When I told my wife that I was writing a book on conversation, she laughed. Even though I do my best as a conversationalist, she is superior by far. In fact, her ability to have a conversation is truly an art and delight, whether it be with a family member or a complete stranger.
After we married, she would enjoy having a conversation while we sat to have tea. As much as I tried to be fully engaged in what was happening, when the conversation meandered, I would sometimes think, I wonder when she is going to get to the point? After some time, I came to the realization that not all conversations need a point. Our conversations were not about making a deal, bargaining, or hearing a lecture. Nor was this meaningless chatter. It was a time to be present for each other, an opportunity for everyday intimacy. Talking and listening are essential pieces of a good and healthy relationship. By having this simple time to be together drinking tea—exchanging stories and thoughts and making each other laugh—we were celebrating our special connection. That connectivity is really the heart of all conversations and relationships.
In order to have good conversation, we must appreciate its artistic elements. This art has to do with easing the minds of others, creating valuable and genuine interactions. It is an art of interchange. Through seemingly superficial talk, we reveal our good qualities, and bring about someone else’s good qualities. It also indicates control of our emotions when celebrating beauty and grace. It lays the ground for gratitude and respect. It is a warrior practice of kindness using words.
Like the brush on the surface of a canvas, conversation is an image created by words being etched into a mutual consciousness. It is a fluid dance, each word a movement to which the other responds. There is an underlying flow of joy and appreciation as the partners engage in combining words to create a mutually visualized image that can touch the core emotional elements that make us truly human. It engages our minds, our senses, our intelligence, and our imagination. Through conversation we can feel our hearts melt or our eyes water.
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
Conversation moves from simply communicating practical bits of information, to celebrating human interconnectedness, to expressing the inexpressible. We can use it to ask questions, which shows our curiosity and intelligence. We can share our knowledge and understanding, our imagination and fantasies. We can also tell stories—colorful descriptions of events that have occurred in our lives or the lives of others. We can use it to deceive—deceiving or misleading others—or we can use it to tell the truth, verbalizing the essence of something. We can explain something in finer detail, further clarifying the truth. We can tell jokes to alleviate stress, pain, and boredom, bringing levity to the situation and expressing insight or a critique. We can use poetic language to express what is ultimately inexpressible, connecting speech and heart.
Each time we speak with someone, there is an arc of conversation, which is the journey of an interaction. A conversation can be short and poignant, or long and meandering. In some cases, we know from the beginning how the conversation will play out. Another aspect is the scope of the conversation, the breadth—experiences and knowledge it might touch upon—which depends on who we are with and where we are. The scope could be simple and specific, or vast and all-encompassing. The quality of the conversation has to do with its depth. An example of shallowness could be a sense of obligation, while a deep conversation would be much more profound. Some may be deeper and purposeful, while others may be lighter and simple. In terms of its character, the conversation might be seamless or fragmented. The texture might be smooth or coarse.
A smooth interaction with another has a feeling of synergy—moving from topic to topic with all the ideas being expressed cleanly. A coarse conversation feels bumpy or rough. The connection between ourselves and others feels out of balance. There are interruptions, with many points of contention. But conversations are always changing. A friendship might begin with smooth conversation but, as years pass, become more difficult. Conversely, we could have adversarial conversations with someone that get easier over time.
Even brief moments of conversation can rescue us from being isolated and self-centered. They bring us out and help us engage with the world, connecting with the matrix of human thought. Conversation is a reflection: “I think spring is here.” “Oh, yes, the sparrow on my balcony was singing this morning.” “Does that mean he’s courting?” “Yes, the best song wins the mate.” “Really?” It’s not necessarily what we’re talking about, it’s how we talk about it that affects us. It’s about the caring within the words. As we are drawn out of ourselves, we become more other-centered. And this is the key to conversation, to appreciate the one in front of you, which creates a moment of happiness for both.
All the same, some conversations can drag and at times you may find yourself thinking, Hurry up! Get to the point. If you’re just waiting for the dance to be over, it’s not really artful or appreciative. While the other person may be self-centered, the onus falls on you to slow down and remember to be patient. Of course, in certain settings you have to get to the point quickly. If you’re driving down the road, for example, you need to know whether to turn left or right. However, even in a short and pointed exchange, there is always the possibility of feeling the pleasure of each other’s company. This is artfulness, which comes from our genuine appreciation of the moment.
In ancient Japan, samurai warriors mastered many arts—flower arranging, the tea ceremony, and conversation. They were able to contain their power in the most delicate of activities. A cup of tea conveyed the warmth of perfect friendship, an arrangement of flowers brought the season into a vase. With the same elegance, each warrior could draw a sword and strike a fatal blow, or release an arrow and pierce the heart of an enemy. Such perfect balance and timing in conversation overtakes others before they know it, like the sun moving from morning to midday. The art of conversation is a way to invoke feeling in our hearts and beauty in our world.
Reflection: A Great Conversation
In your mind’s eye, return to a great conversation and feel the energy and environment of that moment. What were its qualities? What elements were at play? Spend a few moments feeling the energy of good conversation in your body. Knowing the feeling of good conversation enables us to connect more readily to it.
Author Photo: Breton Hoagland