Monday, September 13, 2010

The Importance of Conversation

I was recently reminded of how seemingly unimportant conversations touch others as I sat in a Starbucks in a small town in western Canada and read the handwritten message on the plastic cup that held my iced venti latte.

The message read:

Lethbridge will miss you! – SBUX #4628

For those of you who don’t know me well, I do some of my best work in coffee shops across North America.  They give me an opportunity to stay energized on caffeine, an opportunity to concentrate in a place where my anonymity allows me to focus, a chance to get to know the city or town I am in (all the good and bad news of a city flows through the local coffee shop) and an opportunity to interact with amazing people.  I become a bit of a local fixture -- the mysterious stranger who engages in passionate conversation about any subject before disappearing as suddenly as he appeared.

I am the type of person who engages in conversation with everybody … sitting beside me on the plane, standing in the line at the supermarket, attending to my table in a restaurant and yes, hanging out at the coffee shop.  Some of my greatest friendships have started this way.

When I interact with people like this, I am given an opportunity to gain insight into what makes people happy, sad, angry, perplexed and the whole menagerie of other things we all experience daily.

I also have an opportunity to see that people today, despite all of our connectivity through texting, Facebook, Twitter and other forms of communication, still really appreciate a good ol’ honest-to-goodness face-to-face conversation.

I would almost suggest that we hunger for them more than ever.

Our world is becoming one of instant, quick, often sterile exchanges of information.  Sure we insert abbreviations like LOL (laughing out loud), ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing) and the like, but nothing beats real laughter shared in person.

I am also made aware of how many people out there hunger for someone to listen to them; someone who reaches out to a stranger and says a kind word that suggests that if they need someone to listen to, then the “ear” has just arrived.  This is not an “ear” that will judge but rather, an “ear” of a new friend who cares and who is genuinely interesting in hearing their story.

For many who need that “ear”, they are not necessarily looking for a solution.  However, sharing a burden oftentimes can help lighten someone’s load.  To know one is not alone is a powerful aid to overcoming many of today’s challenges.

In our day-to-day life, we may not be aware of the importance of such spontaneous, often short-lived conversation.  In case you are not aware of the importance of such conversations, allow me to share what a spontaneous conversation can produce.

Back in 2005, I was embroiled in a large international fraud trial in New York Supreme Court.  As key witness for the prosecution, I alternated between being perceived as everyone's best friend and everyone's worst enemy.  I had death threats against myself and my family and at one point, I was offered witness protection by the State of New York.  On a wet, windy Wednesday in August of 2005, I was driving through a small town in Newfoundland, Canada when I received a call on my cell phone from one of the parties in the case.  I wanted to concentrate on the call, so I pulled over at a place known as Topsail Beach to focus on the conversation.

For the hour that I was on the call, I could not believe how Life was so complicated and how I had allowed myself to get caught up in such a mess.  During that hour, I also noticed a lady in a red car to my left.  She was crying profusely with her head in her hands during the whole hour I was on the phone.

When I was finished with the call I started my truck and drove away,wondering what could make my day darker.  When I drove about 150 feet or so, I had a feeling that something wasn't right and so I turned around and went back to the red car.

I walked over to the driver's side and tapped on the glass.  Now you can imagine how a woman would feel in such a situation; a man measuring six-foot-three, wearing dark glasses and approaching her in a remote area.  The lady opened the window about an inch and I asked her if she was ok.  She indicated that she was fine.  I told her that from where I sat, she did not appear to be fine at all.  I also told her that however dark Life appeared to her at that moment, it was in fact filled with love for her and that if she could see that, she would find the way out of the darkness that she saw. 

She thanked me and I walked away.  As I got back to my truck, I thought "Nope, that's still not good enough".  I turned around, went back and gave her my name and phone number on a piece of paper.  I told her to call anytime and that there were lots of people out there who could help her find the light that she needed.  She thanked me again and I left.

A week later, almost to the hour, I was driving past the same spot and realized that my cell phone wasn't on.  I turned it on and it promptly told me that I had a voicemail.  I pulled over and listened to the message, a message so profound that I couldn't speak and so I silently passed the phone to my better half so she could listen to it.

It was a message left at 1:20 that morning.  It was clear by the message from the mysterious lady I had met a week earlier, that while I had been wondering why my Life was so complicated, Lynn, as the caller identified herself, was contemplating why Life was worth living.  She had been waiting for me to leave so that she could permanently end the anguish she was experiencing.

It appeared that my spontaneous act had interrupted plans that would probably have had a much darker result had I not spoken to her.

She indicated in her message that my act of compassion and kindness, the actions of a complete stranger, would stay with her forever.  When my day is difficult I replay her message to help put my day back into perspective.  My act of going over to speak to her had caused her to rethink her actions, to change her perception of the world and to see the beauty in Life.  In return, her act of calling me to thank me caused me to change my perception of my world and the importance of every interaction we have with others.

This spontaneous conversation between two strangers lasted less than five minutes.  The result of the conversation will last a lifetime.

It reminds me to of how important every conversation is.

Every conversation has the opportunity to change a life forever.

Perhaps it is someone else’s.

Perhaps it is yours.

As for the wonderful folks at the Starbucks in Lethbridge, I’ll stop in again soon to say hi.  The same goes for the great people at Coffee Matters in Paradise, Newfoundland, Canada and my favorite little places in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Ottawa and everywhere else I have parked myself to muse upon the workings of the world.

And when I get there, perhaps I will be blessed to have a conversation with you.  If you’re shy, that’s not a problem.  I will say hi first to get us started. :-)

In service and servanthood.


For my Musings-in-a-Minute version of “The Importance of Conversation”, please click here.


  1. I read this on 360 Boom and loved it. Great article. I so agree. I have had people thank me for something I said that I have no recollection of. Just listening is, I think, a lost art.
    I started reading some of your other articles. You write very well and I appreciate your thoughts.

  2. Hi Scott,

    Thank you for your very kind words. I have had an opportunity to take a peek at your website and it is definitely a privilege to connect with you. I really like the intention you have set out to create and hope more people read your message.

    Take care and create a great day!