In Praise of Conversations

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.

4 responses to “In Praise of Conversations”

  1. Interesting post… being a rather shy, but, outgoing person, I have had my moments of frozen silence in the past. Now, I just assert myself; if I feel that there is no point to converse, I pass along a compliment or a gesture of kindness and depart. It is not always words which a person remembers or responds to, but, a genuine affection for humans as a whole. Conversations these days are strained, especially if the people involved are outside of their box, but, self respect and total respect of others can tear down the walls of the box. I am one who believes in interaction, be it verbal or otherwise, and, if one fails, there is always the other. Manners are imperative as well…. We do not have to relate to or like everyone we meet, however, we should respect that we are all in this together, and, another being is no more or no less worthy than we are…
    love your site and the title is awesome…

  2. I like this post because it is the essence of what I speak of in man y of my posts. As a nurse I find out so much more about my patients through LISTENING to them. Shouting gets bad results in any situation, unless it is, “Watch out, the sky is falling..runn!” LOL. You know what I mean, when it is a life threatening thing about to happen, shouting might be our intial response.
    I will be back.

  3. I begged my parents to let me stay up past bedtime “just to listen” to the conversations they had with their visiting friends. The conversations were about everything and anything. I could ‘eavesdrop’, as long as I didn’t interject, But sometimes they would even ask my opinion. Talk about fostering the “love of conversation”! I have the love.
    Your concept of respectful openness is right on the mark! And if we could extrapolate that politically, we could call it Diplomacy.

  4. I agree whole-heartedly with your take on conversations. If you like the dialogue format, you can check out – It’s nothing but one-on-one conversations between two smart, open, respecting and interesting people. They call them “diavlogs,” – video dialogues.