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J. Grant Swank

The Art of Conversation
By J. Grant Swank, Jr.
Sep 17, 2011 - 12:05:18 AM

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A couple our age drives to their Maine home from the Carolinas. When they first built their house, we stopped to chat with them - talking along the roadside.

The other day I saw that they were back again. As they were unloading their vehicle of luggage, I caught sight of the fellow, waving a welcome back to Lake Sebago. We exchanged brief pleasantries, then my wife and I continue our walk up the road.

"Remember when we first met them? He talked about nothing but himself," I recalled aloud.

That’s what I remember about that man in particular. He talked about nothing but himself.

We four had some things in common - same age, both men clergy, both women educated, all four travelers and so forth. But when it came to conversation, the man had nothing actually to say but what circled around his ego.

As I passed their house the other day, I saw lights on and thought it might be nice to knock on their door, inviting them to our cottage for some refreshments. Then I pulled back. Why would I subject myself to more conversation that centered solely on one person? I have fallen into that trap over and over again down through the years. So when am I going to learn to let go?

Obviously, I did not walk toward their front door.

Then I thought of all the people we have come upon over decades. How many times did we leave them with me saying to my wife, "Did you notice that they did not ask us one question about our lives? Everything was all about them - their work, their children, their house, their car, their vacation."

The art of conversation is to center on the other person, not for you to center on yourself.

I have another friend who delights in relating his doings. He is explicit. I like that detail. I can tell by his facial expression that he thoroughly thrives on having me as a listener. And I am quite pleased to be a listener for him.

Further, there never passes a conversation with this fellow that he does not then turn from his go-rounds to me. He will ask, "And what’s going on in your life these days?"

Smart man. Very smart man. Yet a rare one.

When speaking with others, ask them about themselves. Listen intently. Let them finish their stories without you interrupting to tell something about yourself. There are so very few listeners. Be one of them.

Friend Ray is an excellent listener. I can relay to him a myriad details of our recent trip to Ireland, for instance, spelling out each scenario. Ray never interrupts me. Ray lets me finish what I have started. And all along I know he’s not glazed over his thoughts with eyes that die on me. He keeps eye contact - and those eyes are actually bright and listening eyes.

I would say that Ray is the chief listener in my life. I can always count on him to listen well.

Of course, I return the favor. I ask Ray about his children, his events, his home in the country and so forth. When he spills out the specifics, I return the skill of listening intently. I know he knows that for his responses to me reveal his thanks for me paying attention to what he has had to say.

I know there are times when bright, choppy conversation is allowed, especially when there is gaiety in the room - many chatting at once, all laughing and joshing, plenty of interruptions and all taking it in stride. That is another kind of exchange that can be particularly fun. And it surely is permissible. A frolicking evening with friends is a treasure.

Yet that kind of art-in-conversation is a genre unto itself. We should recognize it as legitimate.

But when it comes to the one-on-one converse, the art is often lost on self-centeredness on the part of the one. That’s sad.

The refined art of conversing centers on other people, listening genuinely to what they have to say, contributing in time with something worthwhile that has occurred in your own life and then enriching the soul with further dialogue that actually contributes something worthwhile with another.

J. Grant Swank Jr.

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