The Lost Art of Conversation

Thursday, 30 Aug 2012

According to Mortimer Adler, “Of all things that human beings do, conversing with one another is the most characteristically human.” Unfortunately, the art of conversation has fallen on hard times in our day. Virtual conversations abound’we watch talking heads on television or listen to people debate the issues of the day on talk radio’but how often do any of us really get the chance to converse with other human beings about the truly significant things pertaining to life and eternity? Too often, when we do have the opportunity for actual face-to-face interaction, we steer away from controversial subjects such as politics and religion, since we know those exchanges are likely to produce more heat than light. And as a result, small talk rules the day.

When important issues are addressed by today’s media professionals, they are usually presented in brief segments, often with commercial interruptions. Advocates of various positions are chosen to make the segments more compelling and the more fireworks the more entertaining! This is why guests often talk (and sometimes shout) over one another, and why it is rare to observe a participant actually listening. In order to get in his or her point, a talking head on radio or television will frequently sidestep by responding, “Well, that’s not the important question. The real issue is…”

Whether we realize it or not, we have all been mentored and catechized by the “conversation surrogates” we regularly observe in today’s media. So when issues do eventually come up with friends or relatives, we raise our voices, ridicule the opposing side, offer caricatures, and lob bombs. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we might even admit that we never really give much thought to the points that we try to get across, but simply parrot the prepackaged ideas we heard from our favorite media personality that week. The result of all this is that not only have we lost the art of conversation, but as a culture it appears we are actively sowing the seeds for its complete obliteration.

How are we to recover this lost art? The first thing to consider is caritas. You may disagree with your opponent, you may even be in the right, but your opponent is a human being created in the image of God, and he is more valuable than the sum total of his ideas (good or bad). Caritas is the Latin word for love, charity, or benevolence. This charitable posture (on each side) provides the necessary coolant that keeps the conversation’s engine from overheating. Along with caritas, we also need humilitas. Are you willing to be a learner, or do you just want to get your talking points in? Humility is an essential ingredient for good listening. It’s a posture that says, “I will submit myself to be taught.” You may or may not agree with a position once you’ve learned it, but adopting this posture often helps to keep you from building straw-men caricatures and false assumptions. Clarity rather than unity is your chief concern. Agreement can come only once all the issues and hidden assumptions have been brought out into the open.

Another idea to consider is the trivium. Used primarily in the world of classical education, this word refers to the three stages of learning: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Since you have already committed yourself to a posture of caritas et humilitas, you are now willing to be taught things from your opponent’s perspective. First, since words are the conveyors of ideas, you need to pay special attention to the basic grammar and vocabulary being presented to you. Second, if you have really listened, questions will naturally follow. This is the logic stage. Finally, once the issue has been clarified by careful listening and questions, you should then consider the implications and formulate a thoughtful response (the rhetoric stage).

Aristotle argued that there are three essential ingredients of effective rhetoric: logos, pathos, and ethos. The substance of your argument is the logos. It’s a thesis statement such as “Christ is risen,” along with the logic of the words used to back up that claim. Pathos is the passion and emotion you put into the words. In other words, it’s not what you say, but how you say it. You might have the facts on your side, but if you find yourself talking in a monotone voice like Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you’re probably not being persuasive. Ethos has to do with your own character. Are you a trustworthy person? Do you have an agenda, a history of lying, or a penchant for spinning the truth? Do you use ad hominem attacks? Have you been willing to humbly accept correction? If you have proven yourself to be untrustworthy in these areas or others, even if the facts are on your side, and you speak with the perfect amount of passion for the occasion, you will most likely fail to persuade your opponent who has learned to keep his guard up whenever you speak. This is why Aristotle argued that ethos was “almost as important” as logos.

When people no longer talk with one another about the really important things in life, when they cease to truly listen and engage with alternative points of view in a spirit of graciousness and humility, then they will begin to act like beasts. What is to become of man? What is the fate of civil
society? Discuss.

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