To Kill a Conversation

Boxing gloves Have you ever been pummeled into a corner at the beginning of a conversation?

This could be a series on "no buts", because I encounter so many who enter conversation as if it were a boxing ring. Rational arguments raised as fists in both a protective and aggressive stance.

If you're talking just to say how something cannot be done, is not possible, others are idiots, wrong, or stupid, and so forth, save your breath — or tweet.

It may feel good to rant and commiserate publicly. You're just not having a conversation.

I've noticed this behavior showing up in many forms, especially on Twitter. For example, say I share a post by someone else that triggers reaction, for whatever reason — it challenges convention, it takes a different point of view, it exposes an issue.

Twitter is not an ideal tool to hold conversations, of course. However, the tool is only partly at fault in the hands of the user. It would be like blaming the boxer's gloves when hitting an opponent.

So here's what happens, for illustration purposes.

I share the post, and it triggers reactions. Disagreeing with me about a point of view, even if it's not mine, is fine if you're looking to keep an open mind and have a desire to engage in a dialogue. There is an art to conversation. To make time productive for all involved, one needs to be willing to explore the topic.

Here's what exploring looks like in conversation, yes even in 140 characters (assuming you actually read the post in question):

  • it's a good start, how about adding this dimension to it? — you're proposing something
  • how could we also think about that? — you're partnering with the other in furthering the conversation
  • and, if we were to look at it from the other side, we would say xyz might lead to abc — you're being proactive, and suggesting another way of looking at it
  • from my point of view of having done abc, I can offer this learning — you're stating an opinion based upon experience in an open language
  • can I ask what you like about it? — you're challenging your own assumptions by inquiring

In other words, you're creating, developing, building with your participation. You're making the stream useful for those who follow your messages, and yourself worth following. This is one of the top questions individuals ask: how do you get more followers? Well, here's one way.

Then, consider that if you want to become a thought leader, you need to behave as one. It's not enough to complain about what others are doing or saying, even couched as "wink, wink" whispering down the lane. A public tweet is broadcasting to all, even when it feels like a conversation with a select group — that is what closed networks and breakfast with friends are for.

Most importantly, it's a sure way to kill conversation, which might be one of the richest learning experiences online.

Even when it is not elevated to art, conversation is a process, a negotiation of meaning, a way to give and receive information and make progress to a new milestone of understanding with oneself, and others.

Conversation is part of the social toolkit. It allows us to bridge differences in cultures, attitudes, and even languages. My money is on conversation. Where are you putting your bets?



Ten Ideas for Conversation

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0 responses to “To Kill a Conversation”

  1. Conversation is more of a science than an art, in my opinion. That’s because we can (and should) learn to get better at it.
    I will disagree with your assertion Valeria that it’s OK to disagree with you as long as I am prepared to engage in dialogue. One of the best things about living in the free world is that I am actually entitled to disagree with you in any way I see fit, within the law.
    Whether I expect something from you is another matter. If I do, then closing down the dialogue certainly isn’t a great idea. But if the other party also wants something from me then we have a joint responsibility to be both honest and open… no?
    One of my favourite aspects of conversations rather than documents is that they are full of humanity. That means emotion, passion and, on occasion negativity or even anger. Consequently, they are very powerful tools (see science v. art point above). BUT, because of this nature, don’t we need to accept the good and the bad, the warts and all?
    The thought of planned, sanitised conversations just makes me feel like I’m negotiating the entire time, not conversing.
    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  2. Thanks again for a thought-provoking post. I was just talking with someone this weekend about how to become a better conversationalist. I think you hit the nail on the head with your examples. They all seem to involve an element of listening to what someone just said. This is different than the “wait for my turn to talk” approach to conversation. My friend is a counselor and she had some good tips on what she learned is school.

  3. What do you think about putting an argument forward? In other words, the one who starts the exchange with a statement of some kind? I find that disagreements are often caused when someone takes a statement the wrong way, and thus the absolutes and boxing gloves. How can the person delivering a statement illicit conversation? I have my ideas, but would love yours.
    Also, I agree with Kevin’s assertion that (as least in the US) we all have a first amendment right disagree with anything. However, I don’t think that there shouldn’t be any limits on that right.

  4. Hi Valeria,
    I think there is more subtlety in conversation than agreement/disagreement. In fact, as concepts to explain the human condition I’m not sure they are that useful.
    When someone reacts I listen for clues:
    A person who disagree to quickly may be a contrarian who will argue the opposite. They are essentially sophists who get a kick out of arguing the toss.
    This can be fun, but sadly it all to often is the one trick in their bag. For example, I was at dinner party and a guest was a very able contrarian. The problem for him was that by arguing the contrary he was always legitimizing the opposite view. In other words, he was always accepting that “that” was the right conversation to be having.
    Then there are those who agree to quickly. But they’re not agreeing they just think they are. In fact chance are you are in passive disagreement.
    I find these people the most frustrating. They want to talk but not have a conversation. Try to move them from talking to conversation and you might find yourself being labelled as a person who argues for the sake of it ( see contrarian).
    There is a latent tension (anticipation) in conversation because neither party knows what’s going to happen next. People who agree to quickly don’t deal with this sensation well. In fact, they often pull on the gloves quickest but not out of spite. It’s all fear.
    Then ( and I need to get home so will end it here) are those who think differently.
    What looks like disagreement is in fact a different world view, with different beliefs assumptions etc. Any agreement/diagreement is purely co-incidental.
    I find these the most interesting people to have a conversation with as they draw me into the the conversation they have with them selves.
    What I mean is that they use me ( and it goes both ways) to get a better understanding of what they themself think ( I’d argue the thought leader processes conversations this way). Their object is not to convince me of anything but to convince ( wrong word) themselves of what they think. Each of us is the other’s most generous muse.
    In these conversations the idea of agreement/disagreement with the other is meaningless. The point is to temporarily make up your own mind – not the mind of the other. That is of course until you enter another conversation( and on it goes for a life time).
    In these conversations, you listen with all your heart/mind for the clues that will help you understand yourself/the world etc a little bit better. You listen like an artist paints.
    Nice to drop by
    As an aside, I think the key to good conversation is to practice relentlessly with yourself. Then when someone comes along, they just join in.

  5. Love this Valeria. Some great takeway tips on how to engage in healthy dialogue and to disagree without being disagreeable.
    I often use…one of the following:
    I see it differently…
    So how do you see …
    I would submit to you …
    And as much as possible, I try to use “And” instead of but so that the reader sees that I’m trying to find some commonality and place for agreement instead of discounting their thoughts.
    Kepp stokin’ and provokin’

  6. Valeria,
    For me, I’m putting my money in the same place. For most businesses, they probably need to balance the load. But by balancing, that means including the conversation into the mix.
    Hey, conversation has been around a long, long time. I never understood why face-to-face or phone-to-phone could somehow be superior and more meaningful than online account-to-account.

  7. Good points.
    I found myself thinking about fundamentalism while reading this. Fundamentalists – in religion, politics or economics – are certain that they know the answers, and so don’t need to even entertain questions … unless they offer an opportunity to convert non-believers.
    As for placing bets: in the U.S., it seems that fundamentalism is on the rise, a development which I believe is motivated by increasing fear, uncertainty and doubt. While I tend to prefer conversational interactions, I would not bet on an increasing acceptance of negotiated meanings in any sphere, at least in the near term … but I’d be willing to consider and discuss alternative perspectives 🙂

  8. @Craig – thank you for stopping by.
    @Kevin – if you want to have a conversation, especially when you disagree about something I have not written 😉 Freedom of speech is a privilege, one we should endeavor to earn, not an entitlement. We’re born and we die, and what happens in between we earn, it’s not due to us. Didn’t I write that you’re free to disagree? I’m seeing a tempest in a teacup in your statement. Unless I misunderstand the intend with which it was made. Indeed, the way you carry your end of the conversation — or not — says more about you than what the other ever could. I was made in Italy, do you think I go for sanitized? However, there is also a certain online etiquette, the equivalent of shouting on the street corner, that might be a good idea, don’t you think?
    @Tom – the premise if, of course, that someone would want to have a conversation. If they don’t, they should not pretend to want one, either. That would be hypocrisy.
    @Kami – the person putting out the argument is also responsible for its delivery. How does putting the statement out there make them not accountable to it? Disagree to your heart’s content, I will fight for your right to do so. However, if you want to have a conversation with me, it might be more productive to engage in it, otherwise you’re just pretending. Rhetoric is a lost art.
    @Peter – indeed there is. Listening becomes a challenge in 140 characters, when people are getting used to throwing things over the fence and walking away from them. My uncle was very good at that kind of conversation with himself. I also find the third kind of person the most rewarding from a learning standpoint. Thank you for dropping by, even as you were on your way somewhere else. You gave me the chance to further my own thinking.
    @Jeff – my objective is actually not to agree or disagree. It’s the conversation in which the exchange is made. And yes, not “but’s”
    @Rich – online, we’re not as good at reading the rest of it, all the non verbals. Why do we have so many smileys and exclamation marks? It’s an attempt to have an expression and a stance as we talk. You know what they say: it’s not what you say, it’s “how” you say it. And yes, entities are not at the same level with people.
    @Joe – good of you to be considering discussing alternative perspectives.Having beliefs is laudable. Hardening around those beliefs and using them as weapons is the dangerous part. There’s a whole conversation around intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in your observation.

  9. Hi Valeria,
    At risk of killing the conversation, I think 140 characters are reserved for aphorisms not conversations. I don’t understand the attraction of “small talk”.
    No, thank you. “Listen like an artists paints” will keep me occupied for along time.

  10. Perhaps we can add “smalltalk” to the Newspeak Dictionary.
    And yes, you can be succinct. But, in your case this has very little to do with the limitations of the “format” and more to with the depth of your insight.
    I’d be fascinated a linguistic perspective on micro forms. Can the constraints of 140 characters alter the way we speak (and think)? Perhaps “smalltalk” is more than a little Orwellian afterall.
    Always a pleasure.

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