Conversation norms demand attention. Language separates human and animal. How not to do conversation. Listening isn’t about nodding along. Speaking the truth. Bad fruit is to be avoided. Violence is not an option.
Really, there are two kinds of conversation: the psychotherapist or ‘good friend’ kind, where one person speaks and the other person really should do nothing but listen; and the kind where the goal is to make progress. This piece is specifically about the latter, and more broadly about conversation.
Conversation is the only mechanism by which we make progress. Well — there’s that, and there’s violence and coercion. For obvious reasons we want to avoid the latter; we know from history that it’s just not good. Any progress made by means other than conversation is not the same kind of progress. In fact, it isn’t progress. Hitler thought he was making progress, to the magnificent eternal betterment of the human race. Many any a terrorist might echo similar sentiments. In an abusive relationship, progress is always ephemeral, fragile, illusory. Progress made by means other than conversation and cooperation always comes wrapped in quotes. Conversation makes time and space for all voices to be heard, allows us to simulate possible eventualities, and, whilst the critical ones are often difficult, can be very fun.
In an age of call-out culture where nuance has taken on a different meaning, where free speech has come under ferocious attack by an enemy masquerading as its champion, where the stereotypical hitman is not a Muscovite Agent with a shotgun but a group of pseudo-Straussians whose first weapon is the keyboard, where surgical deconstruction and mass representation are the norm, where as your past can also very much be your future, where fragility reigns — in such an age, the ability to conduct productive conversation takes on a whole new level of importance.
Too many people too afraid to be direct, speak the truth, interrupt, offend, create controversy, to be wrong, to stand outside of the crowd, is a serious problem. And it’s basically what we’ve got now. It’s understandable: we’re in an age of information abundance and seem always to have too many things to do, leaving less time and space for original thinking; and the price paid for having your past rediscovered by keyboard warrior deconstructivists is just too high to even comprehend; and, of course, original thinking is hard. It’s understandable, yes, but an excuse it’s not.
Disagreeableness, courage, stubborn attachment to truth and other such traits aren’t found only in great acts; they don’t belong only in movies; they aren’t to be called upon only in service of some local goal such as proving your point or losing twenty pounds. They are traits to live by, values, integral piece parts of a high-yielding life philosophy. They can and should be actualised from the most parochial level to the most abstract.
To say that the state of discourse today is non-optimal is an understatement. At the societal and individual level, the manner in which we converse is starved of something essential. We know when it’s nutritious; it’s as obvious as perfectly-ripened fruits are delicious. The sweetness of matured nectarines, the deep and long-lasting flavour of wild, plump blueberries, the tropical notes of fresh pineapple, the beautiful balance of sweet and sour in a Granny Smith: these flavours are distinctive and very pleasurable, just like great conversation. We have an innate resistance to bad fruit; it’s not just distasteful but a hazard. The fear is that the fruits produced by the average conversation today are becoming more hazardous by the bite, and not to the palate. The nectarines are dry, the berries not ripe, the pineapple tastes like vinegar, the apples are rotten. It’s not nutritious.
Conversation is becoming decreasingly appealing because it’s decreasingly productive, engaging, and fun, and increasingly risky, predictable, and gamified. It’s a turn off, like fruit flies nesting on bruised bananas. Since conversation is the only humane means by which human beings create knowledge — and therefore solve problems and make progress — this is alarming. If the conversations happening aren’t fruitful, and whether because of inability or disinterest, less people are having them, then less knowledge is being created and therefore less problems are being solved and less progress is being made.
That current norms surrounding conversation and discourse are halting advancement is a worse problem than it seems at first glance. There is really no such thing as stasis; we are either growing or dying, advancing or retreating, progressing or regressing. Any notion of stasis is always just that — a notion — and one that is typically maintained only with great toil and expenditure of resources. If we’re unable to converse and consequently unable to advance, we can only retreat.
Being the most resourceful species ever has allowed us to create this truly unbelievable and extraordinary civilisation. I mean, what a stage we’re at in the Human Story: beyond most of our ancestors wildest dreams, it’s undeniably and patently absurd; it’s the best time to be alive. But there’s no blessing without curse. The resourcefulness and creativity of human beings means they will find means other than conversation to solve their problems, humane or not. History tells us all about coercion, mass delusion, and the eventual consequences of a people or civilisation’s inability to not even as much as work together but simply just tolerate each other; and it’s seldom a pleasant read.
Everything to do with conversation, we take for granted — from consciously-created and painfully-fought-for rights like Free Speech and so much to the physiological functions that enable language. We don’t think much of our ability to converse, what a miraculous thing it is, how important its role has been, and how unique it is amongst the animal kingdom.1. Perhaps our assumptions are justified: we tend not to pay attention when things are working as they should. But it gets complicated when things aren’t working as they should and the casual factor isn’t salient.
Tolerance, interest in the apparent enemy, engagement with the other side, genuine effort to understand, intolerance for nonsense and falsehoods, stubborn attachment to making progress, the co-existence of civility and disagreeability: some of these we need to rediscover, some protect, and some develop further. And we need to do this like our lives depend on it. Conversation is all we have. To say that it’s do or die is in one sense a preposterous claim. In another, it’s the most real and true claim I could make.
I’ll end with a piece of practical advice. Much is made about the necessity of being a good listener, the ‘two ears and one mouth’ argument, golden ratios and the like, but the discussion is largely confused. Listening is critical, but listening isn’t about sitting in silence and parroting. Being a great listener is about actively engaging with attempts to communicate. This means starting with the assumption that the speaker something interesting to say, especially if they’re notably thoughtful or passionate about the matter. In moments of disagreement, it means taking very seriously the question ‘Why would this person come to these conclusions?’ and ‘What I am missing?’. It means displaying and developing your understanding of their sentiments through what you say in response. Counterintuitively, interruption is also part of being a good listener. When done in good faith and for reasons of understanding, interrupting someone can greatly improve efficiency and bring life to a conversation.
Listening isn’t passive but active, and extremely so. It’s not about quieting your own mind and doing nothing but perceiving sound waves; it’s not a negative injunction on the mind. Listening is a conscious activity; it’s something you have to do.
A commitment to listen well or become a better listener, or just to take the next person you converse with seriously, is a forcing function for better conversation. You cannot have a bad conversation if you are listening well. Indeed it might go bad for the other person, but often your own unwillingness to descend into bad-faith argumentation and so on will often prevent other parties from doing the same. In the rare instances of a great asymmetry between motivations, it’s still not as bad as it would be if you were not listening: at least you’ll learn something about that person or their arguments (or lack thereof).
People are so accustomed to not being heard — to being spoken over, to being taken as seriously as an upper-arm pimple — that becoming a great listener will put you on different playing field. It will be a turn off to some people, and enlightening to others. Combined with a love of the truth and an unabashed pledge to speak it, people will not just give your advice great weight but your requests too. You become a force to be reckoned with, in the most positive sense.
Committing to conduct conversation in good faith (with the knowledge that things will almost never not go sideways or become heated and difficult) is transformative. Interesting things will happen. You’ll find yourself in situations where a person speaks so much that they’ve made your argument for you and they know it, and often the best thing is to terminate the conversation there and then. Such an experience is common when one party is not interested in good faith.2 You’ll also find your own thinking getting sharper and more colourful: your listening habits will over time equate to more arguments and perspectives at your disposal. What makes this so beneficial is not so much the ability to regurgitate knowledge when needed but the possibilities such knowledge presents for original ideas and the creation of knowledge: you can bounce pieces ideas against each other and come up with new ones. The more ideas and knowledge you have, the more you have to create with; and the more you have to create with, the more likely you’ll come up with new ones and the more likely they’ll be original.3 You’ll also quickly realise how rare listening done properly really is.
It’s axiomatic that do or die conversation requires great listening; it’s obvious when there’s no choice but to listen. But when is a conversation a do or die conversation, exactly? Or when does the improvement of conversation norms become do or die? If the trend tilts towards conversation of a greater polarising and less productive nature, and people are less willing to engage because of fear or intolerance or whatever else, then change does become do or die.
Every conversation you have is as much an opportunity to make headway as it is to retrogress. With every interaction you have a chance to separate yourself further from that game, or from any game that isn’t infinite.4. You will indirectly force change in those you engage with, your thinking will make strides, you’re doing something quietly powerful for the Greater Good, and you’ll develop that distinct feeling of agency that comes with being independent of the crowd.
Every conversation you have about something other than the weather and related topics is one where you can and should practice very hard your ability to communicate in a non-nonsense, direct, clear, and strong manner. It goes without saying that this isn’t license to be an asshole — that’s easy, seldom necessary, and even more seldom done for reasons other than incompetence. It’s a call to action: to do the exact opposite.
- Though I don’t include humans in the animal class.
- Though they might be after that experience.
- I’m reminded here or something someone once said to me about philosophy — that it’s all just Plato in different words; that it all leads back to the man with the broad shoulders.
- See Finite and Infinite Games, by James P. Carse