The Art of Conversation

I always like to, when I’m sitting at a group gathering, waiting in line at a restaurant, or walking through the park, listen in on the conversations around me. There are the One-Up conversations: “This one time, I broke my arm”, and then the next person has to respond with a crazier, gorier story of how they broke their arm. There are the One-Sided conversations, where one person is talking about their trip to Africa, and the other responds with their favorite ice cream flavor. Conversation is an art; however, very few of us actually have been taught how to have good conversations with each other.

According to Common Core, the Art of Conversation rests upon English/Language Arts teachers. In my class, I’ve found the most success in teaching how to have good conversations after we have read the chapter ‘Entering Class Discussions’ in Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say, I Say & ‘Why Should We Listen’. Graff and Birkenstein argue that, in order to have a progressive class discussion, I must always begin with to which and to whom I’m responding to; I have my students go around the room and practice saying, “I really liked Allen’s point about the water changing color in the winter. However, I’d like to also add…” At first, the students think it is silly and uncomfortable and they laugh, but by the end, we are having a productive, engaging, civil conversation. So much of our conflicts occur when we miscommunicate and misinterpret, so beginning comments in this way, first allows the person we are responding to, to clear up any misconceptions (because discussion is often used as an opportunity for some thought toggling and experimentation to take place–how many times have you said something that sounded great in your head, and once you head it, it actually made no sense?). Secondly, this allows everyone in the conversation to stay on the same page–what I might have heard from Allen might have actually come from Glenn, so by simply including the prompt in the beginning of a comment, I can remind myself of where the conversation tracked from.

The second article, “Why Should We Listen” is a short article that discusses the democratic nature of silence, and that it is actually those who are silent and not sharing their opinions that we should spend more time listening to. How many times do you find yourself in the middle of a conversation, and while you are supposed to be ‘listening’ to someone else, you are actually just thinking about what your next comment is going to be? This article suggests that, by really listening to what other people are saying, instead of thinking about what we are going to say next, we can learn to be more understanding of differing viewpoints, to be more tolerant of other lifestyles, and, inevitably, more secure in what we know as ‘truth’.

This is obviously stuff we do to promote engaging discussions in academia, but I certainly think there are ways we can bring these ideas into our everyday conversations. First of all, we need to learn how to ask better questions. I think we are often afraid to ask questions, because we are afraid to hurt other people’s feelings; somewhere down the line, we are taught that asking questions might bring up wounds, hot topics, or offensive comments, so we just stray away from them. But, questions are so important to learning about the individual. Asking questions, such as, “What did you like about him?”, “What was your favorite part of the movie?”, “What did you learn from that?” allows us to develop stronger relationships, and a stronger sense of who the person; I may not always agree with their responses, but I hearing their viewpoint and why might help me to understand where they are coming from.

Secondly, I think we need to expose ourselves to conversational topics. Girls especially get caught in these really dangerous gossip-y territories, I think, in part, because they just don’t know what else to talk about; in a social situation where you kind of know the people but don’t really, you, again, are taught to avoid topics that could spark controversy, so it seems ‘safe’ to talk about other girls, or to complain and commiserate together (“I hate running”, “Did you see that outfit she wore?”, “I can’t believe she posted that picture!”). But, if we educate ourselves on things TO talk about (and we practice our question-asking skills), then there are a plethora of other things to focus on rather than gossip and complaining–workout routines, the new bridge they are putting in, how you felt about Beauty & the Beast, an upcoming trip, how you trained your dog–the list really is endless.

And, most importantly, I think having a good conversation requires us to be present in the conversation. If I am thinking about the next place I have to go, the next thing I am going to order, or even the next comment I am going to make, then I’m not really fully divesting in the conversation and considering their entire comment. But, I think we also don’t like to rest in the silence that a listened-to conversation could have, so we are always quick to jump in, even if the comment we are making doesn’t connect the conversation at all. Actually, having a conversation with two introverts can be kind of comical because, inevitably what happens is–the first introvert makes a comment, the second introvert ruminates on the comment for a few moments and then considers their response for another few moments before responding–there’s lots of pauses and silence in between, but those conversations are often very meaningful and fulfilling, because both the introverts are considering each other’s comments and then how to best move the conversation forward.

Like any other art, being a good conversationalist takes time, patience, practice, forgiveness, but committing to it will inevitably make your relationships better, your time more productive, and your conversations more meaningful.


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