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Apr 25 2009

Creating a Wise Conversation: The Mother of All Communication Skills

Published by at 4:22 am under Advice

I have this all worked out. The next Messiah will not be an individual. The next Messiah will be a couple. Al and Betty. The message they will bring is this: “We can all have wise conversations with each other but we have to practice.”

Al and Betty will teach by example. We’ll watch them get tangled up in some passionate and profoundly important misunderstanding. Then we’ll see how they work their way out of it.

I think it would be fascinating to see them go back and forth, get frustrated, get sad, have hurt feelings, apologize, finally think they understand, and then be dead wrong.

The most instructive part will be watching them hang, go at it again, until finally, like a miracle, they come up with something neither one of them could have imagined before.

I’ve seen this happen and it’s always profoundly gratifying. I think it a holy act. It is certainly a creative act. Couples who are good at this process say that it is one of the most erotic forms of foreplay.

I think it’s really important to see how people reach dead ends, and feel it’s hopeless, and then still go on.
There is no right answer that better, more decent, smarter people than you already know. If you are looking for a really new understanding you don’t know where the process is going to end.

People who achieve midlife maturity really do understand that, at some level, they are writing their own life story. They really are making it up as they go along. The idea that someone better than you already knows the right answer to what you ought to do is a form of fundamentalism and fundamentalism makes for bad art, bad science and bad love.

The idea that only one of the two people in a partnership has the keys to wisdom is so, um, thirty-something. How could two smart, mature people and let’s say they are both people who’ve achieved that midlife power and both know a thing or two not have important disagreements from time to time?

In watching Betty and Al struggle and then fail, and then succeed, we will learn two things. First, it is possible to have a conversation that is wiser than either of the individuals in it; and second, it isn’t easy.

It is also possible for a conversation to be dumber than either of the partners individually. However, as soon as you start believing that your judgment, or your partner’s judgment, is better than the judgment produced in conversation, your partnership is trouble.

It’s easy to dumb down a conversation. All you have to do is withhold. Just give it less than your best. Be agreeable when you really don’t agree. Shout your partner down if you don’t like what she has to say. It’s easy to bully people when they aren’t completely sure how good their ideas are. The need-to-know principle also creates stupidity in conversations. One person decides what the other person needs to know without letting them in on the process.

Okay. But how do you add wisdom to a conversation?

How That Extra Thing Happens in a Conversation.
First of all, you can’t make wisdom happen. Wisdom is a grace.

Here is a metaphor for how wisdom shows up:

You may not have noticed this, but your left eye sees a slightly different picture than your right eye. If you blink back and forth you can see it. Each eye sees from a slightly different perspective. In normal vision your brain compares the different pictures, notices that difference, and presents that information to your consciousness in the form of a bonus called “depth perception.” The same principle works with stereo sound.

The same kind of thing can happen in conversation. Al says his say and Betty says hers. Because they are both smart mature people, they will see things somewhat differently. The difference between their viewpoints is the bonus that adds depth to their understanding. This bonus, I suggest, is a form of wisdom.

But it’s only a bonus if you know how to collect it and this requires some exceptional cognitive capacity. Each partner has to keep track of three sets of information. Al has to think about his own point of view. And then he also has to think about Betty’s thoughts and feelings and observations on the matter.

And in addition to all that, they both have to keep track of how their two points differ.

This way of thinking and perceiving is a virtuoso communication skill. One developmental psychologist has estimated that it is beyond the capacity of 80% of the American Public. And yet, it’s one of those things you have to do if you want a midlife relationship to unfold in a pleasing and satisfying way.

It can be done. It can be learned. And when two people cooperate in the task of keeping track of all three pieces, the task is easier.

Why You Might Want to Practice Your Communication Skills.

I once knew a man who didn’t believe in piano playing. “I tried it for a bit,” he said, “but nothing came of it.”

I’m always surprised at how much people resist practicing communication skills. I’m sure everyone reading this has had some experience where they were told how to do reflective listening and they just didn’t bother. It feels so artificial. What’s the point?

I think it is as artificial as counting out loud when you are handling large amounts of cash. I notice that I never count singles or fives out loud. But hand me a bunch of fifties and I start saying the numbers out loud as I count them. Using extra words makes me use additional parts of my brain to keep track of important content.

There are ways to construct sentences that will help you hold those slightly different thoughts in your mind, and also compare them, so that you can then perceive the depth in your conversation. I’m going to list a few of them so you can practice. There are more but we’ll start with the two most important ones.

Paraphrase Passport.

This skill is called “Paraphrase Passport” because you have to use a paraphrase in order to travel to the next part of the conversation.
It’s a simple rule. You don’t get to say your say until you have demonstrated, to your partner’s satisfaction, that you have heard and understood what your partner has said.

After your partner has spoken, you say something like this, “Okay. Let me see if I can say back what you said to me.” And then you try, and then you ask, “Did I get it?” “Did I leave something out or add something?”

The Paraphrase Passport works both ways. You could say to your partner, “Wait, before you go on, state what you think I said.”

The paraphrase passport reminds you both that there are two separate perspectives in this conversation. That will be useful when you get to thinking about the differences between them.

The I-position.

The other basic skill is also designed to help you keep track of the two separate sets of observations, thoughts, feelings, and judgments, yours and your partners. You create sentences like this:

“When I see, hear, you…(and here you name what you have observed and what is observable, the facts).., then I feel …(and this is where you include your emotional reactions)..and I think…(this is where you include your judgments)…”

So you are not only putting out a lot of information, you are also, sorting it and making it easier for the other person to keep track.

Why you should practice these skills.

If you want a relationship in which you are an equal player with your partner, if you want to share your best thinking with your partner, if you want your partner to share her/his best thinking with you, and if you want to feel wiser when talking to your partner than with anyone else, practice these skills until they become second nature.

When they do become second nature, you will have acquired a cognitive complexity which is simply out of reach of many younger people. You will have exercised your own mind and raised your relationship up to the next level. And finally, you’ll start to understand the pleasures of being an elder, and of having that additional perspective on life.

-PB

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One Response to “Creating a Wise Conversation: The Mother of All Communication Skills”

  1. Karesson 19 Dec 2011 at 1:20 am

    If not for your wtriing this topic could be very convoluted and oblique.