Elevate the Conversation

I was recently introduced to a proverb:

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.

It’s amazing how succinctly this quote (usually misattributed to Eleanor Roosevelt) describes the way most of our daily interactions work. Look at the media. Find yourself reading People magazine? Maybe you’d learn more by watching the Events on CNN. And you would learn even more if you cracked open the Economist and read about the great Ideas in there.

When you are having a conversation, the first question you should ask is, are we talking about People, Events, or Ideas? And if it’s People or Events, see if you can elevate the conversation.

This is harder than it seems. We all are tempted to talk about people that we know. We are natural gossips. These are conversations we all have had:

Could it be because these are such easy topics? After all, it requires no intellectual engagement to discuss the petty lives of others. But people much wiser than I have said that such meddling makes the meddler even more petty in turn. So when you find yourself trapped in a conversation about People, what’s the solution?

Elevate the conversation. Talk about Events.

Conversations about Events are probably the most frequent. The litmus test for a conversation about Events is, “Could I be having this same conversation with someone else without changing it?” If so, you may be talking about Events, which again, are conversations we have all had:

Events conversation require some engagement. They require both parties to understand the events in question and formulate their own opinions. But they do not demand that the parties interact with each other. Events conversations are safe, perhaps, which is why they appear to be so frequent. Have you noticed that all Small Talk is Events Talk, unless both parties have a mutual friend, in which case the conversation immediately devolves into People, the path of least resistance?

Next time you are having a conversation about People or Events, see if you can elevate the conversation. Talk about Ideas instead:

It requires effort to turn People into Events and Events into Ideas, but it’s totally doable. For example, turn People into Events by asking and inquiring what People do for a living, then turn Events into Ideas by deconstructing the problem they are trying to solve and learning the foundational concepts that make that problem worth solving.

Most people like talking about Ideas. After all, everyone has them. But they may not be comfortable openly discussing them with casual acquaintances. Or perhaps it’s just easier to stick to well trodden ground, where the risk of confrontation is low and the social rewards may be high.

But I’ll tell you one thing: the people I remember the best are the people who want to talk about Ideas from the get-go, and who don’t care about the petty formulations of People and Events. If I meet an Ideas person, that’s someone I want to get to know better.


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