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Less Is More, Slow Is Beautiful and Circle of Simplicity and a founder of the Phinney Ecovillage, a project to build Sustainability and Community in her North Seattle Neighborhood. She has been a visiting scholar at Stanford University, where she received her doctorate in education, and an adjunct faculty member at Antioch University and Seattle University. A former community college administrator, she now works with community groups to explore the issue of living more simply and leisurely: how to live lives that are sustainable, just, and joyful. She is on the board of the Take Back Your Time campaign. She lives in Seattle Washington with her husband, former technology writer and current blogger Paul Andrews.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Civil Conversation

Things are really out of control. What started as just plain rudeness on the part of the Tea Party has escalated into death threats. Civil talk is on the decline. It looks like it’s up to us, the citizens, to call a halt to this, and things are happening.

Most of you have heard about the new Coffee Party, where people come together for civil conversation. To start with, people take a “civility pledge,” which says, “I pledge to conduct myself in a way that is civil, honest and respectful toward people with whom I disagree. I value people from different cultures, I value people with different ideas and I value and cherish the democratic process.”

Taking such a pledge and coming together to talk is great, but we need more.

Building social ties
Conversation has been on the decline for a long time because people just don’t take the time to talk with others. (I’m involved with the Take Back Your Time Campaign, and we’re starting Decaf Coffee Party gatherings, where people exchange ideas about how to live more slowly, savor and enjoy their lives.)

It’s so important to take the time to talk with others. Research shows amazing results when people come together and build social ties: People are healthier, happier and live longer. One study found that social isolation is as bad for you as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

My favorite study is one that was published recently. It found that people who have substantive conversations are happier. We have certainly found this to be true in our Simplicity Circles, where we talk about ways to cut back on our consumerism, live more in harmony with nature, get involved with community, slow down and enjoy life more.

As we come together each week we essentially explore the questions, “What matters? What’s important?” Our Simplicity Circle conversations are always substantive and satisfying.

But, still, a lot of people are not having these kinds of conversations, so conversational skills are getting rusty. Stop and think about it: What do you want in a conversation? You want to be heard, to be recognized, to be accepted, to be affirmed, to be appreciated, to make in-depth contact, to be enlivened.

How to talk with others
First of all, we want others to notice that we’re there. Some people just start talking about themselves, and you feel you could just give them a mirror and walk away.

When we’re talking with others we need to make sure we pay attention to them. We need to watch their faces and make eye contact — nod, smile and notice if we’re connecting.

Next, we’d like to be heard: Conversations must be two-way. How often have you asked someone a question and he or she just starts talking, treating the interchange like an interview? Watch yourself in conversation, and make sure it’s going back and forth.

Next, we want to be recognized — that is, we like people to see our essential selves. Here’s where we need to risk being honest and authentic and drop any false poses. Don’t say things you don’t really mean; don’t echo popular sentiments you haven’t really thought about. Be forthright and honest (in a nice way, of course).

After being recognized, we want to be accepted, to not feel judged, to not feel that the other person is ranking us as a 2 on a scale of 10. Drop the games; don’t try to prove you’re superior. Respond as an equal.

Even better, people want to feel appreciated and affirmed. Let people know how much you value them, how much you appreciate their unique qualities.

But even after you have done all of this, you may not really make contact. You must reveal yourself. You must tell your stories and talk with authenticity, enthusiasm and emotion. Too many people try to conceal their true feelings instead of revealing them.

Finally, take a risk and talk about some of the big things: Talk about your values, your goals, your hopes, your worries. Make it into a substantive conversation.

Ultimately, you must enjoy yourself. Be an easy laugher — there’s nothing better than laughing together.

CECILE ANDREWS is author of “Less is More,” “Slow is Beautiful” and “Circle of Simplicity.” For information about joining a Simplicity Circle or a Decaf Coffee Party, contact Cecile at

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