In Praise of Conversation

Only Connect! E.M.Forster

   When shy people talk to me about their fear of meeting others I teach them a few simple strategies for putting people at ease and explain that most of us love to talk about ourselves and will do so freely, given a good opening.
    I encourage them to make a start in the hope that they will eventually discover how amazing it is that we can talk to each other, sharing information, yes, but more magically: hopes, dreams, feelings. Poets may do it in aesthetically pleasing ways, therapists in ways that heal, comedians in ways that make us laugh, but in fact the most ordinary people, even small children, can do it.
   We are social creatures with a deep need to share our thoughts and feelings, as we look for common ground, enriching one another with our stories. In this way we can benefit from many different lives and our knowledge is extended far beyond the confines of our own experience.
   Conversation requires some degree of turn-taking, but not necessarily in a sentence by sentence process. My Dutch friend introduced me to the idea that there are people who converse as though playing a game of tennis, neatly lobbing the topic back and forth, and those such as in her large family of girls who, like basketball players, dribble the ball until they are tackled and the topic wrestled from them. Either game, she assured me, is fine, but problems arise when a basketball conversationalist is matched with a tennis player. The tennis one is thinking, 'I can't get a word in edgewise, s/he is hogging the conversation,' while the other is thinking, 'Will s/he never pick up their end of the conversation? I'm doing all the work here!'
   By telling each other the story of our daily life we get an opportunity to check out how we are doing. Is this normal? Did I do well? With another person to bear witness, I shape my reality, using the mirror the listener holds up to me. Australian aboriginal myth tells how the ancestors sang the world into existence. This speaks to me as an image of how we create our reality through expressing it, talking and listening into connection with each other. As Douglas Steere puts it: "To listen another's soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another......" (Where Words Come From Swarthmore Lecture 1955.)
   On the other hand, solitary confinement, which deprives a person of the chance to communicate, is one of the harshest punishments and few can survive any significant period of it with their mental health intact. In its lesser forms, ostracism or silent treatment, the cruelty lies in discounting the other person. Deliberate refusal to validate another's existence is psychological annihilation.
   In my work as a psychologist I see people deeply moved and transformed by the opportunity to talk to me: a listener with no agenda other than the well-being of the person in front of me. Many of my clients have thought constantly about their problems but something quite different occurs when they tell me what is on their mind. The problem which we examine together becomes less threatening in its appearance and more amenable to solution.
   I have experienced the same thing myself when, after grappling privately with an issue which I expected to manage alone, I take the risk of speaking it aloud and the pieces fall into place. Where better to talk than among friends who, like family, will forgive our stumbling attempts to find the right words and will understand our shortcuts and non sequiturs.
   In the end, our life stories share common threads, for we are all on the same journey, the path on which Soul or Self or 'that of God within' realises its true nature. Sincere communication resonates deeply in the listener, and for a few moments we are not alone.