Solved conversations — Aaron Z. Lewis

Last updated 2019-10-23

Some conversations feel more like scripted dialogues than like improvised exchanges. Perhaps we’re lazily rehashing the same talking points for the hundredth time, like when we comment on the weather or complain about politicians. Regardless of their context, these conversations proceed like clockwork, surprising no one.

Aaron Z. Lewis refers to these as “solved” conversations, making an analogy with the concept of a solved game. A solved game, such as tic-tac-toe or connect-four, is one in which it is possible to compute the optimal move at every turn, causing the result to be perfectly predictable. Solved games are not much fun to play, since we always know what will happen next. Solved conversations, for the same reason, are not much fun to have.

Continuing the analogy, Lewis wonders whether we could have better conversations by asking what makes certain games solvable. He points out that the main feature of a solvable game is that it provides complete and perfect information to the players, as in checkers or chess. There can be no dice to roll, no hands to conceal, and no deals to negotiate. Therefore, Lewis suggests that we add more metaphorical rolls of the dice to our conversations—”un-solve” them by injecting uncertainty.

This recommendation makes sense in many cases. To me, however, solved conversations are not just ones that bore us because they’re too predictable. They also include conversations that are sure bets for satisfying a recurring need. One example is smalltalk, which satisfies the need for a reliable and inoffensive way to engage with just about anyone. Another example is when romantic partners tell each other “I love you” every day. These short conversations, which are just as simple as a game of tic-tac-toe, are important rituals in many of our relationships. We shouldn’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel every time we want to say hello or reaffirm our commitment to each other.

Solved conversations also include ones that have accomplished their purpose once and for all. Perhaps you’ve come to a tough decision—say, about where to go for next year’s vacation. Or perhaps you’ve clarified an ambiguity—say, about a project milestone that you and a colleague were interpreting differently. Whatever the challenge, your conversation has accomplished it, so there’s no need to have that conversation again. If you find yourself rehashing a conversation that has been solved in this sense, there’s no need to spice things up. Instead you should stop, remind yourself of the conclusion you reached previously, and then have a new conversation.

I take Lewis’s point that many of our conversations would be more meaningful if we engaged with them more creatively. The most meaningful conversations are undoubtedly the unsolved, and perhaps unsolvable, ones—the heated arguments, the late-night bull sessions, the neverending message threads about nothing in particular. These conversations are like Poker, Monopoly, or Risk. But I don’t think solved conversations are all bad. In many cases, like the familiar rhythm of a game of tic-tac-toe, simplicity is their virtue.

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