The Urbana Dinner Table: How to Have Conversations that Matter

The Urbana Program just came out last week, with a detailed schedule and all sorts of other great information about what our days in St. Louis will look like. Strange as it may sound, I am especially looking forward to the time allotted for dinner.

Dinner at Urbana is an amazing thing. I think the best way to describe it is an enjoyable human assembly line in which you get to eat a quick meal with a few of the other 16,000 people also dining at Urbana.

In anticipation of these Urbana dinners, and due to a lot of recent thinking about conversations (see my last blog), I have gathered some thoughts about how to have a meaningful conversation that challenges and transforms the participants. I hope these ideas encourage you to have deeper conversations both now and at Urbana!

My dinner experience at Urbana 12.

Having A Conversation that Matters

Somewhere, someone thoughtful came up with a helpful set of steps or layers for making conversations more meaningful. I’m not 100% sure where they came from, but I know that I was introduced to the Five Layers of Conversational Intimacy at InterVarsity’s Red River Region (that’s Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas) Rec Week.  

Like peeling back the layers of an onion, these layers of conversation are meant to help you take a conversation from basic, small talk questions to finding out the motivations, concerns and values of the person you are talking with. They are a helpful pattern of questions that build on each other, taking the conversation deeper and deeper. Though they do not have to be followed exactly, the layers provide an outline of how to ask questions that lead to a meaningful conversation.


The ritual greetings and conversation starters: Hey, what’s up? Hello! How are you?


Information gathering questions: How many siblings do you have? What are you studying? What brought you here?

Ideas and Opinions

What do you think about ___?” What is it like having a younger brother? What are you hoping to do as an engineer? What do you think about this seminar?

Emotions and Values

How do you feel about ___?” How do you feel about being separated from your brother during college? What is important to you about making machines? How do you feel about going overseas on mission?

Unguarded Vulnerability

Why do you feel that way about ___?” Why do you miss your brother when you are at school? Why do you want to use your engineering skills to create water purification systems? Why are you feeling nervous about what God has been telling you at Urbana?

My favorite category name is “unguarded vulnerability” because it sounds so frighteningly deep. There is something about those “why do you feel” questions that lead to the most interesting, challenging, and transformative conversations. Recently, when I was asked why I feel like my semester has been good-tiring, I was reminded in the conversation that followed how much joy I find in my commitments so that even though every moment feels full, I do not want to trade them for anything else. God challenged me in that moment to remember the good instead of focusing on the tiring aspects.

If this is the kind of conversation you want in your life, either now or at Urbana, I encourage you to try peeling more layers off the onion, to go deeper and reach points of unguarded vulnerability in which God might speak to you or reveal something that transforms you.



I really liked this post Sarah! I have always had trouble with developing chitchat conversations into more vunerable and interesting ones. Now I realize that I mostly ask "What"/"How" questions and I don't think to ask "Why" enough. I will definitely be putting this onion peeling conversation tactic to use soon!

Add new comment

We're trying to avoid automated spam. Thanks for confirming you're human!


These blogs are the words of the writers and do not represent InterVarsity or Urbana. The same is true of any comments which may be posted about any blog entries. Submitted comments may or may not be posted within the blog, at the blogger's discretion.