Since I wrote The Hunger For Deep Conversation (Inquiring Deeply Newsletter, May, 2022), I have been paying close attention to which conversations feel “deep” to me, and why. What I found was that depth has several different dimensions. For example, sometimes “deep” connoted a conversation in which I felt safe to be very open and self-revealing; a conversation which felt intensely personal. At other times, “deep” referred to the emotional resonance I felt with the other. But the kind of “deep” I am writing about here—the kind of “deep” that I am most hungry for—is deep in the sense of wise or profound, philosophical. To distinguish this dimension of depth from the others, I have decided to use the term “transformative conversation”.
I have spent my life seeking out such conversations and have been fortunate to find friends with whom to have them. In the end, I have come to see that, for me, transformative conversation is a kind of wisdom practice; a relational form of deep inquiry.
The Relational field [i]
A good place to begin a discussion of transformative conversation is with the concept of the relational field : the invisible yet palpable field of energy that connects us when we are present with someone.
Depth reflects mutual Presence in the relational field: the quality of focused, receptive attention we bring to the present moment. When we slow down and attune to each other in conversation— coming into presence with one another— our mutual presence creates a synergy which amplifies our experience of depth in the relational field. Through this interpenetrating interpersonal resonance, depth of awareness can be a shared experience.
Depth also reflects the interpersonal chemistry involved in our connections with others.
Such chemistry may be a function of human neurobiology: whenever we engage intently in seeing and listening to another—eye contact is important in this—there is an inter-brain synchronization that occurs, aligning our somatic and affective states[ii]. In this way, we nonverbally perceive, communicate, and mutually regulate each other’s subjective states. Through this interpenetrating interpersonal resonance, depth of awareness can be shared.
Deep awareness is the foundation of transformative conversation.
The relational field we experience in any conversational context is a function of the field of our mutual listening. Similar to meditative listening, the heart of such listening is receptive attention to whatever is arising. It is enhanced by paying attention to the deep silence which can be found in the subjective background as we interact, sustaining attention to what is emergent.
In addition to this nonverbal awareness, how we listen to the content of what is spoken also plays a key role in experiencing depth. Meaning is expressed both in the music and in the words of what is said.
Actually, deep listening involves paying attention both to what is spoken and to what is not spoken. We listen to the listening of the other, and we also listen within for our felt sense of the conversational moment[iii].
What I want to emphasize here is that the symbolic meanings conveyed in language are not separate from the entire field of reactivity in the minds of both speaker and listener. We shape the relational field with our state of mind as well as with the thoughts, imagery, and feelings we bring to the conversation. Each of us has our own language, our own idiom. Meanings are created with the word pictures we paint in the relational field of conversation.
Deep listening is the backbone of transformative conversation.
Transformative conversation often involves the enactment of self-reflection. In speaking our thoughts out loud— held in the deep listening of the other— we can discover what we may not have known we thought; what has been “pre-reflectively unconscious”. And– in feeling deeply seen and heard, deeply received and understood— we can expand upon our self-understanding.
This is not meant to suggest that deep conversation consists of fully formulated thoughts simply waiting to be discovered or elucidated. Rather, it often has to do with unformulated experience : experience not yet put into words. New meanings emerge at this boundary between what is unformulated and what is formulated; between what is unknown and what is becoming known. If we pay close attention, we may even be able to find the “felt sense” of emergent meaning—some kind of “intriguing confusion”, or perhaps struggle, which we are wanting to make sense of.
Intellectual though this description may sound, the articulation of meaning in deep conversation is not primarily a conceptual process. Rather, it is comprehension grounded in intuition and empathy. Deep understanding is a process of feeling our way towards whatever meaning is unfolding. In the shared field of deep listening and understanding, the mind is enabled to tap into deep layers of the psyche and the knowledge that the unconscious holds.
Deep understanding is a relational act.
Transformative Conversation: Inquiring Deeply in the Relational Field
Many transformative conversations come about with no explicit intention or agenda beyond the desire to connect and talk, to “mix minds” with someone simply for the pleasure of it. Such conversations simply follow the thread of ideas which present themselves to be spoken. This may be likened to rowing a boat down a river, where the current of our deep mutual listening carries the conversation effortlessly along.
But, at least for me, there is another kind of transformative conversation: one which is pre-meditated, undertaken with the purpose of deepening my understanding of something. I most often seek out such conversations when I am deeply engaged in inquiring deeply about something. For example, in recent weeks I have had several conversations with others about the subjective experience of Depth. Such conversations are deliberate, if not strategic; undertaken with the intention to resolve a question or simply to create space to discover meanings which are incubating within.
I also seek out transformative l conversations when I want to explore something which is at the leading edge of what is unfolding in my life. In the conversational mirror of the other, it is often possible to see our struggles and difficulties more clearly. It has been my experience that there is always wisdom available when we turn towards rather than away from what we are resisting or where we are “stuck”, and transformative conversations allow us to deeply encounter these places within ourselves. What crops up in our lives is neither incidental nor accidental; it is the substance we think with and the forward face of what we will become. [iv]
In short, transformative conversation provides a space in which we may be able to gain relational freedom[v]: the freedom to think new thoughts and to see ourselves in new ways.
Transformative conversation is, I think, in service to the experience of depth itself.
[i] The relational field is explored in my book, Schuman, M. (2017) “Mindfulness-Informed Relational Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis: Inquiring Deeply Routledge Press, New York.
[ii] See for example Schore, A.N. (2021) Front. Psychol. Vol. 12
[iii] In early psychoanalysis, this quality of attention was called “listening with the third ear” [Reik,T. (1949) Listening With The Third Ear. Farrar, Strauss & Co. New York]
[iv] Hirschfield, J. (1998) Nine Gates: Entering The Mind of Poetry. Harper Perennial, New York
[v] Stern, Donnel (2017) Relational Freedom. Routledge Press, New York