Skills can bring conversation back to an art

May. 28, 2014 @ 11:55 PM

The long holiday week provided us with plenty of opportunities to sit with others and talk without the usual time constraints.  Our paths crossed with people young and old, the long-term loved as well as new friends with whom we assembled over meals.  As we departed from the final gathering of the holiday, I pondered the art of conversation.

My thinking was spurred by a book that appeared unannounced in my mailbox a few months ago -- sent by a person I meet monthly because we like to talk. Already meaningful, I know that these conversations, as well as others, will grow deeper and richer if I can heed the words of this book.

“Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies” is the provocative title of the tome penned by Marilyn Candler McEntyre.  In my favorite chapter, “Stay in Conversation,” she opens by describing a class she once taught called, “Conversational English for Native Speakers.”

“It was a missionary enterprise,” she says.  “Our objective was to help the young and the media-impaired rediscover the delights of exchanging words…”

Our listening and speaking are indeed shaped by the formats we engage every day, just as nearly everything I write tallies up to the 675 words that define my columns.  The key for both speech and writing is to recognize when formats are limiting, and to decide what to do about it.

The format is not the only problem.   Our busy lives often limit our gatherings to the meager duration of TV sitcoms, sandwiched between other obligations and promptly interrupted by calls and texts -- like the television commercials that distract us from the stories we sit down to enjoy.

In most things of value, that narrative is the point of it all.  The word “converse” was originally related to community -- communing with and acting alongside others.  In the right context, our stories shape each other when we can sit still and listen.  “A good conversationalist directs attention, inspires, corrects, affirms and empowers others,” McEntyre says.   In our current culture of conversation, that last item is rare.  Dialogue is far too often a competition, with a clear winner and loser.

To move beyond a volley of sound bites, McEntyre lists the skills and attitudes that she considers essential to bringing conversation back to the realm of art, which means something that can be practiced.  “Deliberation” or intention is about the choices we make up front.  We must be intentional about time and setting, about the circumstance that create the possibility of conversation.

Last week I met with a friend I had not seen in a while.  But in an attempt to accommodate others, I let an interruption happen, and our conversation never got off the ground.  My friend and I went home feeling the loss of the stories not told.  We re-scheduled with the necessary time and space for our narratives to unfold -- to enrich each other and the communities that hold us.

The other three attitudes/skills McEntyre lists are curiosity, listening and honesty, but really I can’t separate any one of the four from the others.  Curiosity is an attitude, but it can be enhanced and focused.  Listening is a skill, but isn’t authentic without curiosity.  None of it matters without honesty, which brings us back to the required deliberation.

These skills are based on asking questions, as I observed over the long weekend.  There are only six questions to ask -- who, what, when, where, how and why.  In shallower conversations we focus on “what” and “where.”  “We must listen for the ‘how’ and ‘why,’” McEntyre tells us.  We learn to hear what isn’t spoken, as well as what is.

Good questions ask, according to McEntyre, “What is it like to be you?”  That question might startle, but, really, isn’t this what we all want to know?  Books and movies allow us to walk in someone else’s skin, as do skilled conversations.   Likewise, when a listener is capable, curious, honest, and intentional, that’s what we will want to share, “Here’s what it’s like to be me.”

A CHH columnist since 1998, Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister, and has served as Executive Director of The Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill and previously of Orange Congregations in Mission in Hillsborough.  Currently she manages a horse barn and a home business on the Orange County farm she shares with her husband. Their two grown daughters live nearby. You may e-mail her at, or write c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705