The Art of ConversationBeyond small talk and silence: How to cultivate good conversation.

The Art of ConversationBeyond small talk and silence: How to cultivate good conversation.

"Proposing that conversation should be intellectual is not to demand only deep insights or high-minded discourse."

Whether great conversation traverses easy or difficult terrain, its reward is a more poignant connection with others. But to converse well is challenging. The art of conversation lacks well-defined rules, yet places high demands on our capabilities. Perhaps it is helpful to consider philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s brilliantly concise description of conversation as “unrehearsed intellectual adventure.” In these three quick words he beautifully encapsulates the spontaneity, challenge and pleasure of this quintessentially human social interplay.

To say that conversation is unrehearsed is to acknowledge that it depends on the moment. It thrives not on plans or goals but on improvisation. (Dialogue with the hope of some gain is not conversation; it is lecture, competition or interview.) There is an unspoken consensus among linguists that conversation is process-oriented, that its course cannot be predetermined. University of California, Berkeley philosopher John Searle once lamented that “conversation does not have an intrinsic structure about which a relevant theory can be formulated.” Vexingly to those who prefer tidy models for human interaction, in conversation there can be no strict rules.

Nevertheless, skilled conversationalists keep things on track by observing some basic guidelines. First, listening and speaking are both key because, as Searle writes, conversation “must be seen as an expression of shared intentionality.” Second, remaining good-natured and flexible is crucial. Benjamin Franklin contends that “complaisance” and “agreeableness” facilitate good conversation. “Complaisance,” Franklin explains, “is a seeming preference of others to ourselves,” and “agreeableness” is “a readiness to overlook or excuse their foibles.”

This suggests a third guideline: to converse with a good sense of humor, which is why David Hume, the great philosopher of human nature, prizes “wit and ingenuity” above all in conversation. So, the rules, such as they are, come down to listening well and activating sociable traits of courtesy, goodwill and humor. All of these require attunement not just to the themes that arise, but also to others in the conversation. Poet and novelist Ursula K. Le Guin calls this attention to each other “mutual phase locking” or “entrainment.” “We need to talk together,” she says, “speaker and hearer here, now.” Good conversation may be unrehearsed, but it isn’t haphazard; it is careful, balanced and generous.

Proposing that conversation should be intellectual is not to demand only deep insights or high-minded discourse. Rather, it insists on thoughtfulness. Even small talk can turn to good conversation if intelligently undertaken. Observations about food, clothes, weather or sports easily lead to consequential matters among well-informed, inventive conversationalists. When conversation turns to weighty issues, familiarity with facts and subtleties makes a difference, while agreeableness and good humor keep things moving along.

These ensure that even difficult discussions—of politics or religion, for instance—don’t bog down in bias and anger. Thoughtful attention to others in the conversation can also help keep it from becoming antagonistic. In an era when etiquette may have fallen out of favor, it is still worth listening to etiquette authority Emily Post, who declares, “nearly all the faults or mistakes in conversation are caused by not thinking.” Thinking people who don’t agree can still connect. This is partly because intelligence in conversation is not solely cerebral. When Ursula K. Le Guin talks about entrainment in conversation, she describes it not just as a meeting of minds but a physical resonance among bodies. Because conversation involves listening, speech and expression (posture, hand gestures, subtle facial movements), the whole biological apparatus comes into play. When we say that we are “deep in conversation” we acknowledge this comprehensive, resonant connection.

Connection becomes especially important if we think about conversation as an adventure. When talk moves to unanticipated places, everyone involved has to contribute as equals. Deference may be appropriate in greetings, but conversation cruises on the assumption of equivalence. This can be challenging in situations of perceived imbalance—a professor talking casually with a student, meeting a fiancée’s parents, breaking in with a group who know each other well. To navigate these requires thoughtful attunement to the experience and understanding of others. Spontaneous, intelligent conversation among equals opens passages to new knowledge, understanding and insight; it doesn’t merely follow one person’s lead or traverse well-trodden paths. Instead, listening well, thinking generously and speaking with good humor and ingenuity are the best equipment for participating in great conversation.

You are reading a complimentary story from Issue 22

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