The Need, and Difficulty, of Good Conversation

Admittedly, I started the below video a few days ago, then turned it off about two minutes in. I was bored.

Then, in the days to follow, I had a few interactions with various colleagues and friends and those brief two minutes kept coming back to me, because it was playing out in real life. So I went back to the video and, although it's a bit . . . dry maybe? I still came away with some key pointers and habits I'd like to fall into.

"Sincere deep connection eludes us" because we don't know how to have conversations - nobody really ever taught us. All too often, "we stay on the surface of events, neglecting how we felt or how it meant to us," because that's easy, and it's safe. Better to be thought boring and put-together than funny, yet a stupid, or a failure - I think we call those kinds of people "fools."

This surface-level type of discussion, though, is often stifling, and lonely, leaving everyone bored and disconnected. Because really, no one is actually says anything, and therefore, no one is truly connecting.

A good conversation is not just about what we say - how vulnerable we are - but even more so on how we listen. "Most of us think we have communicated when we have told someone something," George Bernard Shaw argues, "but {communication} only occurs when someone effectively listens . . . It’s the recipient, not the author" that allows for a deep and meaningful conversation. 

The Chinese character for "listen" is a conglomeration of four characters and encompasses this idea.

To listen, to engage fully in a conversation, we need to hear with our ears, our eyes, and our heart, and we need to treat the other person as King - we give them our undivided attention.

Theodore Zeldin, author of Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives, says that conversation "is an adventure in which we agree to cook the world together . . . and make it taste less bitter." True meaningful conversation - where we are open and vulnerable and where the audience is receptive and engaged, and respectful - allows us to connect intellectually, emotionally, and, consequently, personally. It is a place where we are no longer alone, and were we can grow.

"A conversation is a dialogue" says Truman Capote, "Not a monologue," and unfortunately, we have too many monologues and not enough dialogues. One reason for this might be that we are more concerned about sharing our ideas, our thoughts, and our stories than we are about listening to another, than we are about learning. Often, we'd rather teach and be treated like the king, rather than the other way around.

Another reason might be because we're afraid to be wrong.

"If you start a conversation with the assumption that you are right or that you must win, obviously it is difficult to talk." I resonate with this Wendell Berry quote because, if I'm honest, it is often my default. I want people to think I'm smart, that I've read that book or watched that movie or researched that topic - and that I know all about it. Listening with a willingness to be wrong has subjective connotations; it implies an inferiority - of knowledge and personally. And I hate feeling inferior, or worse, an outsider - of knowledge and personally.

But that's the heart of listening. Treating another as more important than self. Because they are the King, and the King deserves our respect, even if I disagree with them. Scratch that. Especially if I disagree with them.

How this looks, though, is difficult to capture because, at least for me, it is a complete conundrum. 

In a recent discussion with a colleague (Ed Blanchard), I discovered that whenever I'm engaged with someone, when I am connecting with their thoughts and ideas, I interrupt them - a lot - because I'm all in. My mind is wrestling with the ideas, my heart is pounding and excited, and I want to clarify, to build off whatever is said, and I want to engage - here and now. If I'm quiet, if I'm sitting back and simply staring, more times than not, it's because my mind is somewhere else. My interrupting is because I'm invested. 

But when I'm speaking, being interrupted is annoying because I want to be heard. Because my ideas are brilliant, and your breaking up my train of thought (curse you!).

This, as you can probably see, causes problems. 

I'm currently engaged in an email discussion with a friend, Warren MacLeod over a book we've both recently read entitled SilenceThe email discussion is interesting because, although the pacing is frustrating, it is also enlightening. In an email, I have to to read and reread Warren's thoughts without the pleasure of interrupting them. In turn, my thoughts are a bit more planned out and articulate because I can read and reread what it is I've said. I even put some of my answers on pause, go to the bathroom, get more coffee - whatever - then return to his question and my thoughts (is there a better place for thinking than in a bathroom?). Our conversation then, is patient, and it is extremely purposeful. We say what we want to say and mean what we say. It takes time, but the end product has a depth to it I don't always experience. 

This type of conversation can happen in person too, I'm just not good at it. But my wife is, and recently, a friend affirmed her in it, and it convicted me. Her friend told her that recently, when her and her husband asked their middle school aged daughter, "Who do you want to be like when you grow up?" the daughter said, "Mrs. Miller." Why? "Because she looks at me when I talk to her, laughs at my jokes, and cares about what I have to say."

She listens with her eyes, ears, and heart - she treats her like a Queen. 

Several years ago, a friend once told me to hold people's memories and stories like an antique, China glass - with extreme care and gentleness. "If you crack it," they said, "likely, they won't let you hold it again." I think the same can also be applied to any conversation, and I think Theodore Zeldin would agree. "The idea of friendship" he argues,  "has, over the centuries, changed radically and has created a new pressing issue for humanity, the need for real conversation. It is not new lands we need to be discovering but other people's thoughts." 

We live in an age where we can communicate faster and easier than any other time in history, yet, we are still disconnected. We are still alone. 

The art of conversation is difficult, but it's vital. More than ever. We need to set down our phones,  look people in the eye, and listen. Truly. With our eyes and ears and with hearts that are eager to discover new lands of thoughts and relationships.

We need to have conversation.



For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  On Living  :  Critical Thinking