If you’ve ever written a book or embarked on any long project for that matter or even just cooked dinner for someone, you know that there will be surprises along the way. Sometimes those surprises are unexpectedly great. But every so often, one of those surprises will change your game plan completely. This is exactly what happened while I was working on my recent book, Making Conversation: Seven Essential Elements of Meaningful Conversation.
The book had an unassuming start. I had hit a bit of a writing lull when old friends Will and Dan had stopped by our farm for a long dinner. During the visit, they both had suggested that I interview Will’s mother, Donaree about her book club. I agreed to set something up but admittedly it was out of politeness. I had just finished writing a chapter about meeting the Dalai Lama. What was I really going to learn from a woman’s book club in Salt Lake City? How wrong that assumption would prove to be. To this day, Donaree’s book club is one of those stories I tell to nearly everyone I talk to about the book.
The story follows below and I won’t spoil it here, but Donaree changed my life and as a result, inspired the book I needed to write instead of the one I thought I had needed to.
My life lesson is this: Good change is always happening in conversations but it’s only change if you notice it happening. Donaree is exceptional at this. I have met many famous and world renown communicators and yet she is the one I try to emulate and model in my daily conversations.
As to how she influenced the book, that part is both simple and obvious. Being with Donaree pulled me away from wanting to write about fabulous adventures of pilgrimage to exotic locales or visits with the Dalai Lama, but instead turned my sights on to normal everyday people like you and me and Donaree who are making the hardest conversations of their lives happen everyday. In a time when the news (minus Thrive) is telling us that people cannot make hard conversations happen, that we are too polarized and too divided, we need to (at least I need to) relentlessly tell stories of conversations that happened and succeeded. This story does that and those stories are stories of hope. Enjoy.
There are moments that remind us that we all come from the same source.
We were all pretty shocked and embarrassed. We just sat through the first twenty minutes in silence, but we persisted.” Donaree, a seventy-four-year-old self-described devout Christian in Salt Lake City, was telling me about when her book group watched Deep Throat, the infamous porn film from the 1970s.
It began “innocently” enough. Donaree was playing bridge with her husband and a collection of friends when someone mentioned an article they’d read about hardware stores across the country running out of rope—all because of this new book Fifty Shades of Grey. One of the women mentioned that she’d been on a waiting list for it at the library; yet another had gotten the whole series for Christmas. That afternoon, they decided they would pull together a small collection of women and read the book together.
A few of the women knew each other well; others were friends of friends; all of them were between their fifties and seventies. They came from fairly conservative religious upbringings. Many were faithful Christians, Methodists, and Catholics; one even ran a local Christian charity.
“That first conversation was so much fun. It was a magic thing, actually, the gateway to have a conversation on this topic,” said Donaree. “When we started talking, we realized there was a lot of stuff in that book we just have never even heard of, right? So, we just started asking each other questions.‘What do you think that’s about? What about this?’ Then a couple of months go by and we read the second one and get together.”
The conversations progressed; they started in a place of just trying to understand, literally understand, what was happening in the books and gradually began to help them understand their own feelings about what happened.
Then they watched Deep Throat. Afterward, they became curious about the woman who starred in that film and went on to watch Lovelace, a biopic on the star of Deep Throat, Linda Lovelace, which centers around the profound negative impact that movie had on her life.
Those two films marked a moment when the conversation began to turn from the excitement of discovering sexuality to beginning to understand the exploitation of sexuality, the persecution of nonconforming gender identities, and increasingly moved toward more complex and nuanced conversations.
“After that, we kind of discarded the books,” said Donaree. “We became a group of six women that started talking about things that are probably on a lot of women’s minds but never, ever comes out of their mouths because there’s never an opportunity to say things or ask questions.”
Change is an essential component of making conversation— in many cases, it is the goal of a creative conversation. Serious, hard conversations that don’t enable some form of change are, unfortunately, just serious and hard conversations.
That’s why I love the story of Donaree’s book club.
First, their experience helps us define what we mean by change. I’ve spent a long time grappling with that definition, and recently I thought back to an interview I’d done with the playwright Lisa Kron months earlier on the idea of catharsis. You may remember this concept from high school English class: it’s a moment in theater that inspires a release of “pity and fear.” When I mentioned it as a critical component of change, she just brushed the idea aside; I think it seemed a bit heady to her. She offered a much more beautiful and simpler approach.
“Catharsis,” she said, “is really just a moment of collectively showing up.”
Her words came back to me and created a moment of clarity. The kind of change I was looking for was change that forged a collective. I was looking for a moment that said we showed up for one another and now we’re moving forward together. It is ultimately that building of a collective that allows us to imagine and create the future we want to inhabit.
Second, Donaree and her friends noticed they were changing.
Each time they recognized that they felt different, more knowledgeable, and engaged on the topic. It’s important to recognize that it was the books and films at the center of their club that helped them progress—in essence, motivating that change. “After reading Fifty Shades of Grey, we just had so many questions”— that’s a reaction to the book, a need to understand a kind of curiosity. But if they hadn’t also been so remarkably aware that the book had provoked a change, and they liked it, they would not have been in a place to continue making conversation in the first place.
As Donaree said to me toward the end of our conversation, “Moments that are full of potential for connection happen all the time, to everybody, in little specific groups. You find yourself in spaces with specific groups a lot of times, but if you’re not aware, they just pass by. How full your life would be if you’d grab onto those moments when they happen.”
Noticing that change has happened, and finding some way to surface that change, the nature of it, and perhaps marking it so you can continue to elevate the conversation, is something that can be done purposefully. There are tools at our fingertips that are built for exactly that; they can help us see change and use that change to go further, and many of them are found in age-old human ritual. What we want to start to explore as we look at change are the tools that help prepare us for change, notice change, and then finally move on to the next big change in our conversation.