Ever try talking to someone who brings everything you say back around to themselves? Here’s a clip from a conversation a friend reported to me last weekend:
Joan: I watched 3 reruns of The Mentalist on Friday night and learned more about how to observe and understand people than I ever thought possible. That guy is pretty interesting.
Keith: I try not to watch television – it’s not good for your brain. I’m pretty good at observing people already. My boss says I can size up a sales prospect better than anybody.
Then Keith held the stage for the next 3-5 minutes, cycling through a variety of personal opinions, self-praise, and topics that displayed his own superior knowledge and breadth of experience. Joan was in a shadow by the time Keith stopped to take a breath, and the conversation – if we can call it that – had traveled so far from where it had started that there was no hope of re-entry.
Joan concluded that she could not have a “grown-up conversation” with Keith, because, she said to me, “He is simply unable to take what is offered by another person and build on it in a way that others could both contribute and be contributed to by the dialogue.”
Sorry to say it, but she might be right. When one is looking for a conversation where mutual learning or interest or enjoyment are available, it doesn’t work to have one participant be a suction-tube, pulling everything in to him- or herself and simply sermonizing.
The only solution I’ve seen was when a Communications Professor demonstrated how to have an enjoyable conversation. She said, “It’s more about listening and asking questions than it is about talking.”
What we have called an Understanding Conversation is a dialogue in which both parties explore an idea – or any topic at all – and look at it from the perspectives of Who-Where-How or What-When-Why. Maybe that would work. What if Keith had said any one of these things?
- Who is The Mentalist?
- Where does he do most of his observing?
- How did he learn to understand people?
- What did you learn from him?
- When is the best time to practice using what you learned?
- Why are you home watching TV on a Friday night?
Perhaps the greatest gift we can provide in any conversation is just our own attentive listening and turning that toward an inquiry that elicits wider or deeper thought from others. Unless, of course, the other person is droning on and on in a self-referential promotion, trapped by their own magnetic ego. The solution to that may be to hum very softly to yourself until the sermon ends.