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The Art of Conversation

By Dr. Margaret Paul
December 03, 2012

Do you have mostly one-way or two-way conversations? What kind of conversationalist are you?

What happens in your conversations with people? The kind of conversation you have with someone says a lot about both you and them.

There are mainly two kinds of conversations: one-way conversations and two-way conversations.

One-Way Conversations

My client, Henry, complained to me that his girlfriend, Giselle, rarely asks him questions about himself, and when she does, she doesn't respond to his answer but instead goes into something about her. While he is very attracted to her, he is starting to feel lonely with her and uncared for by her. However, Henry does not take loving care of himself in the relationship. From the beginning, because he was so attracted to Giselle, he ignored the signs that something was amiss in the relationship. He was afraid to speak up for himself and ask her, with a true intent to learn, why she does this. Now that they have been together for four months, this is becoming a big issue with him. But all this time Giselle thought it was okay with Henry that she did this, since he never said anything.

In a session with Nan, she said that a childhood friend of hers came to visit – someone she had not seen for a long time. Her friend, Lila, stayed for a weekend and at the end of the weekend, Nan felt drained and exhausted.

"I've done a lot of growth recently. In the past, I was such a people-pleaser that I never noticed that Lila doesn't give anything at all. Looking back, I realized that I used to talk and talk to entertain her, never realizing what was actually happening between us. This time I saw clearly that, not only was she not really listening, but she never commented on anything I said. She just sat there staring at me. It was extremely disconcerting and draining. I can't believe I used to feel I had to entertain her. She is like an empty vessel just wanting to be filled, and I used to keep trying to fill her. This time, when I stopped talking, there was just silence between us, which was awkward. She has got to be one of the emptiest people I've ever known. She doesn’t talk about herself and she doesn't respond to me – she just stares!

My client Hannah has a similar situation to Henry with a good friend of hers.

"I love Serena so much. We have been friends for years, and most of the time she is open and attentive when we get together. But sometimes, no matter what I say about me, she finds a way to bring it back to her. Then she goes on and on in a monologue, not even noticing whether or not I'm listening. And she doesn't seem to be conscious about what she is doing."

The thing that all three of my clients have in common is that it's hard for them to speak up about what is happening. Henry needs to ask, with sincere curiosity, "Giselle, how come you rarely ask me about me, and even when you do, you don't listen to my answer – instead going on and on about you"? Nan needed to say to Lila, "Lila, I'm really curious about why you just stare at me instead of engaging in conversation with me?" Hannah needs to say to Serena, "Sometimes we have great two-way conversations, but today it seems all about you. What's going on?"

Tamara writes: "When my mother-in-law is over for a family get-together like Easter dinner or such and there are lots of people around, she will ask someone, 'So how are you?' Before they have a chance to say what's going on in their lives, she will cut them off and start talking about herself - before they get three words out." This is one of the signs of narcissism. 

Two-Way Conversations

These tend to be very satisfying conversations, where each person listens well, responds with caring, and asks questions to deepen the interaction. When both people are open and caring, there tends to be a natural balance regarding how much each person speaks. I love the intimacy of two-way conversations. When I've been talking awhile, I switch into asking caring questions of the other person, and the other person does the same. As we go back and forth, the conversations deepens.

If you want two-way conversations, then you need to either speak up for yourself or not spend time with people who either don’t respond to you or go on and on about themselves.

You might want to notice what kind of conversationalist you are, and what happens with others in your conversations.


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Pain and joy are in the same place in the heart. You cannot put a lid on pain without putting a lid on your joy as well. Are you opting for the flatness of the illusion of safety, or are you willing to experience both the lows and the highs of life? Today, cry and laugh with your whole heart.



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