Let's talk

Every so often I find it difficult to talk with people.   My difficulty is often inspired by a series of frustrating attempts at having a productive and civil conversation about a difficult topic, like the Iran nuclear deal.

My experience in trying to discuss difficult topics centers on what seems to be an underlying need of many people to win an argument, to force the other person, if possible, to see things their way.  If the person refuses to change her mind, she can easily be dismissed as a fool, a “contratian,” or in the case of the Iran nuclear deal, a supporter of terrorism.

I would think that having a good conversation was like riding a bike: once you learn how to do it, you never forget.  It would become instinctual.  But having a good conversation, like riding a bike well, is surprisingly difficult.  Except for the gifted athlete, riding a bike will requires balance, form, position, focus, as well as a good feel for the dynamics of cycling.  It also takes a lot of practice.  That said, I can correct myself on this point by saying, it also requires a lot of practice for the gifted person to enter into a conversation or ride a bike.

There are no classes, that I’m aware, on how to have a good conversation, so maybe a few hard won ideas about the art of plain talk might make it easier for us to talk with each other, instead of at each other.

The first is easy: Be civil.  That means no accusations, no attacks, no finger pointing, or name-calling.  Next, try to assume the best not the worst of the other person, and try your best to make a favorable interpretation of everything the other person says.

The state of our conversations might be improved if we tried to admit when the other person is right.  It might also be improved if we didn’t criticize an idea unless we were willing to offer an alternative, and if we tried to trust the other person in their area of expertise, which includes respecting what they have to say based on their own history.

These ideas are not new, nor are they easily adopted.  Some people argue simply because they can.  The outcome of the conversation, or the civilities of it are not important.  

Many conversations are actually two or more monologues, where the other person is simply an object, an obstacle or a potential convert to the other’s way of thinking.  In some exchanges the other person is so occupied with what he is going to say that he fails to listen to what the other person says.  The result is that neither person feels they have been heard and each person walks away frustrated or perhaps, each person tries to talk louder or faster than the other.  With everyone trying so hard to win, no one wins.

My question is: why try to win?  In a good conversation, everyone wins because they’ve enjoyed the talking with each other.  They have sharpened their skills and their own thinking, and they have learned something from each other.   It requires real listening. 

Fred Schiffer, M.D. is friend and very good listener.  He’s a very wise man not because of what he knows (and he knows a lot), but because of his ability to be puzzled.  He wrote sometime ago, in the introduction to an article, something that I try to keep in mind when I am having a difficult conversation. 

“I want to stress that these are my views, and they may be at odds with some of my colleague (as well as allied with others).  Since this is my page, I’ll offer my opinions.  But, I only have opinions; no one has a monopoly on the truth.  I believe my opinions to be true (at least I do today), but that doesn’t make them true.  You can read my views if you like and consider them."

Real listening like real knowledge can occur only when we’re open and willing to change our mind, our views, and our opinions.  Real dialogue requires far more listening rather than attacking.  It foists the consideration of possibility and inevitability of puzzlement.  It does not assume the worst, criticize, interrupt, or try to win.  It considers the possibility of things beyond the ken of our own camp.

So, now that we’ve considered some ideas about conversation, let’s talk.