Meet the group reviving the fine art of conversation

In a small group of strangers, there was an empathy, curiosity and acceptance between us that made our conversations real and meaningful, writes Jonathan deBurca Butler.

A masonic lodge seems an unlikely place to host an event in which participants are invited to speak openly and honestly to people they have never met before.

But here I am on a Saturday evening about to sit at a table with three other men and spill all sorts of beans.

I’m here to take part in the first of three Conversation Salons that will feature as part of the First Fortnight Festival.

Now in its sixth year, the aim of the festival is to focus minds on mental health through arts and cultural events across the country.

Tonight’s focus is the art of conversation.

“Conversation is a really valuable currency that I think is being devalued in modern society,” says life coach and host for the evening, Heather Bourke.

“People aren’t having face to face conversations anymore, simply because of our busy lifestyles and because we spend so much time online and looking at our phones.We’re addicted to our fake lives on social media and I think it has so many implications for the fabric of society in terms of mental health and community.”

Inspired by the idea of the famed 18th and 19th century salons of Paris, Heather started her own gatherings three years ago in an effort to “reclaim conversation in the 21st century”.

“The feedback has amazed me really,” she says.

“Most people comment on how open and honest people are and how incredibly willing they are to get straight in there with really serious and challenging stuff. Once you raise the bar and offer the opportunity, people respond because they are sick of small talk. I think universally people hunger for a deeper discourse about life and meaning and that’s what this type of event offers.”

If the group I joined after speaking to Heather are anything to go by, she is spot on in her assessment.

The format is simple. Each table has four people who are presented with a conversation menu from which they choose their topic.

There is no time limit per topic and as it turned out our table only covered two from a choice of 10 in our hour-long session.

In that time Gary, myself and two Peters learnt quite a bit about each other but at the same time very little.

I never found out what any of them did for example, though I gathered one of the Peters worked in the arts and that Gary had studied science.

I never asked where any of them lived or were from.

Having those social filters turned off was liberating in a way.

It meant being able to listen to the content of what they said without foisting my own prejudices upon their words.

And there was no holding back.

Within the first 10 minutes of meeting, we discovered that Gary had had an argument with his girlfriend and had spent the previous night on the couch. Apparently they had made up; she was sitting at another table in the room talking to another group.

One of the Peters was hopeful that a woman he had met recently might become something more than a friend in 2017.

There were problems, not least a significant age gap, but in the end, we concluded that the situation was most definitely “in play” and that he should go for it.

From there we got on to the Middle East, the rise of the right, freedom of speech, political systems, duality, the existence of God, astrophysics and the housing crisis.

And I finally managed to tell someone that my recent purchase of a house had left me feeling frightened.

Frightened not because of debt but because of the fact that it was another life marker completed and therefore only underlined the fact that I was getting older.

“There is more of me behind me than ahead of me,” I explained.

“And that freaks me out.”

I had never told anyone that and yet here I was telling strangers about this fear of “running out of things to chase”.

Gary and the two Peters were now becoming my favourite people in the world, simply because they were curious, didn’t dismiss me or didn’t make me feel that what I was saying was a complaint or a moan but just a simple expression of how I felt about something.

There was no comeback, no judgement.

It was great to be able to just say it.

It probably helped that they had never had anything to do with me until now.

They had no relationship with me.

Nobody wanted anything from each other and nobody had anything to lose or gain by listening or not listening or arguing for the sake of it.

There was an empathy between us. We spoke, we listened and we asked each other questions and it was great.

There were no jokes, no slagging, nobody was trying to show the other person up or put them down or shut them up.

It was conversational heaven and all alcohol free.

The hour went by in a flash and at the end of it all, I got up, shook hands and walked away.

As I stepped out into the evening I felt I had more to say. Alas, Molesworth Street was eerily quiet.

The final salon takes place on Friday, January 13 at 2.30pm Croke Park, Jones’ Rd entrance



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