The lost art of conversation

When I started at Earlham College, all incoming Freshmen were required to take Humanities.   At Earlham, which then ran on a trimester schedule, Humanities meant you read 10 books in 10 weeks and wrote a 3-5 page paper each week.  Which was pretty tough, all things considered, but not as tough as what we learned during classroom discussions.

Most Earlham classes were not lecture but discussion based.  Small groups of 15-20 students who would sit in a circle and not at desks.   Humanities introduced us to this format and taught us all how to have a real discussion/conversation.  Rule number one was that you were not allowed to interrupt someone who was speaking.  Ever.  As you can imagine, during the first week or two of classes, the professor spent most of his or her time stopping those who would try to jump in or interrupt.   We all did it.  We all had to train ourselves to listen and wait, and then respond.   The other rule was that, as much as possible, you were to respond to what was being said, and not just spout your own thoughts on the subject without tying it to the conversation around you (and of course, the text being discussed).   This was even more difficult, as sometimes it meant giving up on THAT POINT YOU WERE SURE WAS OF ULTIMATE IMPORTANCE AND EVERYONE NEEDED TO HEAR!!   Sometimes by the time the conversation came around to you, your point had already been covered or was no longer relevant and you had to drop it.  Boy, was that tough!

After 10 weeks, however,  we were pros, and you could walk in to almost any class on campus and find actual conversation happening around a given topic, whether it was literature, language, science or math.  Sometimes conversations were heated and competition to be called on as the next speaker fierce, but interrupting?  Ignoring what someone had said?  That didn’t happen.

I know that, in the (many) years since leaving Earlham, I’ve been as guilty as anyone of backsliding, of interrupting and feeling like I can’t wait to make my two cents heard.  But I always try to be aware and listen to others before responding – sometimes even giving up my own point if it doesn’t seem to fit the flow of the conversation.

The other day I was in a situation where instead of conversation, there were “intersecting monologues” which author John O’Donohue rightly states in his book On Being, is “what passes for conversation a lot in this culture”.   At one point, it became so obvious that none of my fellow participants were listening to what I was saying that I stopped talking mid-sentence, wondering if anyone would notice.   No one did.

How do you remedy such a situation?  I can’t snap my fingers and have my Humanities professor appear to give us all a refresher in the ‘rules’ or art of conversation.   And saying “Hey, no one is listening to me!” comes off as slightly whiny and egocentric.    My complaint isn’t really that no one was listening to me – no one was listening to anyone. It wasn’t a conversation at all.  It was stressful and unsatisfying and reminded me why I generally don’t go in for group activities anymore.

This is a blog post without a clever ending.  How do you remind people – especially friends – that it’s not really a conversation if no one is listening to each other?  If everyone constantly interrupts in order to continue their own monologue?  How do you convey that without sounding self-important and pompous?


About Amy

Amy Milstein was born and raised on a farm in Indiana, but after 20+ years considers herself a full-fledged New Yorker. She is married with two kids, who do not go to school but are instead life learners. This means they learn by living in the world (real life ) instead of hearing about it and simulating it in a classroom. With her family, Amy loves to travel, read, watch movies, write, sew, knit - the list is endless.
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6 Responses to The lost art of conversation

  1. I’ve noticed this too, ever since I heard the quote, “Most people listen to reply rather than listening to understand.” Or something like that. It really hit me that I was totally listening to reply. So I really try to make an effort to understand and if a pause occurs, I try to say something that shows what I heard. Not parroting what they said, but using own my words to convey the idea I heard.

    When I encounter others listening to reply, I try to model the behaviour I would like to see. I try to quiet the part of me that is desperate to make a particular point and truly listen to what they’re saying and, if the opportunity arises, respond to that. If it happens in a group of people, I may point out that someone interrupted someone else or that another person has been clearly wanting to speak for some time. Maybe this is the kind of thing that works better when it’s not on your own behalf?

    Of course, sometimes, I just check out of the conversation altogether and choose not to hang out with the offenders too much. :)

    • Amy says:

      Hi Kate,

      Thank you for this! Yes, I think you are right. Model the behavior you wish to see (not always easy in a group). And I know I am guilty of jumping in at times, too, so I try to catch myself and wait and listen.

      And opting out – that happens a lot too!


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