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On Saturday I spent the day in conversation while enjoying a gentle stroll around the landscape at Salthouse, on the north Norfolk coast. This “walking conversation” was organised by the artists Liz McGowan and Jane Frost as part of their Salt Trails project. It was one of a series of conversations between walkers about the land, and also between the walkers and the land. The idea of conversing with the land, and with nature, has also been proposed by Stephen Talbott. Conversation is a way of engaging with things that recognises that they are always changing. Talbott suggests that both nature and humans exist “only through continual self-transformation”, and that a “satisfying conversation is neither rigidly programmed nor chaotic; somewhere between perfect order and total surprise we look for a creative tension, a progressive and mutual deepening of insight, a sense that were are getting somewhere worthwhile”. Unfortunately, humans love stability. We feel more secure if we believe that things will not change. Our scientific and managerial processes are based on the assumption that there are clear ‘facts’, simple cause and effect relationships, and a ‘best’ way to do everything. And much of our behaviour towards nature is more like a proclamation than a conversation – we stride into the landscape, declare our viewpoint, our desires and our expectations, and then leave again without pausing to discover the effect on our listeners.

By contrast, an ecological conversation, like many conversations with people that we do not know well, starts with a few cautious questions. Talbott suggests that every “experimental gardening technique, every new industrial process, every different kind of bird feeder is a question put to nature”. I have, for example, already described my ‘conversation’ with my garden. Due to our ignorance, our question may cause trouble, but it is this ignorance that we are trying to remedy through our conversation. More sensitive questions emerge through our deepening understanding of the ‘person’ with whom we converse. As a result, our conversation is creative, inventive, producing new possibilities for interaction that did not exist before. Talbott also notes that conversation always takes place between individuals, not abstractions or stereotypes. We cannot converse with an abstract ‘industrialist’ or ‘environmentalist’ but only with a specific individual who will not conform precisely to any label. Similarly, we cannot converse with a ‘wetland’ or a ‘threatened species’ but only with the very particular locality or individual animal or plant with which we engage. This is why movements such as Transition Towns and Slow Food must be grassroots movements. They can only develop successfully by engaging in ecological conversations with the immediate, and unique, locality within which they are embedded.

The life coaching process is also a conversation. It is a conversation between two unique individuals through which we both deepen our knowledge and produce creative insights that move us both forward. The client moves towards a more creative, more fulfilled and more sustainable life, while the coach progressively develops a more effective and more insightful coaching process.

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