Conversation is the Architecture of Being

Jon Osborne is interested in how the conversations we have create the world we live in. The language and stories we share define what we then live as possible, or not. And if we feel stuck, perhaps there’s a missing conversation that we need to have.

In this conversation, Jon speaks with Kirsty Moegerlein, tracking everything from Jon’s Cockney heritage to dating stories to pivotal life moments of stepping off the known track, to their shared love of ontological design, which Jon describes as the architecture of being.

Jon: This conversation began like all conversations — in a fairly unstructured way. Delivering a carefully crafted monologue about conversation didn’t feel like the right format. Instead, conversations are kind of often like a dance where you’re in the moment but you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. The conversation is an act of unfolding creation.

Conversations only have meaning in context. We start by acknowledging our context here in Australia, and the land that we’re on; Wurunjeri land. This is part of a conversational practice which is both important and inadequate around the traditional owners, where we name the fact that we stand on land which is not ours, which is stolen. That acknowledgement raises many emotions. I pay my respects to the elders of this land past, present and emerging. And I do that for the sake of creating a better future with them in the place of not knowing how to do that.

My interest in conversation grew from me being bad at it. I’m the first of four kids, and it took me a long time to speak. Then, when I started making speech-like noises, they were not noises that anybody else could understand. My mum took me to a speech therapist, who said, ‘He’s not listening to anything I’m saying. He’s listening to the buzzing of the lights and the water in the pipes.’ And as soon as she realised that, she realised that I had very sensitive hearing, and I was listening to the wrong things. I couldn’t speak, because I wasn’t listening to the wrong things.

I couldn’t speak because I wasn’t listening to the right things

When we think of conversation, we often think of speaking. But conversation can only occur because we listen. In the many times I’ve been stuck, the gift of this experience is to realise that I’m not having the conversation that I want to have. Perhaps I don’t know how to have the conversation, so then we go back to listening — learning to listen differently, learning to pay attention differently.

Kirsty: I’m curious because part of the reason that you’re here and we’re having this conversation is that, like, presently, in your work, conversation is really important. It’s important to what you do. Are you able to join the dots for us between those early times when you were learning about why it’s important for you to be able to communicate and listen? And are you able to thread a little bit of a line for us between then and now?

Jon: In our prior conversations we’ve spoken a great deal about design as an ally of transition and an agent of change. We can talk more about design, but first let’s talk about the idea of architecture.

One thing that fascinates me about architecture is that — as Winston Churchill said — we create buildings, then buildings create us. The way we live, travel, eat, socialise and work is all a function of the buildings and the cities we have created.

Kirsty: Yes, and I think we’re both interested in a more indirect method of change. Or one that is concerned less with cause and effect ‘out there’, but with creating the conditions for people to have a different kind of conversation. And this leads us to our shared interest in Ontological Design.

There’s an example from Anne Marie Willis where she talks about a juice box and compares it with a jug. Juice boxes design things like, convenience and speediness, and waste as well. They don’t design conviviality, like a jug does. I think the form-based examples are the easiest examples of this way that we are talking about design, especially how it affects our worlds and shape us.

But what I want to think more about is the less visible forces that shape the future. Things like atmospheres, sensations in the body, feelings, and even the way in which cultures move and change. These are forces that shape our ontology. And in some ways this feels slightly counter-cultural, because Western culture has often ignored or misunderstood things that it can’t freeze in place and peer at through a microscope.

Jon: That’s where the notion of conversational architecture appears for me. In the same way that we shape objects, then they shape us, so it is with language.

This isn’t a new idea, by the way, although language is a relatively new technology for us as humans. Nowadays we speak a lot about technologies like digital technology, and we worry about becoming cyborgs, if we’re not already. But this idea of language isn’t new. In the Bible, there’s the story of the Tower of Babel where humankind got together and had a common language. And they were able to build this enormously high tower, perhaps representative of progress and dominion over nature. Then the Lord came down and scattered the people and gave them different languages.

What do you take from that story? Well, it’s a myth, you take whatever you want from it. What I take is that we are a technological species, and the way that we use that technology doesn’t influence our world, it creates our world.

If language creates our world, then things that are missing for us are representative of missing conversations. One missing conversation is that language is the way in which we create our worlds. The world is not according to how I see it, but how I am.

Kirsty: I’ve been listening to a little three part series with David Whyte, the poet, and it’s all on Irish culture and conversation. It’s really beautiful. He explained that when he brings people to Ireland for retreats — they come from Australia, from the US, from Dublin, no matter where they come from, everyone’s exhausted. Doesn’t matter how far you’ve travelled, people come, they’re exhausted, they arrive and they’re tired. And he says, most of the time, they’re tired because of the conversation they’ve been having with themselves: it’s exhausting for them. And they haven’t been able to find a way through that conversation. And he basically asks them to put that conversation to one side and drink from a deeper well. And then you’re allowed to do that for a week. So when we ask, what is the missing conversation? It’s not the conversation that you’ve been having with yourself, that’s exhausting you. It’s something that’s missing that might give you a bit of joy.

What is the missing conversation? What are the missing conversations in our world?

Jon: That’s a lovely example. It was less the experience itself that was exhausting than the conversation that produced a response to the experience. It’s a great example of how language creates our reality; to have an ongoing conversation with oneself can be tiring. Compare that to telling oneself that things are an adventure — to do so creates a different ‘world’. We live a different experience we because we are having a different conversation with ourself.

The power and challenge of this interpretation is that we may come to take greater responsibility for our own experience, because it’s our interpretation that creates the experience. That can be both unsettling and transformational.

Let me tell another story about conversation. Part of my history is that I used to be an engineer, and now I mostly work in leadership development, and in between I worked in business strategy. Let me tell you a story about buildings and conversations. I came to work on a dream project about redesigning the way that buildings were built, to be more sustainable and beneficial to a whole community. At the end of it, I walked away and had this awful realisation that nothing would change. Because the conversations of the organisation, and the leader involved hadn’t changed. In that moment, I saw that I didn’t know how to produce the types of conversations required to create the future that we want. It was deeply uncomfortable, and it was also a gift, because it revealed to me the core question of leadership — of how to produce the embodied skill of conversations that produce a different future.

In our traditional western interpretation, we think that conversation is primarily about doing; about “getting people to do stuff”. One of the qualities of conversation we’ve shared is your attention to the notion of being.

Kirsty: I’ll share one story that might be relevant to this topic of being and becoming. When I was 19, I’d been away for a year, after high school on a gap year. I got into law at university. I was trying to reach the highest pinnacle of studies, thinking that’s what I wanted. And then I was on an aeroplane coming back home and I had a piece of paper with a line down the middle and two columns, and on one side I had law and the other side I had written ‘be creative’. I just allowed myself to imagine forwards and wonder, who would I become if I was a lawyer? And who would I become if I chose this creative path? I felt into the ‘fight energy’ of lawyer and it was in step with my family line, and their fight for social justice. Then the other side was the creative column. That side of the page felt quite joyful and gift orientated. I didn’t know how it was going to make an impact, because it’s quite difficult to trace the impact of creativity. But I decided, in that moment, to choose a creative path. It felt like that decision enabled me to step off the tracks of what I knew, and out onto some other path I could sense who I was to become.

The key to the decision was centred around who do I want to be, not in terms of status or money or a destination, but more centred around what it might feel like to be creative as a daily way of being, and how that way of being might be generative of the kind of futures I longed for. Deeply creative futures, where everyone is engaged in some form of creating and artistic imagining on a daily basis!

Jon: There’s so many things in that story for me. There was a moment of clarity, which often happens on an aeroplane. I don’t know why. There’s something about the quietness and the isolation, and floating above — how metaphorical.

But we’re also zooming out, right. And there was this moment of realisation where you made an intervention in your own life that was concerned with being not doing. That’s one of the things that I really take from that story. Then there was a relentless pursuit — a process of generation, where you chose to remain in the question.

I remember a nun I once met saying: fall in love, stay in love, and it will inform everything you do.

Fall in love, stay in love and it will inform everything that you do

I don’t know if that resonates for you, that language. It seems to me there was a moment of truth.

So how did you come to explore these this strange world of ‘ontological design’?

Kirsty: I think I’m interested in the question: how does change happen? I mean, things are always changing all the time, but how do we help support particular transitions to take place — in other words how can we relate to ourselves, each other and the more-than-human world in ways that are harmonious and not destructive to future generations?

After looking into this question for a few years, I kept stumbling across the term Ontological Design. What Ontological Design does is it shows us how our mental models are deeply connected to the urban material world we have designed (largely influenced by western thinking), and how this urbanised material world continues to design and shape not just our habits and practices, but how we perceive and think about our worlds. We can say that Ontological Design acknowledges that our thinking and the environments in which we dwell continually inform and co-construct the worlds we move through. I think one of the best ways to describe Ontological Design is through an example. Arturo Escobar says ‘give me a Maloca and I’ll raise a relational world’. He’s referring to a long-house, a traditional house of Amazonian peoples that houses several families. And his point is this: if you’re raised in a material and social environment that teaches you the skills to practice collective life and value relationality, then you will view the world through a relational lens. Ultimately, if we’re thinking about ontology, we’re thinking about how we are in the world.

Jon: I agree, and I also don’t think it’s a question of right or wrong. The way we are organised is perfect. It’s organised perfectly to do what we’re doing, to create what we’re creating — which, as you say, is a lot of wealth and health and also a lot of sickness at the expense of the planet.

Kirsty: Letting go of a story or something that you’re perfectly organised to perpetuate is sort of a big challenge, isn’t it? As it serves you in many ways, even if it doesn’t result in a positive outcome?

Jon: Yes. The infrastructure that you speak about is relevant, because it produces the context for learning to be possible. The infrastructure is ultimately created from the architecture of being, which is conversation. The quality of our lives is dependent on the quality of our conversations.

Kirsty: Yes, and that’s why learning to take risks or know how to shift the conversation or seek out the kinds of conversations you want to be having is so important. Because it’s a skill, and it’s a practical wisdom you can develop and hone over time, so that you find yourself with people or in places where you can have conversations that you want to have.

I think there’s a lot of possibility and potentiality that’s lost in the way that we hold conversations in Australia. I think we have a pretty poor public dialogue. When you’re at a public forum and you’re listening to someone speaking, often the audience sits passively and listens to the expert talk in a cerebral way on some particular issue. Often too much time is spent talking about the ‘what’ and we miss the larger ‘why’.

A lot of the time our conversations are framed around problems, and not around possibility, not about imagining different worlds together or how we might begin to develop the capacity to do this. It seems we’ve lost the art of doing so.

Any transition will mean that aspects of the old endure. We might like to keep some aspects of these stale cerebral forums, but as Tyson Yunkaporta argues, we need to build cultures of transition that will help steer us towards different ways of being. In my mind this is a process of design — designing practices that enable transitional conversational spaces to emerge. Spaces that allow us to surrender a little into uncertainty, or ungrip a little from what we know.

For me it’s about designing atmospheres that are conducive to more generative conversations. It’s about using visual languages and stories that arouse and capture the imagination and inspire lateral thinking — and designing conversations that stretch our capacity to see things differently.

The material and social environments in which we dwell give rise to how we relate to and perceive the world, which in turn informs what we go on to design and create. So how might we create a different context for our conversations through design?

~

What I’ve observed is that much of western ontology is unsustainable. I fully acknowledge that I participate in this unsustainable system that the west has co-constructed. I occupy a privileged position in this unsustainable system as a white settler. I exercise this privilege through my critique of colonialism, as a force that deadens agency and uniqueness of spirit. I also resist it’s force by recognising that I am not fully colonised, or ‘civilised’, because if I were, I wouldn’t be able to offer a critique of it, nor would I possess a deep longing for an alternative framework of meaning, to what the urbanised western world offers up. It’s important to remember that ontologies are not fixed, they are practiced and open to transition.

~

What I’m most interested in, isn’t housing. I’m not an architect or an urban designer. I’m more interested in how we create social infrastructures that support intergenerational knowledge building and healing, so that we can have better conversations at different scales about what it means to be living on this sacred land — that we refer to as Australia — land that has been colonised and covered over. I’m interested in how I might participate in collective healing that could enable future generations to walk together towards a much wider sense of belonging and responsibility for this land, and all that it’s original custodians and the land itself, might teach us.

Jon and Kirsty continue to develop their approach to ontological design and occasionally offer workshops and events. You can read more here.

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Designing Transitions

Joining the dots — marks made from a dialogue between Kirsty Moegerlein & Jon Osborne on ontological design – designing new ways of being, doing and seeing