The art of conversation: ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood’

— CC BY 2.5

“The Conversation” was painted in the 1930s by Arnold Borisovich Lakhovsky, an artist of Ukrainian-Jewish descent, born in the Russian Empire in 1880. He ended his career in New York, dying there in 1937.

Do you have a name for it? I looked online and found “Windbag,” “Chatterbox,” and “Know-it-all.”

The Synonyms page lists “Blowhard,” “Gasbag,” and “Gascon,” the last coming from Gascony in France where people never stop talking about themselves. At a festival each August, they pick the biggest liar.

I think you know the “type,” the guy who grabs your ear, starts blabbing, and will not let go.

In one of his “Satires” the great Roman poet Horace says he met one of these guys on the street (in Rome) and, try as he might, he could not escape. Once the guy got going, the poet said his ears dropped like those of a donkey who just had a load put on his back.

Some people are less than kind when they speak about “the talker.” I’ve heard some, after a drink or two, call them “sickos,” “narcissists,” or “sicko narcissists,” claiming the talker is interested only in himself.

In a way, that’s true but it’s hard to tell because the talker never reveals himself. He might yak about his favorite pizza or a baseball team he likes but it’s done behind a façade that’s hard to get around.

“The talker” seems to be imprisoned and controls each situation to prevent the other from getting the upper hand. It’s a body without psychological grounding.

After years of being battered by their rat-tat-tats, I learned to confront talkers directly. I now say something like: Maybe we can save this conversation for another time; I don’t have it in me today to continue. I know you agree. (There’s no negotiation.)

I mentioned “conversation” but the situations described contain none. And, whether you agree with that or not, you have to tell me what your definition of “conversation” is. It sounds simple but you’ll stretch your brain trying to do so. When I hear people say: I just had a great conversation! I assume “great” means they know “conversation.”

I like conversations, I like good conversations and by that I mean: When I talk, the other person listens. And it’s easy to tell. First by the eyes, and then when the listener enters my world, asks questions of clarification, in the long run is interested in who I am. Sincerity is always evident.

Ask your reference librarian, go online, search “conversation.” The offerings are endless. You will even find people talking about the “art” of conversation. Art?

Some people, when they hear “art” in reference to conversation, become puzzled. Painting is art, poetry is art, and things like music but somebody talking to somebody else, an art? Hey: I talk, my buddy talks, we say what we say, conversation over.

Such a view is clearly at odds with an understanding that conversation is personal exchange. In his insightful (and multi-million seller) “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey lists his Habit No. 5 as: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” It’s the kind of proverb you find in the Bible.

It sounds Yogi Berra-like but there’s listening and there’s listening and Covey explains the difference. “Most people,” he says, “do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people’s lives.”

Which means the talker is working the crowd for his own benefit.

The brilliant comedian Brian Regan mocks this tack in an acerbic bit, “Me Monster.”

He talks about the guy at social gatherings who talks “plenty for everybody, ‘Me myself right and then I and then myself and mee me I couldn't tell this one about I cause I was talking about myself and Me-- MEeee-- MEEee- MEEEEE-- MEEEEEEEEEEE! MEEEEEEEEEEEHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!’ Beware the Me Monster.”

It’s funny social commentary but Regan belts it out with such indignation that you see he’s had it with batterers.

Charles Derber, a sociologist at Boston College, in “The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life,” says the conversational narcissism we’re talking about is “the key manifestation of the dominant attention-getting psychology in America.”  

And it occurs everywhere: at home, at work, on the golf course. He says, “The profusion of popular literature about listening and the etiquette of managing those who talk constantly about themselves suggests its pervasiveness in everyday life.”

I did a little survey of my own and everyone I talked to said they have talkers in their lives.

On the other hand, the conversationalist, rather than steal a conversation, helps the other articulate his views and feelings and positions on life, which sometimes allows for confessions of failure and emptiness. When things go right, he hears bits of scriptural wisdom being born before his ears.

As soon as I hear “articulate,” I can think only of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s “Native Son.”

The 20-year old Chicago South Sider could never articulate, could never say who he was or hoped to be, and what he needed to get somewhere. The script of his life had been written without him; no one listened.

Bigger might be stereotypical but what he needed is not: the need for an empathetic listener to help articulate being. When it’s good, as I said, empathy brings forth jewels.

But in today’s age, as people digest digits of information about surface realities from a cell phone — there’s articles written on it every other day — the cell phone has become the hangman of conversation.

In “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” Sherry Turkle sounds like Emily Post with a section on “Table Manners” as a condition to restore personhood.

How ironic that today the windbag, the chatterbox, the know-it-all gascon is the texter who views the human voice as an interrupter. What kind of empathy can be learned from such a screener?

I’m not a dystopianist but I keep hearing the words of the party hack, O’Brien, in George Orwell’s “1984” telling people not to worry about things like empathy because, “In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy … .”

He told his lumpenprole not to worry about human relationships because “We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends ... There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother.”

What an insane proposition; such a world could never be. But if you have doubts, that will require a conversation. No windbags allowed.