The Art of Meaningful Conversation

Bonnie Morét Photography
On location at One Eared Stag

“The most fruitful and natural play of the mind is conversation. I find it sweeter than any other action in life,” wrote 16th century essayist Michel de Montaigne. Few things are in fact so pleasurable and fertile as engaging in meaningful conversation.  Whether you’re falling in love or entering into friendship, open-ended, seemingly unimportant conversations are essential to building intimacy. They are also the means by which we learn, via other people, how the world works. Talking forces us to clarify our perspectives, as well as recall our experiences. A meandering chat unlocks doors to memories long ago stored away.

Increasingly, most of us lack the time and the focus for this most basic of human activities. “Non-goal-oriented conversations are a great luxury now,” says Daniel Menaker, author of A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation. And when we do have a spare hour or two, we often spend it in less satisfying forms of communication. Many people think nothing of checking their smartphones over dinner (a HUGE pet peeve of mine). Such “conversing” makes one statement loud and clear: Our interlocutor isn’t valuable enough to warrant our full attention.

Looking down at a handheld device, rather than into the eyes of your conversational mate, isn’t merely rude, it also sabotages the exchange of nonverbal cues that sustain rich and meaningful attachments. “We’re all facial coders,” says Dan Hill, founder and president of Sensory Logic, a market research firm.

Reading others’ faces and emotions is a key component of empathy, and some argue that the ability or willingness to empathize is on the decline. In study conducted at the University of Michigan, researchers found a significant drop in empathy (as measured by questions about feeling concern for the less fortunate and putting oneself in another’s shoes.) among college students from 1989 to 2015. A sharp plunge began around the year 2000—just as the digital era as we know it kicked into high gear-- 45 percent.

In addition, digital communication breeds confusion. Researchers recently concluded that email communicators “hear” what they’re writing based on their intention, while the email recipient often misses that nuance. For example, a statement meant to be sarcastic can be read as insulting.

“Conversations are necessary for creating wisdom about the self and others,” says Menaker. Without conversations that take us on spontaneous journeys through ideas and opinions, we cannot know what we think and we cannot understand the minds of others.

While texting is acceptable in a pinch, NOTHING beats a conversation, so TALK TO ME, please!


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