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Conversational Challenges

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Read a related article – How to be (are you) a good listener

Did you ever encounter someone who couldn’t  have a conversation?  Did you ever encounter the opposite – someone who couldn’t stop talking?  Between these two extremes there must be some middle ground, techniques, and operational rules for having a good conversation.

Who better to consult than Scott Adams of Dilbert fame?  Adams has written a couple of blog entries on conversation and listening.  You can find the links to these blog posts at the end of this posting.

Adams has come up with a pretty simple definition of a good conversation

The objective of conversation is to entertain or inform the other person while not using up all of the talking time. A big part of how you entertain another person is by listening and giving your attention. Ideally, your own enjoyment from conversation comes from the other person doing his or her job of being interesting. If you are entertaining yourself at the other person’s expense, you’re doing it wrong.

Adams goes on to say that, by his observation, only 25% of the population has this understanding of a good conversation.

The Challenge

Some people put up a pretty good challenge to having a good conversation.  Here are some miscreants I’ve observed:

  1. Topic Hijackers.  These are people who join an existing conversation and hijack it to talk about what they want to talk about without a natural transition.  In a well-ordered conversation one topic generally and naturally leads to another in its own time – it’s the natural flow of a conversation.  Topic Hijackers steal the conversation and are generally not good listeners – or, don’t want to listen.
  2. Mad Tea Party.  Named after the ride at Disney Land in the context of the stated “infamy” of the ride.   Spinning tea cups on a turntable.  These are people who enter a conversation and change the topic and direction after almost every exchange.  This generally creates conversational nausea.  Changing the topic of conversation may cause the experience of dizziness, loss of balance, and motion sickness.  Perhaps changing topics at such a rapid rate is a sign of lack of depth of knowledge on any topic.  Or perhaps the lack of the ability to sustain attention, direction, or focus on a single topic for any sustained period of time.   (ADD)
  3. Conversation as self-entertainment and/or self-indulgence.  These are generally people who talk mostly about themselves.  According to Adams, if the point of the conversation is self-entertainment then you are doing it wrong (If you are entertaining yourself at the other person’s expense, you’re doing it wrong.)  This could also be related to “conversational narcissism“.
  4. Failure to merge.  Think of an on-ramp to a highway.  You want to enter the highway.  Done properly, while on the on-ramp you gauge the speed of the traffic on the highway, adjust your speed to match the traffic, and merge seamlessly into the existing traffic flow.  If other cars have to speed up or slow down then you’ve done it wrong.  Same with conversations and new people entering the discussion.  Understand the flow and cadence of a conversation and merge seamlessly.  Some people don’t know how to do this and they create a conversational car wreck with other participants.
  5. Conversation as monologue.  People who are not capable of “chunking” a conversation.  Sure, you have a lot to say but give the other person a chance to respond without them having to interrupt you.  Conversation is give and take – in short intervals.  If you are talking for more than about 15 seconds at a time without giving the other person a chance to respond then you are nearing monologue mode.  If you are talking too much you are probably not listening enough.

In reading the Adams blog entries I encountered the mention of Asperger Syndrome – which I had to look up.  Folks with Asperger Syndrome have trouble understanding the subtleties of human social interaction – despite a high IQ.  From the Wikipedia:

The most distinguishing symptom of AS [ Asperger Syndrome ] is a child’s obsessive interest in a single object or topic to the exclusion of any other.  Some children with AS have become experts on vacuum cleaners, makes and models of cars, even objects as odd as deep fat fryers.  Children with AS want to know everything about their topic of interest and their conversations with others will be about little else.  Their expertise, high level of vocabulary, and formal speech patterns make them seem like little professors.

Children with AS will gather enormous amounts of factual information about their favorite subject and will talk incessantly about it, but the conversation may seem like a random collection of facts or statistics, with no point or conclusion.Unlike the severe withdrawal from the rest of the world that is characteristic of autism, children with AS are isolated because of their poor social skills and narrow interests.  In fact, they may approach other people, but make normal conversation impossible by inappropriate or eccentric behavior, or by wanting only to talk about their singular interest.

Do children with AS get better? What happens when they become adults?|

With effective treatment, children with AS can learn to cope with their disabilities, but they may still find social situations and personal relationships challenging.  Many adults with AS are able to work successfully in mainstream jobs, although they may continue to need encouragement and moral support to maintain an independent life.

So lets add these to the list of conversational challenges

  1. Single Topic conversations.  These are people, that no matter how the conversation starts out, will find a way to drive the conversation back to their favorite topic.  They seem to have few other conversational options.  They may have a narrow set of interests; experts in one field but lack breadth of knowledge or general knowledge that would position them to have a conversation with an ordinary citizen.  How many of these folks might be adults with AS?
  2. No topic conversations.  These are people who simply have nothing to talk about.  Could also be a sign of the deeper problem of lacking social skills and techniques of social interaction and communication.

By far the most interesting to me are those people who have nothing to say. They have no opinion, no comments, and seemingly no ideas. How can this be? Sometimes I can jump-start the conversation by asking them what they do for a living (people like to talk about themselves). If I get them talking about what they do then maybe I can find a thread to expand the conversation. Sometimes, if I keep feeding them topics they will respond; but only in short pithy sentences.  If I stop feeding them questions and they stop talking.  These people never get going – give them a little “push-start”, expect them to get going, but they never do.  Perhaps these people are still trying to find their passion. Left to their own devices, without the conversational jump-start, the silence is deafening.

The only way out of these conversational challenges is to try to actively manage the conversation.  Some people have very little self-awareness that they are committing the conversational sins suggested above.  Tread carefully in helping them come to a self-awareness and what a conversation could be in the best of all possible worlds.

But, bottom line.  Success, in any endeavor, requires good communication skills.  Check out this article on How to Master the Art of Conversation.

Perhaps those who have nothing to say are your best opportunity to practice your conversational craft.  And, while practicing your craft you have the opportunity to help someone else become a better conversationalist… speaker and listener … which they can then pass on to others… and so on, and so on…


Conversation on the Scott Adams Blog –
Active Listening –

More on the Art of Conversation – from the Art of Manliness website


Written by frrl

December 27, 2011 at 7:42 pm

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