Way #20: The Art of Conversation
People today are busier than ever, "conversation time" is diminishing. Is anyone out there listening?
Joe is walking down a darkened alley, when suddenly a man jumps out, brandishing a pistol.
"Don't shoot," Joe pleads, "I'll give you all my money."
"I don't want your money," says the man with the gun. "My whole life I've been trying to get someone to sit down and talk with me. Now I'm going to make you listen for one hour."
This story reflects a sorry aspect of the human condition. People today are busier than ever – commuting, flying, buying. All in all, conversation time is diminishing. Who has time to talk?
Reflect back to yourself. You want to be understood. But is anyone listening?
B'miyut sichah literally means "minimize conversation." In other words, use conversation effectively. Conversation is our tool to be in contact with other human beings. Unless we communicate, we're all alone.
The Torah says that God created man as a "speaking creature" (see Targum Onkelos – Genesis 2:7). Speech is therefore what distinguishes human beings from other species. Too often people are self-centered and closed up. Conversation is a way out of that self-absorption.
Too many friendships never get beyond the superficial stage. It's possible to talk endlessly about recipes, football and fashion. But that's not enough. We need people with whom we can share our innermost thoughts.
Even family members can live in communicative isolation. Living room furniture used to be designed so that people sat facing one another. Today, living rooms are set up so that everyone faces the TV. You watch a football game and mutter in between munches, "That was a good play." What conversation can compete with the "raza-a-ma-tazz" of multi-media?!
Today, everyone is in his own little corner and struggles by himself. We need to be with others, not to watch television, but to be together and communicate. Without it, you are stifling in your own self-contained envelope. Isolated in your own opinion. Isolated in your own home.
Set aside time specifically for talking. Schedule a block of time to talk to your spouse, your child, your parents, your friends. Speech conveys the deepest soul-thoughts. Words that emit from the heart, enter the heart. Something the other person says may touch a deep chord in us. Conversations build deep connections and expand our world. Without it, we emotionally whither and die.
Great conversation is your chance to explore entire worlds. Unlike a movie, this world is real, not imagined. And the resulting relationship is infinitely more rewarding.
Practice the Art
As accustomed as people are to "speaking," very few actually "communicate." Speaking is natural and automatic. But communication is an art which must be learned and practiced.
Start by changing your attitude. Did you ever sit for hours on an airplane? You read all the magazines, and watch the in-flight movie. There is nothing else to do. Try speaking to the person next to you.
You have to warm up. Begin by saying "hello." Then ask simple, non-threatening questions: "Where are you from? What's your name?" This is just credential exchange. No harm, no weapons.
Yes, it is painful, because you don't know where it will go from there. But what are you worried about – that he'll stand up and announce to all the passengers: "I'm seated next to a boring person!"
It's a shame to sit silently through the entire flight, and then "accidentally" get into a fascinating conversation just as you're parting ways.
Don't be afraid of being rejected or that you won't have anything intelligent to say. It won't kill you. You will learn how. Good conversations have to be cultivated and produced.
Don't Mistake "Discussion" for "Conversation"
A "discussion" is an issue of right or wrong, a cerebral exchange of facts and opinions.
A "conversation" is a personal exploration of another person. The point of conversation is not to impress others or to enhance your popularity, but to learn about others.
That is our most common mistake. When you talk to the guy in the plane, don't let him know by the end of the trip how many trophies you've won and what investments you've made. Nor are you interested in information like who won the ball game and the current market price of gold. That is not conversation. That is the information shop.
The point of conversation is to connect with someone and explore his experiences, thoughts, feelings, and inner appreciations. What does he think about life, about love, about meaning? For example, while a "discussion" might focus on the question, "Is the president effectively dealing with the economy?", a "conversation" would ask, "How is the economic situation affecting you personally?"
Aim to bring the topic around to a more emotional realm. Ask the other person how he is dealing with issues that bother him. Just like when you talk to your spouse after a long day, the conversation should be: "How are you feeling, what upset you about the day, what gave you joy?"
If you're having difficulty getting the other person to talk, build trust by talking about your own experiences and feelings. Don't be "Mr. Know-It-All." When presenting an idea, say, "Balancing career and family has been difficult for me. I look at the situation this way. I would really like to know your experience and how you feel about it." When you report your reaction, he will report his reaction.
The Fascinating World of a Human Being
How do you maintain an interesting conversation? Be fascinated. If you have an eager curiosity about life and people, you'll be an excellent conversationalist. People will talk to you freely, because your interest will draw them like a magnet.
If you find that "fascination" does not come easily to you, do some self-analysis. Figure out why. Often the problem is basic indifference – i.e. "Why should I care about this person?"
To get focused, realize that every human being is a wonderful mystery, created in the image of God. We might make mistakes, but each person is and holy, full of ideas, experiences, and special wisdom.
Don't be misled. Most people don't immediately reveal what is especially interesting and significant about themselves.
To discover the wonderful person behind the facade, try interviewing them as a journalist pursuing an important story. "Wow! You're from Buffalo? How do you deal with all that snow?!"
Everybody wants to get to know themselves, but introspection is too painful. So realize that when you ask questions, you are helping people learn about themselves. Imagine someone asks you, "What do you think about life? Is life beautiful? Is it boring, a struggle?" The conversation prompts you to reach inside, examine, and engage in self-discovery. The same questions you'd like to be asked about yourself, ask someone else.
Especially when planning a major step in life – like marriage, career, spirituality – use conversation as a tool. Interview others: What was your experience? Was it interesting? What are the problems? What are the pleasures? How did you overcome your fears? What did you gain? What are the possibilities?
When you are fascinated, people will start talking and they won't stop. Explore life. Talk! See this is a tool for living – it is ridiculous not to use it!
What's Your Name?
A primary way to connect with someone's ness is to learn his name. A name is an intrinsic aspect of human identity. By using his name, you establish a connection and communicate an interest in who he is. And you can't have a good conversation with someone to whom you are indifferent.
A human being is only real when you know his name. Frequently we lose a name in the introduction and then we are talking to someone faceless. We feel uncomfortable. The vibes are no good and it ruins the whole conversation.
Do you tend to forget names? The key is to pay attention at the time of the introduction, and repeat the name to yourself a few times after. One memory technique is to conjure up a mental association. For instance, if the person's name is George Brown, imagine George Washington wearing a big brown suit. (The more silly the image, the easier it is to remember.)
Be a Good Listener
A good friend is a good listener.
In dealing with others, the Torah says: "Do not harden your heart or close your hand" (Dev. 15:7). "Closing your hand" refers to be being generous with money, while "harden your heart" refers to giving to others emotionally. Don't underestimate the value of this. Patiently listening to someone tell his troubles is often worth more than giving money.
In conversation, never interrupt. Don't anxiously anticipate the end of a sentence so you can jump back with your own opinion. If someone makes a statement you disagree with, bite your tongue and keep on listening. A sharp reply is likely to make the other person defensive, in which case he'll either get angry or end the conversation completely. Just calm down and give your undivided attention. Don't look around. Don't think of other things. Pay attention.
Ask for points of clarification. Really try to understand. You will build an atmosphere of trust – which will enable you to voice your own opinion later.
Don't fight with people. No criticism. No confrontation. Just discuss. Exchange feelings. That's conversation.
Constantly emit "listening signals" to demonstrate interest. Use eye contact or add a nod of acknowledgement. Use simple words of feedback, like, "Yes, interesting," or "That must have felt incredible." A skilled conversationalist can say few words ... and build a deep bond.
Make Your Words Count
Sometimes we get bored with living. So we make a phone call and chatter to pass the time.
Don't use conversation as an escape from reality. It's a waste of energy and words. And when the conversation is over, we feel empty.
Make every word count. Consider your words as precious jewels, to be used sparingly. Speak to the point, with clarity and purpose. Think before you speak. Make sure to say what you intended to say, in the best way you could say it. Frame your words. Connect your words with your mind, rather than letting your mouth run away and then having to catch up with your mouth.
Unnecessary talk dulls your mind. Efficient use of words puts you in control of your mind.
There's an old saying: "Small people speak about people. Medium people speak about places and things. Big people speak about ideas." The words you choose determine the type of person you'll be.
Don't talk without a purpose. In any conversation, ask yourself: "Is there a point to this conversation? Am I learning anything about life? Am I growing? Are we making contact?" If you can't identify the point, there probably is none.
There is an ancient Jewish tradition called ta'anit dibur – a "speech fast." When people find themselves talking too much, they refrain from all conversation except for Torah study. Likewise, in the House of Prayer, there should be no outside conversations – just God and yourself.
Try experimenting for one hour without talking. It's a healthy exercise in self-control, and can help you focus on your inner self. Don't worry, people will just assume you've got laryngitis.
Avoid Negative Talk
The Torah says that God used the medium of speech to create the world. ("And God said: Let there be light.")
For us as well, speech is a tool of creation – through it we can build the world. A word of praise will encourage others and build confidence. Making someone feel important is to say, "Your existence is necessary." This is life-giving and life-affirming.
On the other hand, speech can also be used to destroy. Words like "You're worthless, that's terrible," wipe out a person's self-esteem. It is untrue to believe that "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me."
Did you ever find yourself in the middle of gossip or a distasteful joke? It's insidious. All of a sudden you find yourself dragged into a discussion that's taken a turn for the worse.
Never say anything negative or derogatory about another person – even if it's true. Gossip causes quarrel and tears apart relationships, families, even entire communities. As King Solomon said: "Life and death are in the hands of the tongue" (Proverbs 18:21).
Learn to switch tracks. Monitor your conversation, and when you notice it slipping off track, pull it back, gently and subtly.
If this doesn't work, bow out of the conversation. Have some graceful exit lines ready to go. Of course, don't ever embarrass another person ... but don't hang around and sully yourself either!
Why is "Artful Conversation" a Way to Wisdom?
- Be fascinated with human beings and you'll be an excellent conversationalist.
- Talk to people in the office, neighbors, even strangers.
- Human beings have wisdom. Get them to share it.
- Negative speech will make you a negative person.
- Use speech wisely. It's one of the greatest gifts we have.
- Have a conversation, not a confrontation.
- Conversation is a tool of creation; it pulls us out of isolation, builds connections and expands our world.
- Fulfilling our needs depends on how well we communicate those needs to others.