Weekly Edgework #34 - Feb. 21, 2005

Conversation as Art

The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing in the right place, but…to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment (Dorothy Nevill).

Talk is cheap. When talk doesn’t go beyond the weather, the value of the dollar or the latest coffee-shop gossip it has minimal value. I am sometimes surprised how little people like to talk about things that really matter – things that touch heart and soul. Talk is even cheaper when it is a one-way street – one out-going person pontificating about his or her wisdom to a silent partner.

The fact that you are talking to someone does not mean that you are carrying on a conversation. Conversation implies that there is a two-way street of communication comprised of balanced portions of listening and speaking for both persons involved. Some people don’t know this. It is not hard to spot them, unless of course the spotlight focuses on you. I have long considered myself to be a conversationalist, but I still regularly catch myself dominating a dialogue, pushing my agenda, not really listening to the other person. I know that for me learning to listen well and then allowing what I hear to inform what I say will be a life-long process.

Saying the right thing in the right place at the right time has little to do with the volume of words you employ. It has everything to do with sensitivity and good judgment. Choosing words carefully is an art. Spoken words paint landscapes that are either pleasant to look at or in need of destruction. When someone is referred to as a good talker I frequently pick up vibrations in the statement that are not a compliment. What is often meant by such a statement is that the person always has something to say even if there is nothing to talk about. Good talkers often produce bad art. It stands in sharp contrast to the picture painted by the old sage, A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver (Proverbs 25:11).

But I find that learning to listen well and say appropriate things at the right time is child’s play compared to the second challenge Dorothy Nevill posits above – leaving unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment. How difficult it is for some of us to screen our thoughts during a conversation and deliberately choose not to articulate them. For me the tempting moment comes in several ways. One is to say something negative about a person when nothing good can come of it. But there is a momentary sweetness on the tongue as you share a juicy tid-bit about someone that pulls him or her down a notch. When this happens there is always a double action involved because in the process you invariably try to ratchet up your own reputation.

Another tempting moment sweeps over me when I have in my possession a delicate piece of information I have been told in confidence, which, to my mind, would spice up a conversation. I am tempted to say something like, “This is not really public information, but I will tell it only to you because I know you will keep it to yourself.” Chances are that your friend struggles with the same temptation as you and will pass the information on to another “trusted friend” just like you did. And before you know it many people know what was meant only for your ears. Yet how easy and sweet it is to give in to the tempting moment and say what should not be said.

What I have said so far does not apply directly to some persons. People with low self-esteem find it hard to say anything to anyone anytime. They tend to say little because they feel what they have to say is not worth repeating. Such persons need to be encouraged to step over their fears and begin saying what they think and feel. That will only happen, however, in a context in which they are assured that someone is prepared to listen and value what they might have to say. Perhaps they will need to wrestle with the “tempting moments” I am talking about down the road somewhere.

For me, learning to carry on healthy conversations will continue to be a challenge – both learning the art of saying the right thing in the right place, and leaving unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.

Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt…(Colossians 4:6).