‘It’s good to talk,’ as the old BT ad used to go, as indeed it is with old friends – you can’t beat a good old chinwag, natter, rabbit, conflab, or heart-to-heart – but I think it is even better to listen. In this Age of Oversharing, when everyone posts everything up on social media (as indeed I’m doing here), as though their lives do not exist until given, paradoxically, a virtual reality, people seem more inclined to transmit than receive. Social media’s hall of mirrors encourages our narcissism; the self-filtering of ‘liked’ and ‘followed’, and the tailoring of onscreen ads and content, our solipsism. We are emperors of our own universes, like those encountered by the Little Prince on his interplanetary tour.
And so when conversations actually take place, sorry, ‘face-time’, I’ve found increasingly that people like to talk, but rarely like to listen. Over the years I’ve cultivated my active listening skills – largely through the spoken word scene I’m part of. As host, facilitator and performer it is something I’ve become adept at. But it has also been cultivated by many good friendships. I like nothing better than spending quality time with a friend – giving them my full attention, hearing their news, and sharing mine. But sometimes people – not good friends – take my active listening (when I ‘lean in’ to a conversation and meet the speaker at least halfway) as permission to just talk ‘at’ me, rather than ‘with me’. There are certain aspects of conversational behaviour I consider irritating, or sometimes, repugnant:
The Downloader When someone talks at you for half an hour without giving you space to reflect or contribute. It may be a nervous response at times, but it is ultimately a form of rudeness. Ironically, it may seem ‘rude’ to stop them mid-flow, but not when they haven’t given you a chance to participate.
The Brinkman: When someone doesn’t respond to what you say in a thoughtful, sensitive way, but merely tries to ‘trump’ it. Each time you contribute something it is like a message in a bottle that remains floating in the ocean, unread; whileas the other speaker keeps on boasting. This may be fuelled by status anxiety, but it is ultimately tedious, and a form of competitive bullying. As soon as you notice it’s happening, stop speaking, turn away, talk to someone else, or try to gently mention it to them. If they’ll listen.
The Interruptor: When the other speaker keeps cutting in, not allowing you to finish your sentences. The interviewers on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ are particularly fond of this aggressive form – except when it’s a Tory politician or an American general. No political biase there…
The Squall: When people speak at the same time, creating a headache inducing white noise – the opposite of conversation.
The Hogger: When someone dominates a conversation, assuming everyone is fascinated in what they have to say.
The Thumber: When someone you are talking to neurotically checks social media or texts every five minutes, or answers their phone and begins having a protracted conversation (which, unless it is an emergency, really can wait). This seems to be an OCD particularly suffered by Generation Y and Millennials, but I’ve seen older people do it as well. It is the height of rudeness. The person in front of you should be given your full attention, and should always take priority over someone not present – unless they are your child or a sick relative/friend in crisis.
The Butter-in: Someone who crashes your conversation, offering an unwanted interjection.
Of course, there are other ‘conversation criminals’, the Mansplainer being one of the worst culprits. What it boils down to is: simply mindfulness – a quality that seems to be getting scarcer in this world. Words can harm or heal. Use them wisely.
Conversation is born of generosity. Give not just of your news, but of your listening, time, and respect.
Listen with the heart. Listen to the sentiment of what is being said, rather than the pedantic details. Go with the flow of a conversation. Do not correct someone as they speak. There is no ‘correct pronunciation’, only accents. Goodbye RP and all forms of linguistic Fascism. Celebrate regional differences, different backgrounds. The diversity of the tongue. The English language is a mongrel breed, absorbing many influences and constantly evolving. As soon as it is fixed, it dies.
Own your opinion. If you make a statement add that it is ‘your opinion,’ not a final judgement. As Charles Darwin said ‘Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.’ Only offer someone specific advice, especially if of a personal nature, if given permission by the person it concerns. Avoid jumping in, trying to ‘solve’ something. Often people just need to share, to be heard, to be held, to be witnessed.
Walk in someone else’s shoes. Conversation facilitates compassion as we hear one another’s stories; and deepens understanding.
Give someone the gift of your time. Let them share, if they want to. We all deserve to be heard.
Sometimes silence is the best conversation – a conversation with yourself and with spirit. In a conversation don’t be afraid of it – allow there to be natural pauses (a ‘Hermes pause’ is said to take place every 20 minutes or so in a conversation – I always imagine the Winged Messenger putting his feet up and having a cuppa). Often the ultimate sign of friendship is to be able to enjoy companionable silence together. These non-verbal conversations are sometimes the best of all.