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After the Bell: Winning in conversation by losing in conversation

After the Bell: Winning in conversation by losing in conversation
(Graphic: Vecteezy)

Conversation, or its more ebullient relative, communication, is the crucial first step in understanding. Converse well and you understand well. It seems obvious, but understanding well is different from thinking you understand well.

At a dinner recently, one of the guests, Nozi Tshabalala, told me she was a conversation strategist and was writing a book about it. I was kinda taken aback: isn’t conversation one of the most natural things in the world? Do you have to learn about conversation? And even if you do have to learn, what precisely is the utility of it?

I find a lot of conversation fun, rewarding and life-affirming. But outside of the sense of satisfaction you get from a great conversation, what might be achieved? Something, sure, but it’s not the same as building something, creating something, or even communicating something. Real constructive action, I find, happens largely outside of conversation, not always because of it. Conversation is fun; work is work.

Or so I thought. Soon afterwards, by complete coincidence, one of my favourite podcasters, Russ Roberts, was interviewing journalist Charles Duhigg about his new book on the art of conversation called Supercommunicators on his podcast Econtalk. I can’t believe how wrong I was. 

If I understand Duhigg’s thesis correctly, conversation, or its more ebullient relative, communication, is the crucial first step in understanding. Converse well and you understand well. It seems obvious, but understanding well is different from thinking you understand well. And may I just say that understanding well is in a global deficit at the moment? I mean in a really, really deep, dire deficit.

Duhigg references an interesting experiment in which people with different views on gun ownership in the US were brought together to see what it would take for them to have a civil conversation. Keep this in mind, and I’ll come back to it.

I don’t want to misquote a book I haven’t read, but judging from the conversation with Roberts, Duhigg makes the following assertions:

First, having good conversations is wonderful, but it is wonderful for a reason. As ever, that reason vests in genetics; our success as a species was predicated on our ability to communicate and we have specific neural pathways solely dedicated to communication. So when we do it successfully, we feel a little ecstatic. Think of the first conversation you had with your partner; often it was memorably wonderful and laid the groundwork for a much longer relationship.

Second, learning even a small amount about communication makes a huge difference in the quality of conversation. Just concentrating on successful communication is useful in its own right and can make a noticeable difference. People who communicate well seem to get even better at it — and it has nothing to do with likeability or being an extrovert. There appears to be no particular character type which corresponds exactly with communication skills. 

Third, the way to get better at conversation is to think about what kind of conversation you are having and make sure it is the same as the conversation your interlocutor is having. It’s most obvious during arguments, because if you are arguing, you are almost certainly not having the same conversation. For example, you may think you are having a conversation about whose turn it is to do the washing up, but your partner may think you are having a conversation about the nature of your relationship. This mismatch often happens.

Fourth, is the danger of trying to control the conversation, because as soon as you do that, you are insisting that the conversation you are having is the conversation you want to have. That can be toxic. But our instinct is always to try and control the conversation since we are tempted to believe that if we can just get our interlocutor to accept our facts, they will agree with us.

How do you fix all of this? Well, one thing Duhigg suggests is to do something called “looping”, which is to concede ground and allow your interlocutor to say what they want to say, the way they want to say it. And if you do, they will be more willing to listen to you when you have your say in the way you want it to be heard. You can create a conversational loop by proving to them — not just thinking but proving — that you listened to what they said. 

One technique is to repeat what you think they said in your own words and then crucially, ask if you understood them correctly. The satisfaction of opening the loop is often more important than agreeing or not agreeing, because it allows you into their conversation and you into theirs. 

And that is how they managed to achieve a civil conversation between pro- and anti-gun ownership. Nobody agreed, but they did have a civil conversation. Eventually. 

Now, all this may seem trivial, but it is not. It reminds me of a conversation I had a long time ago with a journalist about the Northern Ireland peace talks. I asked what the IRA had learnt from SA’s negotiated settlement that helped create the Good Friday Agreement. He said the IRA learnt from the ANC, which it adored, that you can win by losing. Ka-boom. What an insight. 

And how similar to having a successful conversation; you can win by giving ground, or perhaps I should say you can only win by giving ground. Anyway, I promise to buy the book and read it and try not to quote people in future without having done the groundwork. 

But, you know, some things are irresistible. Like a great conversation. DM 

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  • Colin K says:

    Linguistics was my major at Rhodes and the Conversation (not communication) Analysis was one of my favourites components. The mechanics alone are fascinating without even looking at the content.

    I’d speculate that a great deal of conversational skill has been eroded by social media where people broadcast more than they converse. The way television pundits and their guests all too often just shout their points at each other (the US and UK are particular examples) doesn’t exactly set the best tone for people to emulate either.

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