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The gentle and disappearing art of conversation

June 17, 2007|by Robert Gary

Why is this gentle art slipping away from us? Is it lack of time, or lack of open-mindedness, or possibly just lack of skill? Conversation is a gentle art, like nature hiking or sailing or flower arrangement. It's not at all like the sweet science of boxing. It is a temporary partnership for exchange of ideas and inquiry. There's no element of debate or competition in a true conversation.

What it takes is at least two people willing to spend time and attention focused on each other's remarks. Listening is actually quite hard. Conversations can become two-party serial monologues instead of authentic exchanges (or dialogs) that they are supposed to be, simply because of no real listening.

The most unfortunate form of monologue is the tidal wave of assertions emitted by a propagandist. It's immediately plain that the source of such a tidal wave is not responding to anything coming in. It's all output, just a continuous stream of canned bullets or talking points. It's like being at the receiving end of a fusillade from a machine gun. Political staffers often refer to the material they give to their politician as "ammo" and this word is very apt. That's how the canned talking points are used. They are fed into the politician's mouth on an ammo belt and they are shot forth like a stream of bullets.

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Well, we know that there is such a thing as conversation - so how is it supposed to go? Let's start with the listener, because that's where conversation really becomes possible. A good listener will try to be sure that he or she has fully heard and understood the remarks of the other before putting together a response.

Questions in the form of, "You seem to be saying XYZ is ABC - do I have that right? Am I understanding you correctly? Is that your point?" are typical of good listeners. They really want to know what is being said to them before anything else happens. It's not like a chess game where they see the whole board and try to anticipate several moves ahead, it's more like a tennis match in which they have no idea where the ball is going to go until the other fellow hits the ball. It's disjointed incrementalism and not a strategy proceeding down a track or fixed course. So conversation, properly done, is actually much more complex than chess. It requires more extemporaneous thinking. Exchanges of fire by presidential candidates is not a conversation. That's more like boxing, or a firefight between two propaganda machine guns.

Now you've figured out what the other fellow is saying, and it's your turn to hit the conversational tennis ball - what next? You want to send back an apple of gold. Lincoln said it best: "A word fitly spoken is like an apple of gold in a frame of silver." The key to that wisdom is the word "fitly." What you say has to fit as a responsive element in an ongoing conversation. It relates to what was just said to you, acknowledging truth if there is any, dissenting from falsehood, if there is any, and giving reasons for both.

Beyond that, for a word to be spoken fitly it has to fit the person you are talking to. Is this something I really want to say to person X? Is this something I really feel comfortable saying to the general public, or to this particular audience?

What else is needed for a word to be fitly spoken? It has to be sincere - something you really do believe - no snarky stuff, no lampooning, no attempt to be ironic or satirical. That's stand-up comedy. That's Seinfeld, Letterman or Leno - great stuff, but not conversation.

So you start with something that is sincere, then you make it simple, and finally you make it short - show some respect for the precious time and attention of the other. Conversation is destroyed when one party trespasses on the goodwill and attention of the other by giving a speech that goes on and on.

A fitly spoken word is an element in an ongoing conversation and not the final speech that ends the conversation. It leaves room for a comeback by the other, or a follow-up, another hit on the tennis ball.

That's why conversation is a gentle art like a tennis game between two old men and not a martial art like the sweet science of boxing or the machine gun firefight. But keep in mind that Confucius said that sincerity is the source of a man's power.

In the end, it's more important to understand than to be understood, and here's why. If the other feels understood by you, he/she will think you are the greatest conversationalist in the world. Feeling that way, he/she will come back and have other conversations with you. There's plenty of time to get your point across. It doesn't have to be today; a conversation is a temporary partnership for inquiry, not a presidential debate.

This little gentle thing is the bedrock upon which human culture and civilization is built. Cultivated people adore good conversation and will do almost anything to seek it out and engage in it honestly and fully. The barbarian is typically in the thrall of shibboleths ancient as the hills and seeks only to bring his interlocutor into the same bondage. Barbarians are machine guns of propaganda. They are not gentle. They know not conversation. They are, sad to say, taking over the world. Let I and thou take it back, by our practice of this gentle art.

Robert Gary is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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