Image: Chris Isherwood, Twang (2008)
When we meet someone to learn about something, what is it that makes us deem the conversation successful and worthwhile? Having learned something is certainly part of the equation, but another aspect intuitively stands out: the feeling of connection, of there being a flow of current between ourselves and the other person. Call it resonance or vibrancy or flow, everyone has experienced this feeling.
This article looks at what actually makes resonance happen.
Last week I surveyed people online about their experiences, asking them to tell me with which people the resonance phenomenon happened to them. “Is it random, or is there a pattern? What is the pattern?” I received an impressive quantity of well-articulated answers. So I sat down to analyze in order to identify common factors in people’s experiences and create an overall picture of “the resonance experience”.
Four clusters of factors emerged from this inquiry:
- Factors that have to do with who the other person is in relation to you;
- Aspects that relate to the attitude each person brings into the conversation;
- Dimensions of your experience of being together;
- and unsurprisingly, it transpired that what you are talking about has a bearing on resonance.
We will look at each of these in turn. Are you ready?
1. WHO IS OUR CONVERSATION PARTNER?
Commonality and difference between conversation partners both seem to play a role in making an encounter vibrant.
Common ground – for example, belonging to the same community, sharing similar personal stories (especially experiences of adversity), or discovering that we have aligned life philosophies – all help build a sense of affinity between conversational partners. As well, mutual connections in unrelated social groups, and a similarity of vision help us enter resonance.
But people typically get into a state of heightened attention when difference is also present. For example, a person’s curiosity can (and usually will) be aroused by someone who speaks a different language, is from a different culture, or has studied a different discipline. Naturally, great conversations often happen when the other person happens to be able to match questions or needs that we have. This may happen in both directions, for instance when we’ve explored different aspects of a given topic.
How a person relates to the topic also matters. Passion and energy were mentioned by several respondents. When someone is passionate about a particular topic, it naturally commands attentive listening in the other. Things will “click” more when the other person talks about something they have experience in, and makes the topic under discussion tangible and real. And if they talk in a way we can understand, that obviously helps.
All that said, several people report that there is no discernible pattern among those that they’ve “clicked” with. They were “people from all walks of life, genders, ethnicities, social classes, educational backgrounds, etc.” This points to resonance resulting not just from who is in the conversation, but also from the way the conversation unfolds.
2. WHAT ATTITUDE ARE WE BRINGING INTO THE CONVERSATION?
It is apparent that there is an element of readiness to the experience of resonance. Conversation partners need to be ready to vibrate together. To take a musical metaphor (courtesy of Véronique Emerand), the person who is talking is like the bow to the listener’s string. When that string is tuned and the bow strikes properly, a beautiful sound comes out. One key to this is to reach a state of silence and true listening. Full presence and undivided attention do wonders. If those are present on both sides, it feels like two pipes are coming into perfect alignment, enabling high flow in either direction.
Then, there is curiosity: a genuine desire to connect, a willingness to look “over the fence” and peek into another’s universe. When there is no attachment to a specific outcome or agenda from either party, sharing often occurs without obstacles.
Moreover, resonance is helped by a willingness to be open and speak honestly. This can mean being spontaneous, or taking a risk by sharing opinions that clash with conventional thinking. That sharing will create an experience of “distinct communion” – a sense of being together, but apart from the rest of the world for a moment. An experience of mutual recognition – when we sense in each other a reflection of ourselves – often arises from this, and helps create resonance.
Finally, some people have had conversation training like learning active listening and nonviolent communication (NVC), which helps avoid many of the traps that make conversations fail to attain their full potential.
3. WHAT IS OUR EXPERIENCE TOGETHER LIKE?
Beyond what each conversation partner brings, there are elements of the experience they create together that impact whether resonance is felt or not.
First, the setting and atmosphere impact resonance. Just compare the feel of a party to that of an office. An informal setting, with a playful and accepting atmosphere, without time pressure or anxiety, helps us relax into the now.
Second, resonance happens more easily if intentions are clear and some agreements are found. These things are not necessarily discussed explicitly, but they are felt. For instance, partners may sense from each other a permission to “tell the whole story”, by tone, encouraging glances, or trigger words. A feeling of safety helps with all the factors described in the previous section.
Third, flexibility in the form of the conversation, including the ability to switch roles around between giver and taker, which makes people feel like peers, and the latitude to experience the conversation more as a dance than a tennis match helps create good flow.
Fourth, specific conversational events seem to have a particular importance. Laughing together helps: humor has a way of revealing a map of who a person is and how they place themselves in the world. It creates a protective bubble around the conversation. And one should not neglect the effect of Eureka moments. There’s a kind of delight that we experience when we actually learn something. I call it the “learning high”, and like laughter, it has a kind of relaxing and opening effect.
4. WHAT ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
Homing in on fertile topics for conversation is fundamental to the experience of vibrancy.
As we’ve already mentioned, talking about things that we are passionate about, things that we love and seek mastery in, will almost always increase vibrancy. Telling stories about these things also helps.
One respondent, Klaus Bravenboer, highlighted a helpful strategy (which I’ve also used with success), to get to a place where the conversation gets very interesting. We could call it “Mapping the Territory”. This consists in beginning a conversation by exploring our common understandings and shared language.
Mapping the territory is sure to pay off later in the conversation, in the form of much more efficient exchange of ideas through reference to the shared map. As the territory becomes known, the dance of conversation can be guided towards the needs or curiosity zones of either participant, to get them both to that place of resonance where knowledge flows very naturally.
In this article I’ve shared elements of what will make a conversation vibrant. I hope that reading it has made you eager to have such conversations and given you a better sense of what to look out for, so that you may enter resonance as often as possible! Many thanks go out to everyone who took the time to provide input on this inquiry.