“Only when people learn to converse will they begin to be equal.” – Theodore Zeldin
There was an era when humanity had more time on hand, when people crossed continents by steamers and when conversations among passengers abounded and often produced life-long friendships. Contrast this with contemporary times where technology and convenience ruthlessly prevail and where air passengers maintain stoic silence while travelling. Ask yourself: when was the last time you engaged in a conversation with the person sitting beside you in an aircraft? In turn, you may ask what the relevance of conversation is.
Conversations are the lifeblood of all relationships, be they personal, professional or political. Currently, world over we are witnessing a clash of identities like never before. But strife is not limited to politics and international relations; it is embedded in every aspect of our personal and professional lives. More often than not it is a conversation (or lack of it or of a particular quality) that is the root of all strife. When you witness a conflict between civilisations, a battle at your workplace, or an argument between husband and wife, it is often the lack of an appropriate dialogue between individuals or departments or communities or nationalities that gets revealed.
Can conversations change the world? Take a hard look at fanaticism, fundamentalism and terrorism in the world today. Nothing other than conversations will bring about reconciliation. Although sporting events like the Olympics have been around for long, have they achieved much in terms of global peace and understanding? Dialogue, on the other hand, helps dilute ideologies and can unearth binding universal values to create shared understanding.
In the world of business and management, conversations have been used more effectively. Yet so often we find functions or departments that don’t talk to each other. In our personal lives too, squabbles between siblings or between families and between partners or parents are not uncommon.
How conversations get distorted
According to Dr. Theodore Zeldin, noted author and Oxford scholar, “the separation of life into work and leisure has had as many evil consequences as desirable ones. The truly privileged today are the small minority for whom work is pleasure. Go to an old fashioned oriental bazaar, and you will find shopkeepers as interested in making friends with you, to the extent of offering you coffee, as in closing a sale.” Contrast this with modern consumer society where people buy goods from an online marketplace anonymously or from a supermarket without exchanging a word with the cashier.
If you dig deeper, our education system which is so livelihood-oriented, barely promotes general conversations. Specialisation is the product of mass education which has driven out general knowledge. Have you heard the expression “we spoke about everything under the Sun”? But you hardly see that in practice. Information technology is responsible in a big way for the culture of diminished and distorted conversations. Technology has not helped in transforming humanity, as you can see from sites like Twitter. In fact, social media has made polarisation so much easier.
There is another aspect to conversations which abounds and is less spoken about. These are called background conversations. These conversations are the ones that keep going on in our heads and prevent us from being good listeners. At the end of it, good communication is more about being a good listener rather than being a good talker.
What needs to be done
In India we have known a caste system that practiced untouchability in the physical realm. When nations refuse to talk to each other, or when I choose not to talk to my colleague in another department or refuse to acknowledge a friend I do not get along with, is that not verbal untouchability? Sharon Knoll, from UNDP and Dr. Monica Sharma, former head of U.N.’s Leadership Development have devised a methodology to manage breakdowns in conversations.
Sharon Knoll and her colleague Allan Henderson are coaches who have authored many articles on effective conversation. These include conversations for generating action, for completion, for accomplishment and for acknowledgement. Each aspect addresses a different set of nuances to help us manage conversations better. These approaches were used very successfully by UNDP in its war on HIV/AIDS, which required significant dialogue with numerous stakeholders to mitigate the stigma associated with the disease.
Interestingly The Oxford Muse, inspired by Theodore Zeldin has begun experimenting with a new postgraduate degree program called the Masters of Conversational Arts. The syllabus has been designed keeping in mind the aspiration of those wanting to become a generalist. The course contents are a fusion of various branches of science, humanities, arts and business. This syllabus has been piloted in London and Paris, so stay tuned!
In general, we need more books on conversation just as we have books on diet and nutrition. We need to create system shifts that will make it easier for us to talk to strangers and to people with whom we have nothing in common or who belong to a profession that’s not ours. We need enhanced doctor-patient relationships and we need more time with friends and family.
More than laws, it is conversations that create the conditions for reconciliation and attaining equity and justice in the long run. Good conversations determine the quality of our relationships. For us to rediscover our humanity we need a sharp ear to listen and speak responsibly. So, maybe the next time you are on a flight consider befriending the passenger besides you. Trust me, you might just emerge a wiser person.