Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"How to Have a Conversation"

People spend so much time communicating that they have forgotten how to have conversations.

Since its fashionable to blame everything on gizmos and gadgets we all tend to believe that, what with email and texting, we are communicating so much that we do not know how to talk things over, either face-to-face or on the phone or via Skype.

Personally, I find it that blaming everything on this or that gadget is too easy. In what way do you believe that a gadget bears a moral responsibility for what you do with it?

Learning how to conduct a conversation is one of the finest social skills. It requires time and work. Master the skill and your relationships are guaranteed to improve. So will your mood and attitude.

Of course, we need to know what a conversation looks like. Unfortunately, our therapy culture has defined conversation in terms of wearing your heart on your sleeve and baring your soul. It has made people believe that if they are not opening their hearts to their interlocutors they are being inauthentic, or, God forbid, superficial. Or worse, they are hiding something and being boring.

If you have come to believe that the therapy culture version of conversation is something you should aspire to I understand why you would rather conduct your affairs via text message and email.

While we are affixing responsibility, let’s also acknowledge that the Freudian couch will also teach you skills that will undermine your ability to hold a conversation. Lying on a couch expressing whatever comes to mind will teach you how not to connect with another human being.

John McDermott does not frame it in terms of the couch. But, when he took a class in conversation at Alain de Botton’s pop philosophy school in London he changed his mind about conversation.

McDermott does not credit the class with providing him any insights into the topic. He seemed to find its bromides to be generally useless.

Still, McDermott did change his mind about what it meant to have a good conversation.

He describes his attitude before taking the class:

My idea of a good conversationalist was an erudite entertainer. I had ambitions of learning how to host a good table. I had imagined finding out how to emulate Christopher Hitchens, quoting Yeats and quaffing scotch.

If you think of conversation as entertainment you will have bought into the cultural ideal that therapy has been peddling.

If you have spent enough time on the couch you will have learned how to express yourself to a blank slate of a listener. It's a skill that might help you to be an entertainer, but it will not help you to converse. 

After attending class, McDermott rejects the trendy idea that conversation is “performance art” and embraces the notion that conversation has a purpose: to produce human connection.

In his words:

But I suspect my classmates were after that most basic thing, human connection. Whatever it was – technology, break-up, bereavement – that made them attend, all wanted stronger relationships. They just weren’t sure how.

Strangely enough, conversation confers psychological benefits. It does so even if it does not involve any soul-baring. In truth, I think that it provides a better connection if it does not.

After dubbing the “Enlightenment” the age of conversation, McDermott notes that good conversation, the kind that took place in pubs, salons, and dinner parties: “…was seen as a corrective to a melancholic temperament.”

If conversation creates a connection, and if a connection reduces the feeling of isolation, then conversation corrects the basis for depression.

Still, we do not have very much of an understanding of how to conduct a conversation.

To counter the most common misconception, I would assert that conversation is less an art than a game.

Participating in a conversation is more like exchanging gifts than creating a work of art or commanding the stage.

If conversation is a game it must also have rules. McDermott quotes a 2006 article from The Economist wherein the magazine summarized Cicero’s outline of the rules of conversation:

“Speak clearly; speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn; do not interrupt; be courteous; deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones; never criticise people behind their backs; stick to subjects of general interest; do not talk about yourself; and, above all, never lose your temper.”

If a conversation is a free market then it is bad to monopolize it, to prevent others from speaking, to ignore what they are saying, or to dismiss their contributions.

In a good conversation everyone has a chance to contribute. Everyone’s contribution is solicited. No one talks too much and no one talks too little.

In principle, a conversation seeks to establish common ground. It does not involve competition for time, space, or attention.

The best way to begin a conversation is to make a comment about a common experience. If you have both been waiting for the elevator, say something about the elevator. If you are both watching a movie, say something about the movie.

In McDermott’s class this most elementary aspect of human experience seems to have been forgotten. His fellow classmates were suggesting conversation openers that would function as clever thrusts:

A man in his early twenties who joked that he had thought of this before, as a chat-up line, suggested: “Tell me something I want to know.” A more challenging opener came from another group member: “If you were coming to the end of your life, what would you have wanted to have done that you hadn’t?”

You open a conversation by offering something. You do not open it by making a demand of the other person.

If you ask someone to tell you something that you want to know, you are assuming that the other person can read your mind. Also, you are arrogantly assuming that the other person would want to offer something to someone who has offered nothing of himself. 

In common parlance that makes you a taker, not a giver. Good people will correctly walk away from such opening gambits.

If you try to open a conversation by asking someone about his personal regrets, the ones that would shadow him to the grave, you will have set a morbid tone, intruded on the person’s private wishes, and presumed a level of closeness that does not exist. You would hve done so without offering anything of yourself.

You know and I know that sometimes a ploy like this can work. It will also define the conversation in terms of exploitation, not connection.

Nowadays people seem to believe that conversation must involve revealing a secret or sharing intimate details. Clearly, Cicero would not have approved.

He was saying that if you are engaged in a conversation at a dinner party, speaking about matters of general interest everyone will have a fair chance to participate.

If you regale the company with your personal feelings about your personal experiences, they will feel obliged to share their own experiences with you. They will feel pressured and pushed and even exploited.

One reason people do not know how to conduct conversations, or relationships, for that matter, is that they do not want to get too close too fast.

Too close, too fast is a conversation and relationship killer.

If you want to know where this bad habit came from I would point out that therapy encourages people to express their emotions, openly and honestly and fully.

Classical ethics would have seen that as a sign of a lack of self-control. Cicero advised strongly against making too much of a public display of private emotions, something that he called losing your temper.

Losing your temper is like giving a person the gift that you want them to have, not the gift that they might like, and then insisting that if they do not like it they are suffering from a character flaw.

This does not mean that one should never discuss contentious issues. It does suggest that it takes a high level of skill to converse about topics where people have strong and divergent feelings.

Cicero notwithstanding there is nothing intrinsically wrong with sharing personal information. It might be rude at the dinner table but when two people are developing a romance it is essential.

In the latter case what matters is that the exchange of information remains balanced.

Gradualism should be the rule here. When you are giving a gift to someone you barely know, it should be small, and slightly impersonal. You want to offer a gift that might elicit an equal and opposite gift.

If you give a grand, expensive gift to someone you barely know, you are trying to place him so deeply in your debt that he will not be able to refuse any request. He will feel that you are trying to buy him.

To put it briefly, an excessive dump of personal information feels controlling and bespeaks desperation. Avoid it.

Conversation is the art of schmoozing. It need not make you into soul mates. It need not solve all the world’s problems. It need not offer a critique of everything. It need not sound like a confessional or a memoir.

Unfortunately, we tend to believe that schmoozing is superficial and artificial. And yet, it takes more effort and more energy and more skill to engage a stimulating discussion on the weather than to rant about the political scene or to describe your last date in agonizing detail.


Anonymous said...

Thank you!

shrinkrapper said...

Hey, psychotherapy sometimes works! Check out The Shrink Files (www.theshrinkfiles.com)

Anonymous said...

I wish this kind of information were taught to schoolchildren.

It seems to me that you regularly beat a dead horse by speaking of the problems of Freudian psychoanalysis. Outside of certain elite communities in New York and Boston, I don't think many clients lie on the couch these days, nor do many budding therapists train in classical psychoanalysis outside of a few small training institutes. Modern psychotherapy, not that it's much more effective, tends to be much focused on the therapist-client relationship, as well as dealing with current issues. I don't think much free associating goes on these days.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

For the most part you are correct in your description of the state of psychoanalysis today. Even in New York practically no one does it, save a few trainees in the institutes.

Most therapy training tends to much closer to coaching than to what had traditionally been called psychoanalysis or insight-oriented therapy.

On the other hand, in France psychoanalysis rules. Note the ferocious debates over the use of psychoanalysis to treat autism... see my autism tag. The same holds in other parts of Europe and in South America, especially Argentina.

For obvious reasons I pay attention to what is going on in those places.

On the other side I would assert that psychoanalysis and psychotherapy continue to exercise an important cultural influence, in conjunction with other ideologies like feminism. I think that a lot of people live their lives according to principles that come down to us from Freud and the world of psychoanalysis.

I think that many people voted for Barack Obama because they thought that America needed a therapeutic catharsis from its collective guilt. To me that kind of thinking would not have addled the brains of so many citizens if there were not cultural forces afoot that promoted certain values and that pretended that they were scientifically demonstrable.

I would like to see psychoanalysis also lose influence as a cultural force, but I believe that that will take more time.