I've recently had an opportunity to engage several folks in conversations -- significant and useful conversations -- the kind where you must listen and ask questions, where I was asking the questions and compelled by the nature of the assignment not to interject my own opinions. Just listen and ask questions to draw them out into conversation. I came to several conclusions about the nature of conversations -- some to do with me, some to do with conversation in general, and not a single conclusion, of course, original with me.
First, I discovered that despite the fact that I am an introvert and not excited about talking to people, I can do it and have, over the years, learned something of the skill of having a good conversation. And that's just what much of it is: an art to be learned. Some people come on it naturally and thrive on it, like my daughter. For example, when she gets on an elevator with people she doesn't know, she engages them by watching them and complimenting them on an article of clothing, asking how they are, or anything else to start a conversation. And she's very natural about it. She's born to it; others of us learn it, slowly.
Second, having real conversation reminds me how focused on self I really am. Whenever you are thinking about what you will say next and not listening (which happens to me a lot), you're not having conversation. You are talking past each other. It's not surprising that much political discourse today is just that -- talking past one another. No one is really listening.
Finally, by having to listen, keeping eye contact and not being able to add much to a conversation other than questions, I realize how complex and enjoyable conversation can be. It involves setting, expressions, little nuances or inflections of speech, and gestures, and rests on some history of contact with the person. When all these factors are operative, it makes for a challenging and enjoyable time.
Realizing this -- the beauty of good conversation -- also makes me aware of the severe limitations of email, instant messaging, on line forums ("communities"), and even blogs. Compared to conversation with real, live people, they are, as Stephen Miller reminds us, impoverished. In the recent Mars Hill Audio Journal 81, Miller, who has written the book Conversation: The History of a Declining Art, notes that little real conversation is occurring today, not like the conversation of, say, the 18th Century parlors. We all know the limitations and dangers of email -- useful for communicating bits of information, but not very useful as a discussion forum for communicating on serious matters. Instant messaging can be even worse, as you can spend a great deal of time on line with several people and end up saying very little in the cryptic messages that go back and forth. Even blogs are deficient. While more can be communicated and in a more thoughtful manner, the "conversation" is mostly one way. I find it helpful as a discipline and as a nice way to organize my thoughts, but not very helpful in having discussions. In fact, it detracts. I'll often be with someone and begin to say something in conversation, and then realize that they've already read it on my blog, thought about it, and don't have much to say about it at that time, having already processed it and moved on. In that way, it's sometimes not a discussion starter but a discussion stopper. At some point I may take this discipline offline, and yet part of the way I get up for it and keep a certain level of seriousness about it is the knowledge that someone -- some handful of people -- may be reading it.
Talking to people can be uncomfortable and challenging. That's part of why we need to do it. It's not what I get up for every day (I'd rather stay in bed and read a book), but I need it, and I need to grow in it. It's part of imaging God, that is, the Triune God that exists in community, in continuous dialog -- the God who is there and is not silent, neither within the Godhead nor toward us. He's speaking to us. And he's not waiting on an email. He wants us.