Many of the conversations I have are extremely enjoyable, illuminating, inspiring, refreshing, and satisfying. However, that is not true for all of them or even most of them. A good conversation is not easy to come by but the experience of many great ones moved me to consider why some are better than others, why is a good conversation almost a luxury.
After I thought about it for a while, about what might be the factors that negatively affect the quality of a conversation, I came up with three, which are not exhaustive.
The first is that we often don’t listen, the second is that conversations are often an exercise in narcissism, and thirdly it is our lack of presence. All three are related to an extent that will become clear.
Have you ever gotten into a conversation, listened carefully to what the other person was saying, nodded in approval and encouragement, only to have the other person look around, look at their phone, or talk to someone else right after they finished talking and you began?
And after you finished the thought that clearly flew by them, they jump back in with an opinion on something totally different?
You poured your heart out there, tried to think deeply through a problem and then put it into words, gave an apt observation, whatever it might be, and then you get almost no reaction.
The experience I have is that we don’t listen. We only want to hear ourselves. The ephemeral experience of our words occupying our minds is enough. Connection, real understanding, encouragement, intellectual challenge, never even become possible.
From my experience, there is a stark contrast between the conversations where I and the other person both listen to what we try to express, and we support each other along the way, to where we fail to even listen. The satisfaction and insight such a conversation brings vastly outgrow the alternative.
Although I would love to have such conversations every day, maybe there is a mismatch between the people I talk to and me and the moods I have. Since you are reading a post of this kind, on a blog like this, I think it is safe for me to assume that in general you are surrounded at least by some intellectually stimulating individuals. However, the experience of having a two-hour philosophical discussion, where no level of nerdiness feels out of place, (or whatever floats your boat) should not trick us into assuming this will be and should be the standard.
People are different. Maybe the people you talk to just want to hang out and keep to themselves, they have no desire to really think through what they are about to say at that time. And that is totally fine. I sometimes have the same desire. And yet it seems a bit odd if we remain in such state indefinitely, never desiring a real conversation and thereby connecting with another person. That is not to say a connection cannot be formed without a conversation, however, it is an essential part of the connection. At least I feel distant from the person to whom I don’t feel to be able to freely express what do I really think about at the time. I walk around and carefully pick the topics not to bore the person.
One might say that it is just social skills, you don’t want to speak of something in a group where clearly no one cares. And certainly social skills are useful here, however, the more freedom you feel in expressing what you think, from my experience, the better the conversation goes and feels.
However to return to the original claim, regardless of the level of depth we want to achieve in our conversation, whether that is commenting on what is going on at the moment and having fun with it, or it is expressing our dark emotional state that we had gotten into, it is essential to listen.
There is nothing more isolating than trying to express something that we find difficult to put into words only to find that the other person did not pay enough attention to recall what we just said.
True, sometimes the time is not right, or the person is not right, or both. Thus we should not be surprised if our remark about the Hegelian dialectics receives no attention while smoking a pipe, overlooking mountains.
The right place to start is with oneself. Do I really pay attention to what is he/she saying? Do I help them express what they are trying to say? Am I present in the conversation, or am I floating around in thoughts about what is to come?
And very importantly do I control myself from sliding into the narcissistic tendency to turn the attention of the conversation back to me as soon as an opportunity arises?
That brings us to the second factor.
Have you ever felt like the conversation was turning into a competition of who has done, seen, said, thought, the more extreme, honorable, exciting, interesting thing of whatever that was the topic of the conversation?
From my experience, conversations sometimes feel like a competition.
“Hey, how’re you doing? You know what I did yesterday? … “
“That’s great but you know what I did? …”
It is completely okay and good to share the great experiences we have on our mind, but it is essential to give each other the time and space to fully express it. If I jump back in with the usual, “But do you know what I did?”, the other person will never feel understood, heard, appreciated, rather, they will feel isolated.
We are not competing, we are talking. It is unnecessary to prove to one another that one of us had a more extreme experience in some area. Again, what are we trying to do?
And if it is not a competition, we have a tendency to turn the conversation back to us. Even giving advice can be an exercise in narcissism.
“Okay, that’s all great, but, do you know what I think? …”
No, I don’t, but could you shut up for a moment after the thirty minutes you have been talking a let me express something.
I realize I could also easily slip into the tendency to express what I think in detriment to the desires of the other person. It of course always should go both ways. If you listen, then you expect being listened to. However, this often might not be the case and for that reason, one can feel dissatisfied with the conversations one has.
We lack an effective approach to conversation. Our primary goal should not be us. Our primary goal should either be the idea explored or the person speaking, preferably both.
Stephen Covey’s fifth habit in his book 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People expresses this maxim in a sentence, seek first to understand, then to be understood. I think the habit speaks for itself.
What are we trying to do in a conversation? Are we on another parade of our greatness, skill, achievement, or do we genuinely care about what the other person thinks? Are we first trying to understand the person and just then express what we think?
We love to speak about ourselves. It makes us feel good. I am the first to admit I have a strong tendency to turn conversations back to me as soon as there is an opportunity. However, if both of us have the same attitude, a conversation becomes a mere masturbatory device. Self-centeredness, that is all too common, surfaces in another of its forms. We are blowing smoking up our arse.
But what if our goal was to first and foremost understand and just after that to be understood?
What would happen to the quality of the conversations we have?
I realize that for the principal to work one of two has to give in and be the first to express their views, thus seeking to be understood, however, it is more a principle that can be used during the conversation. Instead of immediately sharing what I think I ask questions for clarification, I try to really understand what is the person trying to say and why they are trying to do so.
To lead such a conversation is no easy task, and there is a great burden to overcome, our lack of presence.
We feel the urge to say this thing, so we wait for our chance. We do not want to lose the thought, we get into a frenzy. Aa aaa aaa aaa a, I have something to say!!!! And finally, the opportunity comes and we spill out all that we were holding inside, regardless of whether it still relates to what we are now talking about.
The urge is so strong that we can even shut down for the time until our opportunity comes, only to resume with our remark. But that is not a good recipe for a satisfying conversation.
It sometimes happens to me that after me and someone finish discussing a topic that was primarily related to the other person, and I decide to open up something closer to me, immediately after I finish the thought, I get, “Uh-huh. Did you know that yesterday when I was doing … I found that …,” completely ignoring what I have just said.
This is an understandable reaction if we are just throwing sentences at each other, however, this is not a conversation. A conversation is two people involved in a particular topic, paying attention to what is being said and letting the other person expand on their views, letting them clarify, and then ask further related questions. And when the time is appropriate, add one’s own take on the issue and again expand, clarify, answer further questions.
Seeking first to understand and then to be understood is not an easy task. All of us sometimes feel the urge to say something at a specific moment. It feels like the conversation could not do without our remark. But all the while we think of this amazing addition we fail to pay attention to what is being said, to what is going on, where is the conversation heading, what new information the fellow converser shared. We have no clue because we had been preoccupied with our great idea, that just could not have been missed. And even after we have patiently waited, the remark often still falls flat.
However, having a conversation where all involved truly listen to each other and then expand the thoughts together is worth the effort.
I believe the key to the solution of all the problems of conversation I have just mentioned can be found in Covey’s maxim, seek first to understand, then to be understood.
This maxim puts us into the right frame of mind. We are not the important one here, this conversation should not be only about us and our ideas, fears, and joys, we should try to understand the other people first and just then express ourselves. And of course, this can only be done if we listen. It is such a trivial idea that listening is essential to a good conversation, but that often is the crux of the issue. We don’t listen, we are not present. If our thoughts are in any way related to the conversation it is all we want to say next.
Losing the ability to have great conversations is a great pity because they are what moves things, what produces new insights, what can challenge us, they are what deepens friendships, brings connection. Conversations are a window to new perspectives, to the expansion of one’s universe, conversations should not be a practice in narcissism and carelessness.
So to Stephen Covey’s maxim, I say AMEN, to that I say, alright, alright, alright.
Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
This post was inspired by the great conversations I had with my fellow philosophers in London.