What makes conversations alive? Inspirations from IFIS' Online Colloquium n° 36

Bernard LeRoux

At the IFIS Colloquium on 11 November I presented an idea about the way we speak to each other about important decisions, complex issues or troubling situations. The idea is not mine, but comes from an architect, Christopher Alexander. As a designer of spaces where people live, visit and go about their lives, he observed. In part he observed himself, and in part he observed the spaces he visited. He was aware that in some spaces, he felt somehow more alive than in others. He asked the question: what is it about the spaces where we are more at peace with ourselves, more fulfilled or more alive?

So, what has that little story to do with how we speak to each other? Well, having worked with dialogue in different forms for a long time, I have noticed that some conversations make us feel more alive, too. If you think of a conversation as a kind of space, you will move into it and then out of it again. Some conversations are like entrances in homes. You pass through them quickly. And sometimes you remain for a while because there is something about that space that makes you feel good somehow. You remain for a while and you feel better, more enthused, more awake, happier perhaps than when you started the conversation. And then, of course, there are the other conversations … those that we could well have done without. They leave us somehow drained, or less alive.

What we explored in the colloquium (a word that actually means to talk together) was this quality that these conversations have – those that somehow are more alive. Using the word alive is just a place holder. In fact, this quality, Christopher Alexander explains, has no name – or rather, it cannot be named. When you name something – give it a label – you lose something of its quality.

I wouldn’t want to spoil the question for you by giving you the list of words that came up during our talking-together. It is a question we need to savour and not answer too quickly. The answer will suggest itself to you if you hold the question and if you are observant when you next meet a group or have a conversation. Or perhaps the answer will begin to take shape.

Let me share one part of the conversation that made a deep impression on me. Someone spoke about a sense of being surprised as part of this quality. Another spoke of resonance. Also, that there often is something beyond the topic that emerges and that this something is somehow bigger than the conversation we are having. And it is emerging through us who are having the conversation.​​​​​​​

I had the impression during this insightful exchange between a small number of inspired people, that sometimes – in very special moments – the conversation happens through us. For me this would be a way of describing dialogue.

All very well, you might say. But so what? Needless to say, Christopher Alexander did not stop at noticing the quality of spaces. He continues to reflect, in The Timeless Way of Building (a book he wrote), that one could identify and describe the small parts of a building or a space (really what surrounds or makes the space, because space is not a thing).

So, let me end with the question: what would be these elements (big or small) that give a dialogue that special quality – the quality that cannot be named? Can we identify things that a person did – or things that people do – that help to shift us towards that quality? These are like words that build sentences and in the end a language: a language of small patterns.

Bernard le Roux, November 2020

Contact bernard [dot] lerouxatdialogues [dot] se (bernard[dot]leroux[at]dialogues[dot]se)


Postscript: I hope that I have not offended ardent fans of Christopher Alexander by simplifying his much deeper thesis. My intention was simply to relate that part that inspired me and explain how I “heard” him.

Also, if you recognise some of these patterns that turn conversation into dialogue, and you would like to share them or see others’ examples of them, let me know. In the LiFT Politics project, we are making a website that contains these. When it is ready, we can send you a link and maybe include your patterns in it. ​​​​​​​