Why Authentic Conversation is Important: Lessons from John Prine
June 10, 2020
15 min read
John Prine was a beloved American singer-songwriter who passed away in 2020 due to COVID-19. His music touched the hearts of many, including the author of this blog post, who reflects on the empathy and vulnerability found in Prine's lyrics and how they can inform authentic conversations in our daily lives.
At the start of every calendar year, I present a single word to the folks at c|change. The word is intended as a kind of focus or meditation for the coming year, a conversation starter. As we’re conducting creative work for our clients, we’re marinating in what that word or idea means to us, how we might discuss it, how we might create something from it.
This year, I picked Abundance. And then as I watched toilet paper flying off the store shelves and learned new vocabulary words like “asymptomatic” and “sheltering in place,” I thought: “I picked the wrong year to talk about Abundance.”
Every news site informed me there were not enough tests, not enough ventilators, not enough PPE, not enough money to keep restaurants in business, not enough money to cover salaries for those laid off, not enough hospital beds. Like the shrinking rainforests and polar ice caps, all these things are true, of course. So it seemed harder, perhaps even disrespectful, to talk about Abundance in the face of so much need.
But I realized I was using the wrong lens to think about it.
From Clouds to Abundance
In 2018, our word for the year was “Clouds,” which began as a simple meditation on visible, constant change. By the end of the year, our designers, programmers, and account managers had created a book with an augmented reality experience about the role of clouds in climate change. (If you’d like to see a copy, email me.)
Last year, it was a conversation about “Curiosity.” The company split into four teams and created four short films about where curiosity can take us, what curiosity might reveal to us, and how curiosity can help open us up to different experiences. One short film has been accepted into every festival it was submitted to and has won two Silver awards (before the coronavirus shut the film festival circuit down)! Another is an exploration on ASMR which you can experience and learn the story behind it in one of our blogposts.
What I’ve seen over the years is that the words themselves are not that important. The intent is to create conversation and collaboration. One of the reasons we push to blend the teams with different people in different roles (account managers work with designers and motion graphics artists in ways they haven’t before) is to enrich the conversation further.
And now we reach January of this year. Coming into a new year and a new decade, I was interested in how we frame opportunities inside and outside work. Is the glass half empty or half full? How does our narrative about opportunities shape how we approach them? What if we were to open up to the idea of Abundance?
By late March, it was clear that talking about Abundance in 2020 might just be a fool’s errand.
Conversing vs. Arguing
Before there ever was a coronavirus, one thing (perhaps the only thing?) most Americans could agree on was that we couldn’t seem to agree on anything. The media lenses we were using to hear about our world seemed to distort reality like a fun house mirror. That is, it seemed to distort how we perceive the Other’s reality because we always seem to find an Other. Our media bubbles have hardened from semi-permeable membranes into bulletproof glass.
Depending on who you talk to, the “problem” with our national discourse is an abundance of outrage or a scarcity of civility. Or maybe a little combination of both. We have Red States versus Blue States, Progressives versus Conservatives.
Political discourse, when it occurs, becomes more like a dog chasing its tail. The jokes about difficult conversations over Thanksgiving dinner ring a bit hollow these days, especially these days.
A meme circulating last year read:
Being taught to avoid talking about politics and religion has led to a lack of understanding of politics and religion. What we should have been taught was how to have a civil conversation about a difficult topic.
The divide is real and quantifiable. Ryan Barrett, our VP of Account Services, shared this video with me about how polarized the political divide has become over the last 50 years.
As I began thinking about Abundance, I found myself falling into a sort of dichotomy, considering Abundance in the light of Scarcity. In some ways, it’s not too surprising; much of our daily conversation seems to fall into dichotomies. Threads on Facebook and Twitter devolve into schoolyard name-calling pretty quickly. The seeming democratization of these communication channels has the side effect of putting subject matter experts on the same footing as trolls. We’ve all seen how easy it can become to be more pointed, more sarcastic, more acerbic—and more certain we’re right—when you are not looking the other person in the face over a cup of coffee. Do the most important conversations need to be the ones that generate the most heat? A conversation may devolve into an argument, but I can’t recall an argument that evolved into a conversation.
We all know Argument/Counterargument doesn’t really get us too far. You don’t have to be a Hegelian to long for some Synthesis that comes after Thesis vs. Anti-thesis.
But where are our synthesizers on the evening news? In these difficult economic and social times, this country, this world is aching to be healed from negative, contrarian thinking. How might we break open conversations to bring in a little more light? Can we get a little more synthesis in here?
The French essayist, Michel de Montaigne, wrote: “There is no conversation more boring than when everyone agrees.” That said, scrolling through the lengthiest threads on Twitter or Facebook, most people would also agree with him when he said: “He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows his reason is weak.”
I’ll admit it’s taken me a while—too long in my case—to apply a new rule: No online arguments. For me, social media has evolved (and evokes) certain anti-social behaviors, a shadow side, that certainly isn’t me on my best day. But my primary reason for doing it is that they are not conversations. For every witty riposte I thought I was making, I was never looking at the other person or hearing the tone of their voice, even if they were typing in all uppercase.
Small talk isn’t the answer. Recalling Montaigne above, that’s just neutered conversation. Is there a synthesis between the trivial and the contrarian?
Fueling Authentic Conversation
In her TedX talk, Georgie Nightingall, founder of Trigger Conversations, talks about her frustration with the icebreaker question: “So what do you do?”
It wasn’t like I disliked my job. I actually really enjoyed being a project manager. But conversations about work felt incredibly lifeless, dissatisfying and boring. People asked not because they cared but because it was expected.”
She goes on to describe the different masks and roles we all have and that we know that we are more than just our jobs. She quotes Theodore Zeldin, an Oxford scholar and founder of the Oxford Muse Foundation: “Conversation doesn’t just shuffle the cards: it creates new cards and it involves being willing to emerge a slightly different person.” In his book, Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives, he lists 36 topics for conversation that go beyond our typical conversations about work, about other things we have in common.
Any authentic conversation has two key requirements: 1. We’re willing to risk changing our point-of-view (“to emerge a slightly different person.”) and 2. We genuinely want to connect to the other person(s). (If you have no real interest in me, then you’re just evangelizing for your point-of-view.)
As I was considering the topics themselves, I began wondering how we break down our binary thinking about topics and find the courage it might take to “emerge a slightly different person.” What needs to happen for change to really occur in our ways of thinking about topics like Abundance and Scarcity?
Then I read about the tragic passing of John Prine from COVID-19 and began considering the question in a new light.
John Prine and the Art of Empathy
I must admit that I was surprised at the outpouring of celebrity tributes at Prine’s passing. Of course, my surprise is in part based on my own ignorance. I’m not a musician, so to hear him spoken of as a “musician’s musician” underscores why so many more well-known musicians were moved to honor him. (I’ve always found those constructions (“musician’s musician”, “writer’s writer”, etc.) to be sort of damning with faint praise. It usually means he or she was underpaid and underappreciated.) It’s no wonder Bruce Springsteen devoted an hour to singing Prine’s praises, or that videos were circulating of Bill Murray describing how Prine’s album Great Days (recommended to him by Hunter S. Thompson), helped to get him out of a deep depression. Elvis Costello posted a lengthy tribute to Prine. Jeff Tweedy, Ashley McBride, Jeremy Ivey, and others posted covers of John Prine songs.
In the category of Abundance, I had lived with my own embarrassment of riches. For almost a decade, I lived less than a mile away from Fred Holstein’s on Lincoln Avenue and saw John Prine play there once. (What is that passage from the Bible? “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.”) Relistening to his catalog, I wish my 20-something self had had a deeper appreciation for the brilliance of his lyrics, which brings me back to conversation…
Perhaps my favorite song of Prine’s is “Sam Stone” which contains one of the most devastating choruses, sung from the point of view of a drug addict’s child. Prine is not mawkish in detail nor overly sentimental. In fact, the spareness of one six-word lyric gives an insight into the child’s hopelessness that is jaw-dropping.
Perhaps his most famous song, “Angel from Montgomery,” has a couplet that speaks to the subject at hand, connection through conversation (or lack of it):
How the hell can a person go to work in the morning And come home in the evening and have nothing to say.
I think John Prine’s lyrics provide examples of three ways we might improve our conversations:
1. They don’t take themselves too seriously. For years, John Prine delivered the mail during the day and at night played late-night sets at folk clubs around Chicago. He was known for his self-deprecating stories and song intros. His song called “In Spite of Ourselves” is a duet about two people in love but clear-eyed about who they are:
He ain’t too sharp but he gets things done Drinks his beer like it’s oxygen He’s my baby, I’m his honey I’m never gonna let him go.
2. They’re vulnerable enough to speak honestly, but not use that honesty aggressively. “I gotta say…” No. No, you don’t. That lead in is usually code for making a point to counter someone else’s, as if we are obligated to smack down anything contrary to our opinion. Check out the details from Prine’s “Far From Me” where a man is waiting for the woman he’s been dating to get off of work and realizes that she is going to break up with him:
As the cafe was closing On a warm summer night And Cathy was cleaning the spoons The radio played the hit parade And I hummed a long with the tune She asked me to change the station Said the song just drove her insane But it weren’t just the music playing It was me that she was trying to blame
And the sky is black and still now On the hill where the angels sing Ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle Looks just like a diamond ring But it’s far, far from me
He sings about how his hope “looks like a diamond ring” but is really just a broken bottle. He knows what is about to happen and knows there’s not a darn thing he can do about it. It’s vulnerable, honest, and doesn’t diminish her at all.
3. They’re empathetic. When I first heard, Prine’s song “Hello in There,” I was uncomfortable with the chorus:
You know that old trees just grow stronger And old rivers grow wilder every day Old people just grow lonesome Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello”
The sadness came through clearly enough, but I felt the last “Hello in there, hello” sounded a little mocking, a bit irreverent. Then I read the story that John Prine wrote it when he was 22 and had an elder-care facility on his mail route. He enjoyed visiting and saying “hello” to the folks to whom he was delivering mail. Whether he’s writing about the woman stuck in a routine dreaming of becoming an angel or visiting the elderly lost in their own thoughts, his songs are deeply empathetic.
When Talk Isn’t Cheap
Like John Prine song intros and great conversations, we’ve rambled a bit (this “shelter-at-home” stuff), so let’s summarize: from pandemic solutions to climate change to institutional racism we are sorely in need of authentic conversation. Conversations have been started: about Circular Economies and Net Zero Commitment and The Research to Action Lab. But it will take much more conversation and action to affect real change and save lives.
Focusing on Scarcity can lead to a language of hoarding (whether that’s toilet paper, food, or natural resources). One thing this pandemic has made very clear (to me, at least) is what an Abundance we have been living with. The language of Abundance speaks of what we share with others, of what we should celebrate.
Perhaps if we took ourselves a little less seriously, if we risked a little more in terms of our own vulnerability and applied a bit more empathy, we can find some way to synthesizing some of our passion for change. One of the first things we are going to do at c|change when we’re finally able to open things up a bit is to host some conversations. We’ve already begun our B Corporation certification. (We hope to be able to announce our certification soon.) We see that as just the next step in engaging with our community.
Instead of bickering whether the glass is half full or half empty, perhaps it’s time we celebrate that it’s a glass of water?
Cheers. Let’s discuss.
[If you’re interested in becoming part of the face-to-face post-pandemic, please drop me a line at: email@example.com]
John Prine and my mother
If there’s a John Prine song that has taken on a deep poignance to me the past year and a half, it’s “Hello in There.”
My mother is currently in a memory care facility in Michigan that is under lockdown due to the coronavirus. Last time I checked (which is often) more than a quarter of all coronavirus deaths in the U.S., 11,000 out of 39,000, were at nursing homes in 36 states.
But as much as I am thankful for a technology that allows me to talk to her, in some ways it makes the distance, the lack of real human contact, all the more painful. I am unable to hug her. And while I’m able to say “Hello” and she can say “Hello” back it’s all mediated through technology. In my heart I know that is not my mother there in front of me.
In a time of increased polarization and isolation, we can learn a lot from John Prine's music and his approach to conversation. By embracing vulnerability, empathy, and humor, we can create more meaningful connections with each other and move towards a more harmonious society. As we continue to grapple with the challenges of the pandemic and beyond, let us honor John Prine's legacy by striving to be better listeners and more compassionate communicators.