The Art in Conversation
Even brief moments of conversation can rescue us from being isolated and self-centered. They bring us out and help us engage with the world, connecting with the matrix of human thought. Conversation is a reflection: “I think spring is here.” “Oh, yes, the sparrow on my balcony was singing this morning.” “Does that mean he’s courting?” “Yes, the best song wins the mate.” “Really?” It’s not necessarily what we’re talking about, it’s how we talk about it that affects us. It’s about the caring within the words. As we are drawn out of ourselves, we become more other-centered. And this is the key to conversation, to appreciate the one in front of you, which creates a moment of happiness for both.
All the same, some conversations can drag and at times you may find yourself thinking, Hurry up! Get to the point. If you’re just waiting for the dance to be over, it’s not really artful or appreciative. While the other person may be self-centered, the onus falls on you to slow down and remember to be patient. Of course, in certain settings you have to get to the point quickly. If you’re driving down the road, for example, you need to know whether to turn left or right. However, even in a short and pointed exchange, there is always the possibility of feeling the pleasure of each other’s company. This is artfulness, which comes from our genuine appreciation of the moment.
In ancient Japan, samurai warriors mastered many arts—flower arranging, the tea ceremony, and conversation. They were able to contain their power in the most delicate of activities. A cup of tea conveyed the warmth of perfect friendship, an arrangement of flowers brought the season into a vase. With the same elegance, each warrior could draw a sword and strike a fatal blow, or release an arrow and pierce the heart of an enemy. Such perfect balance and timing in conversation overtakes others before they know it, like the sun moving from morning to midday. The art of conversation is a way to invoke feeling in our hearts and beauty in our world.
In conversation, mindfulness means being present with your vocabulary, pronunciation, pace, and pitch. You can speak only one word at a time. The words should be enunciated properly, neither too fast nor too slowly, neither too loud nor too soft. When you make the effort to treat the words with respect, their potency makes a lasting impression. Through mindfulness you remember which words you have used. It is related to memory. If you overuse words, your stories and analogies lose the desired effect. Mindfulness also means listening to others, appreciating their word choices, and remembering what they have said.
Laziness is the enemy of mindfulness. It means we aren’t motivated to pronounce our words properly or to tell a good story. We can’t remember what our friend said. What was the name of that book she recommended? We don’t care about the clarity of our communication. Although our halfhearted attempts at conversation may feel adequate, our laziness begins to affect our own energy as well as our reputation. Mindfulness requires effort.
With mindfulness comes awareness, with which we emerge from our habitual self-engrossment into the environment around us. Conversation is an exercise in awareness of ourselves, of another person, and of our relationship with that person. We are observing how we are, how the other person is, and how we are sharing the same space. Keeping the other person in mind, we extend respect and kindness by paying attention.
In this way, conversation is a continual exercise of awareness. Awareness is the ability to know how we are being. We are self-aware and environmentally aware. We have a sense of how loud we are speaking, whom we are speaking to, and the effect we are having on the other person. It is the ability to tune in to our sensory observations and place ourselves in space.
Acknowledge and Initiate
Conversation becomes an art when it transports us from self-absorption to being aware of the thoughts and feelings of others. Thus, the first element of conversation is being aware of others.
All languages have a greeting: Hello, Bonjour, Namaste, Ni hao, Hola, Tashi delek. With these words, a line of communication has been opened. Even if we do not have much in common, that initial acknowledgment can be felt as a bond. Its importance lies within our own language as well.
Conversely, by not acknowledging others, we are intentionally or unintentionally dismissing their existence. Those who are not acknowledged feel insecure, angry, and possibly vindictive. This can lead to misunderstanding, hurt feelings, discord, and even war.
When we walk up to the checkout counter at the convenience store, we may not even acknowledge the person working the register. We just hand her our credit card without making eye contact or saying hello. In our modern world, this has become the norm. If we do say, “Hello,” the person might be surprised that we are acknowledging her existence. This lack of courtesy affects our society as a whole. Thus, simply saying hello is a meaningful and mindful endeavor.
In English, when we say, “How are you?,” the most important word is you. We are turning our attention to another. The word attention can mean “to be drawn out.” We are drawn out from the self-absorption of ourselves to notice the existence of another, which is the notion of how. Two human beings are acknowledging each other. That moment is important for the species and the planet.
Having made the initial acknowledgment and remembering where we are, then it is up to us to decide how the conversation will proceed. Generally speaking, it is best to start with experiences that are immediately available to both people. Begin with the weather or a detail about what’s in front of you now. Ultimately, you and your conversation partner share what it is to be human. With that perspective, sharing little things is easy.
In general, conversation is a time to be gracious and agreeable. This becomes challenging for people who disagree on a topic. It may be that they don’t really mean what they say, but by disagreeing they separate themselves from others and create a sense of identity. For example, after many days of rain, when someone in the conversation says, “Isn’t it great? The sun has finally come out!,” the disagreeable person replies, “I prefer the rain.” Although everyone else is enjoying the sun, this person has to disagree in order to seem different. In a slightly contorted fashion, such a person wants to be acknowledged. This makes any conversation difficult.
However, a skilled conversationalist can utilize even awkward answers. For example, we might reply, “Yes, I noticed your raincoat as you came in. Did you get that recently? It looks good on you.” When the disagreeable person responds, “Yes. I just bought it, but I hate shopping,” we can agree: “Yes, shopping is often very tiring because of the long queues.” Saying yes can be a powerful tool in dealing with difficult people. We’re not necessarily agreeing with them, but by acknowledging and respecting what they say, we are not separating from them. It helps us make do with whatever the conversation presents. And the formulation “Yes, and” will carry a conversation further than “Yes, but,” which throws up a roadblock.
Conversely, being overly agreeable makes you seem overeager. You may come across as unstable. Luckily, conversations are full of things we like and do not like, and it’s fine to gently express a sincere opinion. If you share an opinion, begin with “I feel…” or “I think…” Stay open. Own what you say. Your genuineness can inspire others to be honest as well. At the same time, a conversation is not the final word. It’s important to keep a larger frame of mind and appreciate the benefits of interaction altogether.
For example, one of us may be a staunch vegetarian while another raises animals for food, or perhaps we are affiliated with different political parties. At those points, conversations can be challenging. However, staying with a sense of respect for the other while not abandoning our own principles can bring such conversations to unexpected insights. An almost infectious openness arises around people who have the ability to be themselves and still respect those who are not like them. Cultivate equanimity and warmth. It is remarkably valuable in all sorts of social interactions.
Generally speaking, people are happy to meet and sad to depart. At the end of a conversation, we like to acknowledge that the interaction was worthwhile. Depending on the circumstances, a quick nod, a bow, a smile, a handshake, or a hug are simple and gracious ways of conveying our appreciation of the other person. If we will see them again, this feeling creates a sense of looking forward; if we are not so sure we will see them again, it creates an appropriately sad tone.
Even if the other person is in midsentence and we must rush away, we can say, “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’m late for my train. It was really good to see you, and I look forward to continuing this conversation.” The person may be disappointed, but they will still feel heard and respected.
Ending a conversation well plants the seed for a clean new beginning the next time we see someone. It has an important effect on the dialogue itself. It gives conversation a balance: good at the beginning, good in the middle, and good at the end. With such symmetry, beauty, and harmony, the ideas we shared don’t end with the conversation; they continue to percolate. In the same way, ending a conversation poorly has a retroactive effect. Even if many good feelings and ideas were exchanged, the conversation ending poorly somehow stains them. We may forget the good aspects and remember only the poor ending.
Particularly when the conversations are important or meaningful, a good conclusion seals the exchange. Each person wants to ensure that the other felt very good about the meeting. At this time, a long eloquent compliment may be appropriate: “After hearing so much about you, having had this opportunity to meet is truly an honor. I wish you much success in your endeavors and look forward to our next meeting.” The other person might say: “I, too, appreciated our meeting tremendously; it was very meaningful for me. I certainly hope we can continue the extraordinary dialogue we began today.” This exchange can be followed by a bow, hug, or kiss, depending on the culture. Likewise, the exchanging of gifts, business cards, and phone numbers indicates the weight of a relationship and the desire to continue.
At other times, especially between friends and family, separations can make us emotional and difficult. Although not many words may be uttered, there may be crying and other emotional expressions. Generally, impermanence is hard for people to handle. This can always be seen in how we handle the conclusion of things, and conversation is no different.