I hate competitive conversations. The sort that are all about point scoring, or arguing over hypothetical ideas. I am particularly unfond of being backed into the kind of corner where, having identified a problem, it’s all ‘and what are you going to do about that?’ Once it’s about imagining what governments should do, or what I might do if in charge of everything, I really don’t see the point. I am no fan of conversations where people are vying to prove who is the cleverest, by knocking holes in each other.
It is entirely possible to have exchanges that are purely about the exchange. To kick around ideas with no particular aim of proving anything, just to see what comes up along the way. Those are the conversations in which I do take on new ideas and in which I can be persuaded to change my mind. Not least because I am not then a ‘loser’ for doing so.
I like conversations where people share their truth, their experiences and stories, and witness each other, and make what sense they can of the compare and contrast options. Those tend to be both affirming and informative exchanges. They require really listening to each other, and really caring about what other people are saying.
When listening comes from a desire for one upmanship, it’s all about latching onto the points you can knock down, or twist in your favour. It’s about looking for mistakes, or places people may not be able to quote dates and stats off the top of their heads. And it means knowing all those things will be done to you when you try to speak. I find this stuff exhausting. It’s part of why I try to avoid meetings, and why I don’t do certain kinds of politics anymore.
When listening is about the desire to really hear and understand what the other person is saying, it’s a whole other process. Not just listening carefully to the words, but to the tone of voice and the body language. Not listening to see what you can do with it, but listening to try and grasp what the other person wants to express to you. It means asking questions for clarity. “Do you mean…?” “Is that like…?”
There are conversations that can only keep us on our toes, dancing cautiously around each other like boxers, watching the opponent to try and predict the next blow, or land our own. There other are conversations that enrich us and bring us into greater depth of understanding, greater harmony, greater intimacy. For some time now I’ve been trying to avoid the competitive conversations, I think I’m going to be clearer at expressing my dislike for them and my unwillingness to join in.