modernity/coloniality has been imprinted in normalised/naturalised modes of:
- Anticipating, expecting, projecting, hoping (investments in progress, success and futurity)
- Perceiving, coding/storying, analyzing, rationalizing, critiquing, problem solving (investments in universal/totalizing forms of knowledge, authority, arbitration)
- Exchanging and building relations, associations, solidarity, identity (investments in transactional forms of relationality)
As well as neuro-physical process that are mostly unconscious, including modes of
- Feeling arousal/pleasure, vitality, enthusiasm, motivation (libidinal attachments and desires)
- And our fears, insecurities, anxieties, negations, delusions and denials (shadows)
Given our socialization within modernity/coloniality, we tend to:
- Underestimate the depth, magnitude and extent of problems
- Overestimate solutions and what planning strategies and enthusiasm can do
- Overlook complicities, complexities and contradictions
- Miscalculate the costs of our interventions
- Misjudge the gap between where we are at and where we would like to be
- Mistake liberation for self-actualization and solidarity for self-validation
- Short-cut the process by choosing what can be popular/accessible over what can take us deeper
Short-circuit conversations by demanding the affirmation of CIRCULAR patterns
Depth conversation invitation
“If you want to climb a mountain and conquer a peak, taking scuba diving lessons may not be the best idea. However, if you are feeling like you are drowning at the deep end of a murky pool struggling to get to the bottom of things, learning how to use weight belts and an oxygen tank may be very helpful and sometimes life saving.”
Depending on what you are looking for, depth conversations may be extremely helpful or extremely frustrating. These conversations require that we walk the tightrope between desperate hope and hopelessness with honesty, humility, humor and hyper-self-reflexivity
They also require a clearing, that could be thought of as a decluttering (cleaning the attic) or composting before and as these conversations unfold. This is something that mostly happens intra-personally, therefore, it is important that you are willing to look at the unprocessed stuff you have accumulated in your internal attic or garage. If you are not willing to do that, the conversation for you and possibly for others will be short-circuited. The acronym “COMPOST” gives an idea of what that might entail:
Capacity for holding space: for painful and difficult things that are irritating and overwhelming, but without being immobilized or wanting to be coddled or rescued;
Owning up to one’s complicity and implication in harm: the harms of violence and unsustainability required to create and maintain “the world as we know it” with the pleasures, certainties and securities that we enjoy;
Maturity: to interrupt self-infantilizations, to face and work on individual and collective “shit”, rather than denying or dumping it onto others, or spreading it around;
Pause of narcissistic, hedonistic and “fixing” compulsions: in order to identify, interrupt and disinvest from harmful desires, entitlements, projections, fantasies and idealizations;
Othering our self-images and self-narratives: in order to encounter the “self beyond the self”, including the beautiful, the ugly, the broken and the messed up in everything/everyone;
Stamina and sobriety to show up differently: to do what is needed rather than what is pleasurable, easy, comfortable, consumable and/or convenient;
Turning towards unlimited responsibility: with compassion, serenity, openness, solidarity, mutuality and without investments in purity, protagonism, progress and popularity.
There is no one single accessible language that will make everyone feel happy. If you need trigger warnings or safe spaces, this conversation may not be what you need or are looking for.
Two resources may also be useful for the decluttering and composting process. One is called “radars” for learning how to read the room and how you are being read; the other is called “circular”, which is related to common patterns of investments in conversations that become… circular. You can also try the Haruko accord.
This draft text is part of an on-going collaboration between Vanessa Andreotti and Dougald Hine.