Tag Archives: conversation

Non-competitive conversation

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.

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The art of not communicating

Social media is without a doubt undermining the skills of those who didn’t have a lot of social skills to begin with. Twitter feeds that read ‘me, me, me’ barely interacting with others are a simple expression of it. People who think online isn’t real and that what they say there doesn’t count. People hiding behind their monitors to say that which should never have been said.

I’m old enough to remember when it was television that was blamed for communication breakdown. I’ve also seen the evidence to suggest that go back further into the past, and the problem was books. All of this leads me to the conclusion that blaming books, television and the internet for poor communication skills is probably missing something important.

I’ve sat down with people who had nothing to say to each other. Conversations full of trivia and futility, or worse still, manufactured arguments over politics and religion. Something to fill the otherwise aching void. When we might all be better off admitting we have no interest in each other and nothing in common and just this sense that we ought to communicate.

I find silence is often the best measure of closeness and mutual interest. If people can be silent together until something worth saying comes along, and if that silence is easy, or fertile, then you have a serious relationship. If the simple act of putting our bodies into the same space feels good, then we’re onto something. If we can do something together – with or without words, then we’re connecting. Conversation for the sake of it is often strained and pointless. Small talk because noise is more comfortable than the truth a silence might reveal. Arguments over abstract and distant things to cover for the real and immediate tensions.

I’m not interested in the art of conversation, nor in winning arguments. For me, a good conversation is slow, halting, full of pauses as people think about what needs saying. Rich with silences, and warmed by what it means to be people in the same space.


Phones and sex

Not so many years ago, put ‘phones’ and ‘sex’ in the same sentence and you’d almost certainly be talking phone-sex. Recent studies suggest that our phone/sex dynamic has now headed off in quite the other direction, with phones becoming a real barrier to intimacy. Apparently we take our phones to bed and play with those rather than heading off to play with our partners.

The phone is a device invented with a view to creating more communication, and therefore one might assume, more intimacy. It all comes down to how you use it – true of so many things. If we use the phone to tap into facebook and twitter, as a substitute for having conversations, that’s our choice. A person does not have to go to parties and spend the whole time messing about with their phone. It isn’t compulsory. Equally, we can switch them off and go to bed.

Some jobs put employees under pressure to be available, and some of us have to be on call – that’s been true for far longer than there have been phones, when a bang on the door in the middle of the night was a given for some professions (doctors, smugglers etc). Most of us will not get a really important text in the middle of the night. Most of us do not need to be on standby in case someone is mortally wounded, or the big breakthrough comes through on the case, or the deal is about to break down. Most of our lives are far more ordinary than that, and most of our phone content is nothing more important than someone having posted a photo of a cute animal.

We can also play the game of imagining that some vital, important message could come in at any moment. Someone might need us. Something big may be happening. For most people, this is a total delusion. All the time we’re sat there twiddling with the internet and swapping banal messages, we are actually reducing our scope for having something important come into our lives. But then, maybe that’s the point. The imaginary important message is perfectly safe, because it won’t turn up and require us to do anything. Stepping up to real situations so that we might have to act, is a good deal more demanding.

And yet we cling to our phones.

The phone is a lot easier than real human interaction. It’s not quite as immediate, giving you more scope for thinking about how you want to appear. It’s easier to be rude and unpleasant with no comebacks. And most of what you get online is irrelevant, which also means its emotionally safe and has no impact on your life. Doing real things with real people is as loaded with danger as it is with possibility, and perhaps it is fear of the risks that has us preferring to turn on the device, than get turned on. Real intimacy, with actual people; be that emotional, intellectual or physical, takes effort to do well. You have to be present and paying attention. You need to care. No phone will ever ask that of you, and therefore there is no scope for failure.

Using tools in a measured and considered way to get stuff done has been key to human progress ever since we picked up our first stick, back in the dawn of time, and started poking things with it. However, when using the tools becomes an end in its own right, not a means, we have lost our way. There are better things to play with in bed than mobile phones.