Is it better to be the fly on the wall, or the hornet in the room?
I variously categorize conversations on a spectrum from formal to casual. Today I want to talk about conversations that fall in the middle. At the formal end would be police interrogations and then—perhaps—live, antagonistic interviews of politicians. At the casual end would be pillow-talk and long-term friends around a campfire with their preferred beverages. In the middle is fertile ground for great conversations.
So what exactly is in the middle? Therein lie conversations built on a shared intention: Two people who want to resolve a difference, who want to co-create something new from their individual experiences, or who are simply excited about taking a leap into the unknown experience that is a good conversation. It’s that third one which really calls to me these days.
I’ve now done enough recorded conversations to say two things:
I used to think I was doing interviews. In fact, I began using a process and format intentionally meant to create interviews; I showed up with things I was interested in and I wanted to learn more about from my partner. I soon discovered that when we veered away from the formal-end of the conversation spectrum, (away from the “interview” I had intended to create,) into the more middle-area of simply good conversation, that was when I most enjoyed the experience. My conversation partners clearly enjoyed it more, and the listeners did too. (“hmmmmm… maybe I am onto something here?”)
The first thing I have to say is that the form of the created artifact follows from the process.
If I use a process intended to create formal conversations, that’s what I’ll get, (more or less.) If I use a process intended to create more casual conversations, then I get that, (more or less.) The insight is that the process for creating casual conversation is not itself casual. The process is specific, rigorous, and frankly exhausting. It’s exhausting because I want to execute the process in order to create the best possible conversation, and I want to experience that conversation. That’s in contrast to my conversation partner who is only attempting to do the latter because they’re only aware of their desire to experience the conversation. They’re not aware of the process, and they probably shouldn’t be aware.
Each conversation—each performance, since I’m today talking about when we are recording—is better if we’re comfortable going just a bit farther than we might normally. This is where the process pays off. Everything I’ve done in preparation, and everything I do during the conversation, from the obvious to the subtle to the outright manipulative, is in service of creating the best space for that conversation.
The second thing I have to say is that to create good, casual conversations I have to help my partner leap.
Be the hornet?
I recently listened to Jesse Thorn’s interview of Werner Herzog for The Turnaround. If you’ve read this far, I can’t imagine you wouldn’t enjoy listening to that ~35 minutes of Thorn and Herzog.
In the conversations that I’m currently interested in creating and recording I simply cannot be the fly on the wall. I have to literally sit down with my conversation partner. But there’s an enormous range of engagement that I can vary. (More realistically I can only try to control this, as I’m always balancing the observer-process and the participant-creation experiences.) In my first recorded conversations there quickly became far too much of me performing, (and I’ll leave it at that for today.) Then followed me reigning myself in too far, then some relaxing back towards more of me, and currently I find that I like the amount of me that appears in the conversations.
After listening to Herzog’s thoughts on documentary film-making, (but he talks about a lot more than that in the podcast,) I now see that I need to work on being the active hornet in the room. This is the dimension where I actively lead the conversation—not upstage my partner, but actively lead in the way that two intimate dance partners have a leader, (and, yes, who is leading can change at any moment.)
I need to more often be the hornet. I need to more often suggest simply by my presence that a sting might be imminent. Then if they decline to leap, maybe, sting just a little.