Some conversations are just less interesting than others. The simple facts of a person’s day—the route to work, the morning snack, the spilled coffee—are not interesting unless they reveal something about the person who lived those details. In the same way, prayer requests about a distant, sick aunt can be boring unless we know something about the aunt and her place in that person’s life. Human beings want to know people. The details help when they reveal what is important to the speaker. Here is the task: How can we redirect a conversation that seems terminally superficial so we see the person in front of us?
There are at least two preconditions for this question. One is that we recognize that our daily conversations are the basic stuff of God’s kingdom, and we hope to be increasingly skilled in them. A second precondition is that we actually care about the other person. If we are bored or impatient, we are not loving well and will have no interest in knowing the person or working on deeper conversations. Love is creative in how it both asks questions and listens; boredom and impatience are simply waiting for a lull so they can leave for something more interesting.
So you try again, and . . . off the other person goes into details that chronicle events without hints of what might have been important in those events. But this time, you are committed to love and aren’t simply looking for the exit. Instead, you listen, accompanied, perhaps, with a quick review of the contours of a good conversation. You are looking for a map of the person’s heart because that is where all-things interesting live. When in doubt, the portal is desire, flecks of emotion. The afflicted person desires relief (Ps 10:17). We all desire life (Ps 34:12) and steadfast love (Pro 19:22). Listen for the person’s pleasures and pains, excitement, and weariness.
From this vantage point, the details might sound richer. Most people go into details when they are impacted by something personally important. What is that person saying in the litany of information? How do the details express heart issues? To find out, you might ask:
“Do you like your work? It sounds like it is very important to you. What do you like about it?”
“You often talk about your coworkers. You seem to really care about them. You almost sound like a pastor at work.”
“You mentioned this aunt before. Why does she have a special place in your heart?”
No hints of emotion? Ask more questions.
“What stands out as especially significant from your week?” “What’s been important to you?” “How you been feeling this week?”
“Tell me about your aunt. What is she like?”
With those who are closer to you, each day deserves these two questions: What was the best part of the day? What was the hardest part of your day? Then you share in the hardship and the joy together.
Your attempts, of course, will not always be successful. I had been closing in on these questions with a friend, but the conversation always seemed to move into details that seemed less important and my attention wandered. Deeper love might have alerted me to how those details were important to him; I never quite got there. But, in God’s mercy to me, the last time we spoke, his wife came by and blurted out his fears about a significant change at work that I probably would never have recognized. In other words, I needed divine intervention—the Spirit working through his wife—to find that portal. Finally, I knew how to pray for him, and our future conversations carried more meaning for both of us. No more wandering attention. Our time together might begin with “You’ve been through huge changes at work. As I have thought of your situation, I would feel lost. How have you been?” “What is it like to lose your routines?” “What new anxieties come from all this?” “How should I be praying for you this week?” And I came prepared to ask him to pray for me, too.
The heart goes deeper still. At the very center of our hearts is the triune God who has revealed himself most fully in Jesus. In other words, any conversation about Jesus is good and meaningful—a favorite gospel story, personal doubts, what we are learning, what confuses us, or a recent Scripture, such as this one, that recently provoked smiles and a few minutes of praise in me. “He was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone” (Col 1:18, The Message).
Notice how this works though. If I were to interrupt my friend with, “Any Scripture you have been thinking about recently?” or “What are you learning about Jesus?” it would have been awkward, even rude. I might as well have said, “Enough of this. Talk about something more important.” But once I was able to find a way into matters that were important to him, questions such as these became natural.
Conversations are the medium for life, love, community, and wise help. This is where most ministry happens. Dull ones are draining. Growing ones, exciting. Our mission is to grow in being increasingly skillful in these conversations. Today, consider new goals for these skills in your relationships with those in your home.