Monday, October 26, 2015

Listening and Conversing

My wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, has an interesting insight on the relation of reading and listening.  As an inveterate reader of fiction from early childhood, then an English major, she found when, as an adult, she worked as a counselor, that the skill she had acquired over the years in paying close attention to the flow of a narrative helped her greatly as she listened to clients and their stories.

In reading fiction, we put our own "issues" aside for a while and let ourselves be absorbed in discerning the motivation of the characters we encounter: we lose ourselves, as it were, as we pay attention--the key point here--to what the characters say and do and to why they do it.  So reading novels becomes not only an exercise in interiority but an essential skill in dealing with people.

So often, it seems to me, people meet and fail to connect at a deeper level. I notice this quite often with most of the people I know: we meet at a restaurant, and  although they might show perfunctory interest in what I am doing, their focus in on themselves; and when I do talk about my life or activities, they fail to pay close attention; they seem distracted, unaccustomed to following the short narrative I am unfolding, perhaps because they are mainly concerned with their own ideas.

As a result, the encounter is superficial, and I come away unappreciated. I know several people who, after more than twenty years of seeing me, never really get to know me because they fail to pay attention. They don't know how to listen as well as talk, how to ask questions to further the conversation.

In fact, there is often no conversation or mutual exchange at all, merely an exchange of information, which can be pleasant but forgettable. We have not nourished each other.

It seems from my observations of the British royal family (and other such celebrities) that they have mastered the art of the polite question, putting people at ease with a series of questions while providing no answers of their own. The result is not a real conversation, but the technique of asking questions of the other is a skill seldom practiced, in my experience, when people get together.

If reading fiction provides essential background to following someone's story during a conversation, then it seems to me that asking a few questions is not a matter of politeness but a basic part of what it is to converse.

The limits of conversation is the subject of several books I have looked at, most recently Sherry Turkle's "Reclaiming Conversation."  She provides abundant examples of people in our technological age who have "sacrificed conversation for mere connection."  Her key question is: Does our passion for smart phones and other technology help us avoid genuine encounter?   The answer seems self-evident.

Turkle makes the point that to grow and love and understand oneself and the world around us, we must converse, not merely send Tweets.  She says that many college students she has met yearn for their friends to put down their cell phones long enough to really talk.  They have learned in school to avoid seeing faculty during their office hours--too personal and embarrassing--in favor of email relationships, which are not real relationships at all.

The result of growing up without genuine conversation is a lack of empathy, the very thing that Lynn, a fine counselor and teacher, has mastered.  No doubt she has spoiled me because most of the other people I talk to give monologues, as if unaware of that dialogue requires attentive listening.

The harmful effects of over-reliance on gadgets rather than face-to-face encounters are chilling to contemplate.  Tweets and emails provide rewards, Turkle says, in their little bursts of information; and they more we feel such rewards, the more we tend to crave more such instant stimulation.

I don't see Turkle, or for that matter, Stephen Miller, whose book on conversation I wrote about here in 2013, defining the art of conversation in any real sense or relating it to listening, the kind of listening that requires patience and some humility as well as the experience of giving attention, a form of love, to another person.  

To listen well takes maturity, skill, and the polite attention we need to follow another's unfolding narrative, with the reward being that we, too, will be listened to in the same way.  This kind of personal exchange is becoming rarer in our speeded up world, where connections are more important to many people that genuine friendships and where conversations are rare. No wonder there is so much unhappiness.

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