Some amount of tension is necessary in a conversation. I’ve seen conversations between close partners flop, with no spark. I’ve also seen sexual tension drive spectacular conversations. The burning question I have is: Can we successfully manufacture good tension?
When done well, both giving and taking create what psychologists call affordances: features of the environment that allow you to do something. Physical affordances are things like stairs and handles and benches. Conversational affordances are things like digressions and confessions and bold claims that beg for a rejoinder. Talking to another person is like rock climbing, except you are my rock wall and I am yours. If you reach up, I can grab onto your hand, and we can both hoist ourselves skyward. Maybe that’s why a really good conversation feels a little bit like floating.~Adam Mastroianni from, Good Conversations Have Lots of Doorknobs
Mastroianni’s point about affordances is a brilliant way to think about what we are hearing and what we are saying. What I say can demonstrate that I’m using an affordance offered by the guest. (And I’m not going to stuff this article with a tone of exemplary dialog, sorry.) I can grab the affordance and fill in an experience of my own, and then leave clear affordances that my guest can use next. Affordances enable the conversation to develop a rhythm, and for the participants to get comfortable in the endless variety of a conversation.
We can think about creating tension through our offering of affordance, and our grasping at our guest’s affordances. Saying something unexpected, counter to social norms, scary, or emotionally charged would be ways to offer affordances that require our guest to mentally stretch in response. If you can learn to do that—always being well-intentioned of course—you can create good tension to move the conversation along, or to expand it into new realms. Unfortunately, intentionally offering such affordances, on the fly in a conversation, is difficult because you have to do three things well: imagine the affordance to offer, craft the language to offer it, and then perform the speaking, the verbal, and the non-verbal cues.
It’s easier to learn first to create tension through your use of your guest’s affordances. Let’s begin with a mental flipping of our usual roles. If we were the guest, a great host would do the hard work of offering great affordances. Let’s lean into this perspective of being the guest; let’s begin by noticing affordances.
You’ll first spot the obvious ones, which are the fire-escape type affordances of conversation. But with practice, you can find others: regular closet door knobs, motion-activated doors, and those garden gate latches you use by reaching over the top of the gate. The more you listen for affordances, the more you can find unusual ones: climb through the adjacent window, put your shoulder into it and force the door, go around to the door you see on the other side when you peek through the little window in the door, or look above the ceiling tiles and realize the heavily reinforced door is in a wall that doesn’t go higher than the drop ceiling.
First learn to see affordances. Next, learn to see as affordances the things which aren’t usually thought of as such. Then, refine your taste for which to choose and develop your skill at intentionally using those you choose. Finally, actively in your role as the host, you can begin to use what you’ve learned to create and offer great affordances to your guest.