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Sunday, 19 July 2015

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Let's really talk

I recently invited a young couple over to our place for a chat. "You mean - just to talk?" the young lady said, eyes wide in horror, "Let's go and see a musical show!"


Pic courtesy google images

While the strobes flickered to the music and the group screaming from their highest pitch, and we all cheered and clapped like agitated protons, I wondered, what's wrong with just talking? It's an honourable human activity, isn't it?

Since then, I have been listening to people talk, and I am appalled. Lively communication is a goner. Today all we can muster is a somnolent mumble. Or a yakety-yak, which is to communication what a hot dog is to haute cuisine. Who are the culprits? TV is one. I have heard sane adults argue that TV talk shows are reviving the art of conversation. Balderdash! Conversation isn't something you watch; it is something you do. People pitch into build a good conversation the way they used to sew a patchwork quilt or build a shed.

But TV is not solely to blame. We like to buy our entertainment already packaged. Not that anything is wrong with movies, concerts, dramas or other entertainment, but we seem to have lost the knack of swapping thoughts with live humans. Driving home from the drama, I asked the young couple, "What do you think about it?" The husband said, "it was OK." The wife replied, "No complaints." So much for that conversation.

Boomerang talk

We gabble about our kids' cuteness, about what we are having for dinner, about the status of our sore knee. And if you would like an example, take me. The other day I found myself treating my nephew with a monologue on the current political situation of the country. That was "boomerang talk" - sending out words so they will circle back. We are too busy talking to ourselves, about ourselves, to notice that everyone else in the room was snoozing.

Years ago, when the LTTE war was raging, I was at a dinner. Somehow, I began to discuss the war with a stranger. Our opinions were poles apart, and the discussion quickly escalated into argument. Later I came to know that the stranger was a worried man with a 23-year old son, stationed in the North and fighting against the LTTE. He had his own reasons for his belief. After that event never again could I automatically assume that people whose opinions I despise are despicable. Conversation makes us look at each other.

Tact and diplomacy are methods used to aid effective communication, especially when attempting to be persuasive or assertive. Using tact and diplomacy appropriately can lead to improved relationships with other people and are a way to build and develop mutual respect, which in turn can lead to more successful outcomes and less difficult or stressful communications.

Tact and diplomacy are skills centred round an understanding of other people and being sensitive to their opinions, beliefs, ideas and feelings. Effective use of such skills comes from being able to sense accurately what another person is feeling or thinking at any given time and then responding in such a way as to avoid bad feelings or awkwardness, whilst at the same time, asserting or reflecting your own ideas and feelings back in a delicate and well-meaning fashion.

Of course, it is not all fireworks. When I was in University in India, a few of us would walk miles along country roads at late evening, talking about everything from the meaning of life to wonders of Marilyn Monroe to Morris minor to Mercedes Benz. We just enjoyed one another's company.

It's often said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who are right, and those who think they are right. In other words, everyone has an opinion. Given the opportunity, there are very few of us who would hesitate to throw in our two cents. But imposing ourselves in this way is more an exercise in ego than anything else, and that imposition of ego not only limits us, but deflects the opportunity for authentic transaction.

Me-barrier

Let me give you a simple exercise: when you need to interact with another person do you ask to 'speak to them' or 'speak with them?' This subtle shift in perspective can markedly change the quality of that interaction.

It moves the interchange from one of control to one of collaboration. Speaking 'with' demands space, and that is where listening comes in. Listening is the means for creating that space, expanding the tone and texture of a conversation. It also gets us out of the way, which is important because within the context of authentic social interchange, it is often we who are the greatest obstacle. Another aspect of listening is asking questions. Very often we fail to ask simple questions and leave others feeling like they are not being heard. Not asking questions is very much like imposing ourselves because we are being presumptive about another person's needs or wishes, rather than making an effort to establish them as they really are.

Lastly, we need to hear the other person. This is something that is both symbolic and concrete. We do need to hold space, hold our tongue and genuinely listen, but we also need to suspend our need to impose ourselves so the other person has the space to interject their needs in a tangible way. If, then, the person with whom we are speaking is also listening, an authentic interchange ensues.

All of my life's high points, it seems, were good conversations. Suddenly the talk takes an unexpected turn and doors open for me Maybe it's not the subject that makes a conversation click, but the vitality. And maybe to start one, all we have to do is to break through the "me-barrier" - go potholing in other people's thoughts.

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