Whether people realize it or not, there is an art to conversation. It’s a skill that isn’t normally taught and is usually learned by trial and error only by those wishing to gain those skills. One of the greatest ‘secrets’ to the art of conversation is listening…really listening to what the other person is saying. But how many of us actually do listen? Typically, people are already thinking of what they’re going to say next before the person they’re talking to is even finished with what they were saying.
How many of us have talked with someone who completely hogs the conversation, not letting you get a word in edgewise, and when you think there’s a slight gap for you to finally say something, they suddenly start in again? Or worse, they constantly interrupt you when you are speaking. And then there are those who won’t let you get away because they can’t stop talking! Those types of conversations are very draining to the one whose ear is being bent. What the gabber doesn’t realize is that people start avoiding them because they don’t want to be corralled into their constant gabbing, especially if it’s negative and self-serving. I know when I’m really tired or nervous, I either get very quiet or I become quite the gabber, so even I have to be aware of my conversations.
One of the problems today is that more and more people, particularly our younger generations, are not talking face-to-face anymore and are relying on cell phones, tablets, and social media to interact with others. It’s challenging to have conversations with people who are constantly on their cell phones even while you’re talking to them. Look at people out in public, students at colleges and high schools, people in businesses, and you will see just how addicted people are to modern technology. It’s not a bad thing per se, but we’re losing that intimate contact with our basic humanity.
How does all of this relate to churches? People who go to church still need to be heard. They need to know that their feelings are being validated and that someone cares. Church leaders in particular need to learn the art of conversation when ministering to their congregation, especially if it is someone in dire need of some kind of emotional/spiritual help. We need to really listen, not only to the words they are speaking, but the emotion that is behind those words. Being empathetic and trusting our inner Spirit will help us to discern if there is a bigger picture, which there normally is. We need to let the person talk it out and validate their feelings, but at the same time, be sensitive enough to know when to direct them to a more positive frame of mind or to guide them to get professional help. Compassion is the key.
Validating means saying “I understand; please tell me more.” Let their well of words run dry before offering advice. We need to offer them different solutions or options and let them make the final decision. I prefer not to tell anyone what to do or how to think, so I ask a lot of questions to help them think for themselves and to find their own answers. I may also offer examples of how I handled a similar situation in my own life. We also need to be careful not to criticize, find fault, judge, or give curt answers for what they are telling us as it could end up shutting them down or make matters worse. If they are in the wrong for whatever reasons, there are gentler and kinder ways to point it out without making them feel judged or damaging further their self-esteem or feelings of self-worth. People need to know that they matter and your words can make the difference between lifting someone up or destroying them further.
Another thing that lets someone know that you are really listening to them is to keep constant eye contact the whole time they are speaking. Do not look around, look at your watch, or answer your phone or check texts as they come in, etc. You can also repeat things they said to let them know that you are really hearing them. They need to know that you are with them 100% and that you really care.
If we can be the listener we hope others would be for us, then we have started to master the art of conversation.
Published in the Cookeville Herald Citizen newspaper October 9, 2015.This article was edited from an earlier version published in the Unity Journal May 6, 2015.