Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Art of Conversation

Rodney King was correct to ask: Why can’t we all just get along?

Most people agree on the answer: we can’t get along because we do not know how to communicate.

Unfortunately, most of those who believe that we do not know how to communicate do not themselves know how to communicate.

If you believe that in a conversation you should say what’s on your mind and express your feelings you don’t know how to communicate.

The therapy culture has taught us all that we need to be in touch with our feelings. It does not answer the obvious question: if you want to get in touch with your feelings, where do you put your hands?

Be that as it may, the therapy culture says that once you are in touch with your feelings, you should express them openly, honestly and fully.

Unfortunately, if you follow this advice to the letter you are likely to become a raving narcissist.

To forestall this outcome, the therapy culture prescribes an empathy binge. It’s not enough to feel your feelings. You must feel your interlocutor’s feelings and express them too. It has convinced people that they can connect by uttering the empty mantra: “I feel your pain.”

I say that it’s empty empathy because it is strictly impossible to feel someone else’s pain.

It is best not to belabor bad communication strategies. Today we have an article and a book that points us toward good communication. If you follow the rules that Letty Cottin Pogrebin sets down, I guarantee you that you will improve your human connections.

At first glance, you would not think that Pogrebin’s topic applies generally. Specifically, her Wall Street Journal article is about: “How to Talk to a Sick Friend; First, Do No Harm.” Her book is entitled: How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who's Sick.

At one time or another, we all face this problem. Yet, Pogrebin’s rules yield a concept that applies to all good communication: It’s not about you.

Instead of thinking how you can blurt out whatever is crossing your mind, consider what effect your words will have on your interlocutor.

When you are speaking with someone who is dying, you will surely try to exercise the greatest tact and consideration.

Since it takes considerable effort and skill to try to estimate about how your words effect other people, you will likely revert to the easier path of saying whatever you are thinking.  Or else, you will try to show off your clever wit and superior skepticism. If you do so you will be competing for attention. It's not a good way to make friends.

When a friend, Pogrebin says, tells you that he just had a tumor removed and that the surgeons got all of the cancer, you should not say: “How do they know?”

Or else, when a friend tells you that he has been diagnosed with leukemia, you should not say: “Wow! A girl in my office just died of that.”

Friends who say such things are functioning in a conversational matrix where the other person does not matter.

Pogrebin explains:

If we're not unwittingly insulting our sick friends, we're spouting clichés like "Everything happens for a reason." Though our intent is to comfort the patient, we also say such things to comfort ourselves and tamp down our own feelings of vulnerability.

Pogrebin’s rules are astute and correct. Many of them seem ambiguous or paradoxical.  They are not very easy to apply, but they become easier with practice.

Her first rule: Rejoice at their good news. Don't minimize their bad news.

When your friend says that the surgeons removed all the cancer be happy to hear the great news. Don’t try to undermine hope.

When a friend with cancer says that he is planning to take his children to Disneyworld next summer, do not play the heartless cynic by saying: “We’ll see.” Tell him it’s a great idea. Pogrebin notes: “What harm can it do?”

Pogrebin’s second rule is paradoxical: Treat your sick friends as you always did—but never forget their changed circumstance.

A sick person does not want to be defined by his illness. He does not want only to talk only about his illness. Your friend’s illness is not the time to show off your superior capacity for human sympathy.

Pogrebin continues:

Speak to them as you always did (tease them, kid around with them, get mad at them) but indulge their occasional blue moods or hissy-fits. Most important, start conversations about other things (sports, politics, food, movies) as soon as possible and you'll help speed their journey from the morass of illness to the miracle of the ordinary.

Allow me to underscore her last point. It's not very often that people see the virtue in discussing ordinary matters?

In her third rule Pogrebin warns against telling your sick friend that you feel his pain:

Don't tell someone with brain cancer that you know how painful it must be because you get migraines. Don't complain about your colicky baby to the mother of a child with spina bifida. … The truest thing you can say to a sick or suffering friend is, "I can only try to imagine what you're going through."

Later, she offers some advice that is vitally important for all human interactions:

Protect your friend's dignity at all costs.

Someone who is good at conversation will zealously protect the dignity of the other person. In China, they call it face-saving, but only if you understand that the face you save is never just your own.

In normal human conversation, you should use formal expressions of respect. You should be quick to take responsibility and slow to blame the other person. Above all else, you should look for the middle ground.

You get closer to the middle ground when you discuss facts and information. If your friend wants to discuss his illness or his treatment, stick to the facts and make your feelings an afterthought. Do not, Pogrebin advises, jump to conclusions or assume that you know more than you do.

If you want to show respect to a sick friend, Pogrebin recommends that you never talk down to him, never treat him like a child, and, as mentioned above, never talk as though his illness defines him.

It is better to ask him to help you with something he can do, thus recognizing him as an active functioning member of the community than to bemoan what he cannot do.

Then, Pogrebin adds, don’t act as though you can give advice about how to get better. If you act like you are part of the medical team that is treating your friend you are intruding on the relationship your friend has with his doctors and increasing your own self-importance.

Pogrebin concludes by saying that you should not tout the virtues of positive thinking. When you counsel positive thinking you are implying that your friend fell ill because he indulged in too much negative thinking.

No one is suggesting that positive thinking cannot be helpful in some situations. The fact that it is sometimes useful does not mean that it is always therapeutic.

Pogrebin explains:

Positive thinking can't cure Huntington's disease, ALS or inoperable brain cancer. Telling a terminal patient to keep up the fight isn't just futile, it's cruel. Insisting that they see the glass as half full may deny them the truth of what they know and the chance to tie up life's loose ends while there's still time. As one hospice patient put it, "All I want from my friends right now is the freedom to sulk and say goodbye."

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