From the President: Fall/Winter 2020

Dear Alverno friends,

The sister with whom I share our home is arguably among the world’s most thorough and meticulous readers of The New York Times. I am her humble apprentice. Each day she pores over the paper, marking articles she will later clip or reread and noting ones I should be sure not to miss. One cannot fail to see that a wise and deep spirit exists alongside her razor-sharp intellect.

In sobering contrast, I am an undisciplined, eclectic, often wild reader, careening from popular magazine articles — “Eight Ways to Prepare Turkey Leftovers” or “Create Your Minimalist Bedroom on $500” — to Yaa Gyasi’s compelling novels or Elizabeth Johnson’s newest theology work. Sometimes it falls to my housemate to rein me in and suggest what I need to know.

David Brooks’ NY Times column, “Nine Nonobvious Ways to Have Deeper Conversations” (published Nov. 19, 2020), was one such recommendation. Circled and starred, I knew it was a “must-read.” Already republished in a host of newspapers, Brooks (inspired, he notes, by someone who perhaps circles “must-reads” for him) offers wise and practical advice for overcoming the “shallowness” of conversations currently relegated to Zoom, FaceTime, text and email.

With stunning and enabling clarity, Brooks’ column applies in many ways to the deeper conversations implied within the articles you will read in this issue. We don’t know all the answers to discerning Alverno’s immediate and longer-term role in pursuing racial justice — within the College and in the world where our graduates will live and work. We do know there is work to do. We want to be better, kinder, more honest and trusting. We want to be architects of justice and powerful enablers of the capability and desire we see in our students and colleagues. We don’t always know how. I’m convinced of careful listening as the essential first step, its silence perhaps broken with these three words: “Tell me more” (suggested by a friend and gentle master of listening) as an encouraging catalyst to getting on track in a good way.

Here are Brooks’ ideas and some hints about how to do this. Just invitational hints, though. Read the article. At Alverno, I am thinking about how to make it our “procedural bible” for conversations — and conversions.

Approach with awe. “Every human is a miracle and your superior in some way.”

Ask elevating questions. “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

Ask open-ended questions. Start with: “What was it like? How did you manage to cope?”

Make people authors, not witnesses. “The important part of people’s lives is not what happened to them but how they experienced what happened to them.”

Treat attention as all or nothing. “In conversation it’s best to act as if attention had an on/off switch with no dimmer. Total focus.”

Don’t fear the pause. Let it be. For sure, don’t fill it prematurely.

Keep the “gem statement” front and center. “This is the statement that holds the relationship together.”

Find the disagreement under the disagreement. “In the Talmudic tradition, when two people disagree…it’s because there is some deeper philosophical or moral disagreement undergirding it….There is no end. Conflict creates cooperative effort.”

Adopt the midwife model. Margaret Guenther says “a good conversationalist…is like a midwife, helping the other give birth to her own child.” Or, as neuroscientist Tali Sharot reminds us, “To influence actions, you need to give people a sense of control.”

So, perhaps a path here toward deeper conversations, even if they must be Zoomed or FaceTimed for a while yet?

This is such important “together work.” Like Lady Gaga working with her three collaborators to create the song “Shallow,” bringing together a community of careful, sacred listeners may, paradoxically, bring forth the most powerful, lovely and transformational result. We are then, hopefully, “far from the shallow.”

Your thoughts? Please, “tell me more.” You can reach me at

This letter appears in the fall/winter 2020 issue of Alverno Magazine.

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