“But What Do I Say?”
Developing the art of conversation
“OTHER children in school always seemed to know the fitting thing to say. They always had the right words. People would be interested in them. But with me it was different,” began a young man who suffered for years from shyness. What he then described is a situation that millions earth wide can relate to emotionally.
“When I was around other people my hands would sweat and butterflies would flood my stomach. I would tense up. My mind would go blank. What would I say? Yet I liked people and wanted to communicate, so I would try. But when I finally sputtered out something it would fall flat because of the tension. Afterward I felt even worse.”
Perhaps there have been times when you or someone you love have had similar feelings. Many persons find it hard to go beyond the “How are you?” stage of a conversation. The failure to communicate is evident in growing loneliness as well as an increasing number of “silent” families.
What causes conversational clumsiness? It could be a person’s upbringing. Additionally, many people today are more self-centered and take less interest in others. Also, despite the apparent outgoingness of the masses, many persons are shy. The book Shyness, by Dr. P. G. Zimbardo, reports that out of 5,000 persons surveyed, 80 percent stated that they were shy at some point in their lives and 40 percent considered themselves presently shy.
Centering on another problem, one writer said: ‘We choose to turn on TV and turn each other off.’ Alluding to the effect TV watching has had on families, a speaker at an Italian public-information convention made an unusual proposal: “Shut down all television stations once a week.” Why? He said that it will lead to “the rediscovery of conversation between members of the family, a habit that has long been lost.”
So all these conditions contribute to the inability of many to develop the art of conversation. But what can be done to overcome the problem?
The First Hurdle—One’s Thinking
“There were two ideas I had to get out of my mind,” reported the young man mentioned earlier. “First, I was too self-centered. I was worrying too much about what people thought of what I would say. I felt I would just make a fool of myself. And second, I always thought that others would be picking on everything that I said.” What helped him to overcome such feelings?
He heard a Bible lecture wherein the speaker showed that genuine love does not “look for its own interests” and is “always eager to believe the best.” This advice helped him to begin to trust others, not impute bad motives (even if some were picky), and reach out more to others, thereby becoming less self-centered.—1 Corinthians 13:4-7, New World Translation; Moffatt.
Thinking of just their own interests causes some to hog the conversation. On the other hand, others imitate American statesman Calvin Coolidge, who was renowned for his utter disregard of the art of conversation. He was asked why he attended so many dinner parties and yet looked so bored. His reply: “Well, a man has to eat somewhere.” Yes, some feel no more responsibility at such a gathering than simply to fill their stomach!
To add to a conversation requires that you have something in mind to say. So inform yourself. Reading newspapers or magazines (like this one) and making mental or written notes will give you engaging bits of information that can delight others.
Be an Active Listener
“I must confess to suffering from a common listening weakness,” wrote one woman. “I always want to offer friends advice. They’ll call me up to complain and unload and all they’ll want is a sympathetic ear, but, alas, in my zeal I’ll snap back with 15 solutions.” This woman found that her friends quickly terminated their conversations.
The same can happen to anyone who does not become an active listener. Rather than thinking about what you are going to say next, interrupting, finishing off the other person’s statement or rushing the other person, a good listener is patiently attentive. No one can do two things at once and give them both his undivided attention. One wife expressed the feeling of many married women: “We don’t think a person can read the paper and listen to us. . . . We don’t think a person can put on pajamas, wash, brush his teeth and, curling up in bed, close his eyes and claim that he is listening to us.”
To be an active listener, most of the time look at the other person, indicate by word or gesture (perhaps a nod) your interest in what is being said. Try to identify with the other person’s situation. (For instance, “I know how you must have felt.”) Ask tactful and relevant questions. Do not hesitate to ask for clarification. People often enjoy explaining things.
Of course, some conversational skills, if learned and used, can help. But mastering the art of conversation means more than simply learning a set of rules.
An Art of the Heart
A person with a head laden with endless stories can be the worst conversationalist, unless his heart is filled with a loving interest in others. Keep “an eye, not in personal interest upon just your own matters, but also in personal interest upon those of the others,” recommends the Bible.—Philippians 2:4.
Becoming sensitive to others’ feelings and interests is the real key to developing the art of conversation. However, this sensitivity should be reflected not only in the interest we show in others, but also in what we talk about. Obviously, harsh, ‘injurious speech’ would not show love. At times, even innocent conversation can be devastating.—Titus 3:2.
For instance, at their Wednesday-afternoon sewing center a group of women freely talked about the shame of the “drug addict daughter” of a family of newcomers in their area. One of these women later eagerly mentioned this in conversation with a minister’s wife.
“There’s another side,” retorted the minister’s wife.
“You weren’t at the meeting,” said the other woman stiffly. “If you had been, you—”
“No, I was there—at the house,” replied the minister’s wife. “She isn’t their daughter—not any relation; not even a friend or a friend’s daughter, just a poor girl who had been sick so long and suffered so terribly that the doctors themselves had made her a victim of the opium habit. And they have undertaken to try to cure her. They have given up their home—their very lives—to it. I just found it out—with the help of the doctor.”
Abruptly the woman stood up to leave the minister’s home. Why so suddenly? ‘I must tell all the other women that beautiful other side,’ she said with a flush of embarrassment. Yes, often there is another side to some incident discussed during “innocent” conversation.
So control the urge to say something that could destroy another’s reputation. Do not scorch another’s good name. (Compare Proverbs 16:27, 28.) Ask yourself: How much of what I say tears others down? After an honest self-analysis you may see the need to make some adjustments.
Rewards of Conversation
You are drawn closer to those you get to know better. Families become stronger. Husband-wife and parent-child gaps begin to close. A person enlarges his knowledge as he draws on the wisdom of others. Younger persons can add years of experience to their lives by tapping that of their elders through conversation. Life becomes more enjoyable.
So develop and use the art of conversation.
[Box on page 14]
HOW GOOD A CONVERSATIONALIST ARE YOU?
● Do you talk 50 percent of the time when there are three or more in the group?
● Can you sense when a friend is up or down?
● Do you talk primarily about one subject—yourself?
● Do you mistake abrasiveness for wit?
● Do you confuse being frank and open with being blunt and rude?
● Do you ask about others’ interests?
[Box on page 15]
HOW TO GET STARTED
● Introduce yourself.
● Say something about an experience you both are sharing at that time.
● Give sincere compliments.
● Ask for or extend help.
HOW TO KEEP IT GOING
● Ask questions. Either factual—“Did the temperature get above 80 degrees today?” or viewpoint—“Do you feel that the neighborhood is getting less secure?”
● Get the person talking about himself. “Where did you grow up? How do you like your work? How does a person get involved in that line of work?”
● Offer one of your personal stories or informative “tidbits.”
● Avoid unwarranted criticism yet share freely your feelings and reactions to what the person is saying.
● Know when it is time to leave.