13 November 2012

Living the joy of authentic conversations

For many of us, the world is a busy and noisy place, a high-tech, digital environment—often stressful—where we are besieged with text, e-mail, phone calls and other instant messaging. We madly check, send, receive, exchange and process a vast amount of information every day. And, if we teach in the virtual environment, our days are filled with managing and responding to an incredible amount of complex and multifaceted data. This explosion of technology and our preoccupation with it can interfere with our privacy, disrupt our relationships and create yet another venue for incivility.

At a recent community event, I was seated next to a civic leader who expressed concern about the impact of technology on relationships. She told me about having an important conversation with her grown son who, in the middle of their discussion, took a call that lasted several minutes. Annoyed, she asked her normally well-mannered son why he chose to take the call when they were obviously engaged in an important dialogue. He thought for a moment and then said, “I think it’s because I wanted to stop the noise, to quiet the jarring disturbance of a ringing cell phone.” Ah, there it is again. We are torn between our desire to silence the noisy din of our busy, hurried world and our preoccupation with responding in “real time” simply because technology makes it possible.

What will it take for us to engage in meaningful, genuine, face-to-face conversation; to carve out time from our hectic schedules to seek and savor the quiet and calm that often comes with open, honest communication? Margaret Wheatley (2002) reminds us that we can “change the world if we start listening to one another. Simple, honest, human conversation … a chance to speak, to feel heard, and where we each listen well. The simple art of conversation may ultimately save the world (p. 3).” If Wheatley’s assertion is true, and I believe it is, then faculty play a key role in facilitating this process with students by creating learning environments for teaching, learning and practicing the complex skills needed for authentic conversations.

My students and I spend a good deal of time practicing and improving our skills for engaging in conversation with patients, members of the health care team, one another and with the people who matter most in our lives. We discuss mental and cognitive preparation for critical conversations, how to gauge and create emotional safety, setting goals and determining mutual interests, and seeking common ground. We practice giving and receiving constructive feedback, and we use that feedback to set realistic short- and long-term goals for life and for nursing practice.

I challenge my students to use their newly acquired skills to engage in meaningful conversation with others. I ask students to select someone in their lives with whom they wish to have an important conversation, using the skills we’ve practiced in class, and then, if comfortable, to share their experiences with the class. If students agree to report back, I have them briefly describe the situation and the person or people involved, key issues and reasons for the conversation, and steps used to engage in the conversation. I also ask them to describe how the conversation started, progressed and ended. Many students rise to the challenge and openly share their experiences, which, of course, help all of us learn and improve.

I challenge my students to use their newly acquired skills
to engage in meaningful conversation with others.
This semester, I had a very interesting experience. After our “critical conversations” class, I was working in my office when one of my students—I’ll call him Harry—knocked on the door and asked if I had time to meet for a few moments. I did, so invited him to have a seat. Taking the chair across from me, he sat quietly for a few moments, seemingly to compose his thoughts, and then said, “Dr. Clark, you suggested that we find someone with whom we would like to engage in a critical conversation, right?” I nodded, and he continued, “Well, I picked you!”

I was surprised and flattered, all at the same time, but more than that, I was very curious, so I asked him to proceed. Harry seemed to gather himself, and then asked, “Do you remember a couple of weeks ago when I was playing computer games and not paying attention to the class discussion?” I nodded, asked him to continue, and he said, “What I did was wrong. My behavior was rude, and I came to apologize. You deserve better—and you deserve more respect. I promise that, from here on out, I am going to do better. You will see a different me. I am going to be more involved in class, pay closer attention and show you that I mean it.” I thanked him, expressed how impressed I was with our conversation, and then he left.

The following week, I arrived at my classroom early, as usual, to give me time to visit with my students before class began. I immediately noticed that Harry was sitting in a different seat. Instead of his normal spot in the last row in a far corner, he had selected a new seat—just a bit off center and only two rows from the front of the classroom. I approached him and said, “Good morning, Harry. I see you have a new seat.” He smiled and said, “I promised you that I would make every effort to be involved in class, and that’s what I’m doing. Sitting here helps.”

Since the day of our critical conversation, Harry has lived up to his promise. He is fully engaged and participates in small and large classroom discussions. He is a very impressive young man and well on his way to becoming an excellent nurse.

Engaging in critical conversation is an art that must be developed and honed over time. Being a positive role model and teaching this important skill is integral to preparing our students for successful nursing careers. The end goal is to create a safe space for authentic dialogue, to treat one another with civility and respect, to seek common ground, to give a little, pursue a win-win outcome and, ultimately, to improve our relationships.

Wheatley, M.J. (2002). Turning to one another: Simple conversation to restore hope to the future. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.