Charlie Rose, who is among the most respected talk show hosts, has been upset lately by the lack of good conversation in the world. And indeed, if one looks around today, it seems that little earnest conversation takes place.
Instead TV “talk” shows–and especially on cable “news” channels–seem have become havens for soundbites and little more. People seem to yell more than they talk, or listen for that matter. Public officials, even, seem barely capable of working together to understand each other, or to have much desire to try.
Indeed, when Barack Obama suggested that this country should sit down and have a talk with some of our most well-known enemies, he was chastised and made to apologize for suggesting that we should talk to each other. The world seems to have gone topsy-turvy; the quest for understanding has been abandoned and we are instead waging a war with each other that will be won by the side with the best sloganeers and banner makers.
Is this an accurate view of the world? Probably not. And is it new? Certainly not. But these two points shouldn’t stop us from giving conversations a good heaping of praise. They tend to, better than most events, give the world a helping of understanding that it otherwise lacks.
The anatomy of a good conversation is hard to pin down and even harder to teach. Ian Johnston, who wrote a good piece about the topic, lists the following necessary qualities for effective conversation:
a sense of friendship, a self-confidence in one’s own skills, a willingness to test one’s insights against those of one’s peers, a desire to listen to others and assist them if necessary, a sense of cooperative participation in a shared endeavor, even a knowledge of people’s names, backgrounds, and interests.
Though I don’t think Johnston’s list is perfect, I think he touches on most of the major requirements admirably. I would, however, simplify Johnston’s list of conversation’s attributes with the words “respectful openness.” I think that in the shortest terms, these two factors are what is necessary from all participants. With their presence, little else matters. With their absence, little else matters.
Respect, in this context, is not unlike what it is in any other context. It means caring for the other person, having no desire to do them harm, and having a sincere interest in their opinions.
For a while, I had assumed that two people must be comfortable with each other to converse effectively. And I think this is indeed a fair assessment, but comfort comes primarily from the feeling that you are respected. I, for one, have been responsible for a number of fatally flawed conversations because I dismissed the person I was talking to offhand, not surprisingly creating an uncomfortable atmosphere that I never understood was my own creation. Nothing can doom a conversation faster than that.
The other necessity I listed above, openness, usually flows from the comfort you feel when you know that your opinions are respected. I’ve often, especially when I felt unjustly put-upon, closed my input to a conversation. Surely, unwillingness to disclose details about yourself isn’t the kiss of death in all contexts, but it makes it almost impossible to come to a better understanding of each other.
Are these observations new? I should hope not. But to me, they are novel, and need to be better understood in the world at large. I can’t even imagine how much better I would now understand people and the world if I’d learned these ideas just a few years earlier.