With the advent of smart phones, many of us have lost the art of having meaningful face-to-face conversations. Some individuals find that faceto- face conversations require too much attention and energy, which they don’t have to invest in when they are speaking on their smart phones. As these folks rely more on their smartphones, they typically experience more difficulty in focusing on the other person with whom they are communicating one-on-one. Listening effectively without getting distracted is also a major problem with individuals who are dependent on their smart phones.
Our lives have also become much more complicated than in the past, making us rushed all the time, engaged in what is deemed to be “good” conversations. Furthermore, contemporary societies have become more individualistic. In the past, we would engage in conversations with our neighbours and get to know one another, contributing in important ways to the collective spirit of the communities where we lived. However, in contemporary times, we live in huge modern housing complexes where we share space with a multitude of people, but seldom do we know one another on a deeper level.
We may exchange social pleasantries with our neighbours, but we are mostly strangers to one another. In contemporary times, it is quite possible to spend a major part of our lives not knowing others or even ignoring them because they do not serve any important purpose in our life. Contemporary cultures socialize us to care more about ourselves and less about others. Consequently, our ability to engage in good conversations, which are founded on qualities such as civility, reciprocity, respect and empathy have become severely affected. Experts point out that all these factors are making us more shallow, predictable and one-dimensional. By not engaging in good conversations, we are certainly forgetting how to use and respond to the human touch.
Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century French essayist, loved conversation. He said, “To my taste, the most fruitful and natural exercise of our mind is conversation. I find the practice of it the most delightful activity in our lives.” According to the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott, “Conversation distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian.” By conversation Oakeshott means face-toface conversations and not conversations on our smartphones, email, or Instant Messaging. The word “conversation” is certainly not new. It comes from the old French word of the same spelling meaning “manner of conducting oneself in the world.”
It suggested civilized behaviour or a refined way of life in our efforts to establish connections with others: our parents, siblings, relatives, partners, children, friends, teachers and classmates, neighbours, co-workers and even strangers. Many times, our identity is defined by the people we associate with, especially groups. And good conversations not only help in strengthening our relationships on an interpersonal level, but they also help to make our communities more thriving and livable in important ways. At this point, one may ask what constitutes “good” conversations. Good conversations are built on civility, which underscores the importance of putting the other person we are interacting with one-on-one at ease.
When we remain in the mode of being opinionated, self-absorbed and distracted, we fail to be civil to the other person with whom we are communicating. Losing the long-standing norms of civility such as respect, tolerance, appreciation for honesty, and embarrassment for unethical behaviour kill the heart and soul of good conversations. Furthermore, unacceptable behaviour in the form of shouting and talking over one another severely erodes the spirit of any good conversation. We must not forget for a moment that good conversations are not about making a deal or winning an argument. Neither is it an exercise in meaningless chatter. Good conversations demand that we are genuinely present in both body and spirit when communicating one-onone.
Being present implies that we make ourselves completely available to the other person by engaging all our faculties. When we are not present in the moment, our conversation has a strong possibility of becoming superficial, hackneyed, and unproductive. On the other hand, when we are present in the here and now, even mundane topics have the potential to be interesting and intriguing. Good conversations also require that we listen to one another effectively with a view to building and sustaining healthy interpersonal relationships. According to the French aphorist, La Rochefoucauld, most people are poor listeners: “One of the reasons why so few people are to be found who seem sensible and pleasant in conversation is that almost everybody is thinking about what he wants to say himself rather than about answering clearly what is being said to him.”
However, when we are engaged in effective listening, we listen with our heart and soul. Too often when we are speaking to the other person, we are not having a conversation but what appears to be a mechanical exchange of information and opinions. Furthermore, when conversationalists are speaking at the same time, no one is listening. In order to make real conversation to happen we must make sure that we listen to one another and take turns while speaking. It is by learning to listen to the other that we can really understand the other person. Good conversations are also about cultivating empathy, which helps us genuinely understand where the other person is coming from. In good conversations, we seek to understand the other without forcing our own opinions. It is by being empathic that we can truly understand the viewpoint of the other person even if we disagree with him/her.
The empathy that we feel for one another lies at the heart of all good conversations. Good conversation demands that we are patient when communicating with others. Many of us lack patience when engaging in a conversation with another; this is often reflected in aggressive verbal behaviour such as interruptions, refusing to listen and by displaying anger and hostility. When we engage in angry behaviour in our conversations, it damages the quality of a conversation, not to mention that our reputation with the other person is also severely damaged. Two thousand years ago, Plutarch pointed out that anger “is worse than undiluted wine at producing undisciplined and disagreeable results: wine’s results are blended with laughter, jokes and singing, while anger’s results are blended with bitter gall.”
In conversations, patience does wonders for our standing with others in the community. Patience is a quality that certainly makes us more attractive as conversationalists because we are perceived as more engaging and gracious. Experts point out that in order to practise the art of good conversations, one must appreciate its artistic qualities. A good conversation often resembles a dance that’s fluid with each word creating a movement to which the other conversationalist responds. A good conversation always captures the seamless to and from, the back and forth of the exchange between conversationalists, where there is often an underlying flow of appreciation as the parties in the conversation engage in combining words to create a mutually visualized image that has the ability to touch at the very core of our emotions.
Good conversation is about celebrating the beautiful interconnectedness of human life; it is about realizing the potential of language to express the inexpressible. Good conversations are about sharing knowledge, widening our understanding, and our imagination. Good conversation is also about sharing stories that we have experienced in our lives or in the lives of others. It also helps to alleviate our pain and suffering, boredom and loneliness. We can do so by sharing jokes, which always help to bring levity to challenging situations. Certainly, mastering the techniques of the art of good conversations is not going to be easy but with consistent practice, we can become effective conversationalists.
We can accomplish this by engaging in more one-on-one conversations where we are genuinely present for each other; that we are kind, patient, respectful, and empathic. By lending our ears and exchanging thoughts and emotions honestly and respectfully we can certainly reclaim the art of engaging in good conversations.
(The writer is professor of communication studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles)