Two rules which I’ve used over the years with child philosophers have stood me well in achieving meaningful discussions: 1) Never interrupt when anyone is speaking and 2) Never make fun of what someone says. Those simple guides could go a long way in helping adults engage in conversation, most especially with those with whom they may disagree. Twentieth century German philosopher Karl Jaspers insisted at the end of the second world war that “We must learn to talk with each other, and we mutually must understand and accept one another despite our extraordinary differences” (The Question of German Guilt). Has this ever been more true than it is today in our homes, our nation, the world?
The topic of “The Art of Conversation” lured a circle of philosophers together at a local gym. Over coffee and muffins we examined the value of authentic conversation as well as the difficulty in achieving it. Everyone agreed that two weaknesses make good communication very hard: our inability coupled with our unwillingness to listen.
I defined communication for the group and encouraged responses: “Communication is the synchronized, sincere exchange of ideas and feelings.” Participants described how reassuring it is to be heard, really heard. It matters so much to be “accepted, trusted, respected, and counted in.” The pitfalls to meaningful communication were all-to-easy to name: anger, defensiveness, needing to be right, determined to prove my point.” Rather than listening with full attention, many acknowledged their penchant to prepare quick responses while the other person was still speaking, admitting that their shoulders tighten and backs go up, ready to argue if necessary, not really listening at all. Content, tone of voice, emotion, and eye contact, all are lost, the would-be partner in conversation devalued.
What to do? Here are a few suggestions that I posed and we mulled over for making us better listeners:
1) Admit the truth. It’s a big, old world and each of us comes to a conversation bringing only our own, just one life experience. There’s much to be learned. Humility helps.
2) Practice listening. It’s a skill that requires training and commitment. Listen to rain, a snoring cat, a piece of music, the rustle of leaves, or the wind. Only listen. This practice will make communication in the human realm increasingly easier. And, as you listen better, so will the other person.
3) Find points of agreement first. When there is a problem or sense of opposition, look for common ground and start there. Armed with differences and ready to rumble, no communication can take place.
4) Listen to yourself. Get to know the sound of your own voice. Do you like it? Does it need improvement?
As the child philosophers learn quickly, consensus that there will be no interruptions nor mocking paves the way for heartfelt conversation. Ears wide open, communication builds relationships. Why not cultivate the readiness to listen? What's to lose? What's to be gained?