We Need to Talk (And Listen)

One of my Saturday activities is to go to the local library and read through some of the newspapers to which I do not subscribe. One of these, the Wall Street Journal, is favored for its book reviews and essays gleaned from to-be-published books. It allows me the opportunity to know what other scribes are doing and that with more commercial success than my own writing.

One of these essays caught my attention as being perfectly timed for the needs of the day, although it also immediately brought to mind some of the coming-of-age songs that were popular when I was doing just that, coming-of-age. Think For What It’s Worth by the Buffalo Springfield and you’ll be able to peg the most formative decade of my life and the soundtrack playing in the back of my brain while reading the essay entitled The Right Way to Have Difficult Conversations.

The Journal condensed the key pieces of this advocacy for decency in our communications from the Harper Collins book, “We Need to Talk”, by Celeste Headlee. And the sense of perfect timing for a book on a skill that you would think would be a no-brainer for the most articulate animal on the planet can be easily gauged when you consider the content and the conflict covered in any news outlet or Twitter rant.

Celeste is a talk show host, formerly heard on NPR, but now holding forth on the Georgia Pacific Broadcasting network with her program On Second Thought. She was born in Whittier, California not far from where I was attempting to navigate the ways and means of adolescence when tuning in, turning on and dropping out were the buzz words which strongly influenced my decisions. The close proximity of our respective communities made us neighbors of sorts, but the difference in our educational paths and her classical training as a soprano shows that our cool Southern California affinity is an accident of birth. So I will make no further presumptuous claims on our being true companions except to say I like what she wrote, plan to read the full length version of her book (once it is stocked by the library) and encourage anyone reading this message to visit her website at celesteheadlee.com.

I am also making it possible for you to glean from the essay what the Journal gleaned from her book so you may know her short list of rules for engaging in a meaningful conversation with any other person of any race, creed, sexual orientation, food preference, body shape, emotional acuity or football bias. And once you have mastered the list, then let’s talk.

“First, be courteous and have a genuine willingness to learn something from someone else – even someone with whom you vehemently disagree.”

“… resist the impulse to constantly decide whether you agree with what someone else is saying.”

“Show respect at all times. View the other person as a human being and put yourself in their shoes. Empathize.”

“Don’t try to change the subject or walk away.”

“End well. You don’t need to have the last word.”

I actually read Celeste’s essay twice, the second time taking notes so I could include them in a weekly weblog message, such as I am doing now. And in the course of my re-reading and re-thinking the sage wisdom evident in the words of someone much younger than me, two points came to mind about my own attempt to implement these rules the next time I am in someone’s company and choose to converse on any topic.

First, the underlying theme of all that she says is that in order to talk we first need to listen. The L-word was not as explicit in the essay as one might expect, but will likely be quite evident in the unexpurgated, unabridged version of her book. Listening can be disarming for the one doing the majority of the talking and just might give them pause long enough for you to say a kind word from time to time. If not, then listening just might be a good antidote for the brain when it encounters a ceaseless cacophony of sound, signifying nothing.

The second point is that the rules are one-sided. You might do well in speaking with all her suggested patience and sagacity, but you cannot control the way your partner in sublime speech actually does speak. It would be foolish to expect another’s response to be in-kind, even though you have so purposefully exemplified the proper way to have a meaningful conversation. So perhaps one more rule is needed: Never take the other person’s harsh critiques or assassination of your character personally. Prepare for the worst and be grateful for anything less. You can take my advice on that, for what it’s worth.

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