Tomorrow I head off into the great beyond of Los Angeles to attend SCBWI’s annual summer conference and inundate myself in all things kidlit. To my knowledge, I know one other person attending. Happily, this lack of acquaintance doesn’t bother me because I can rest assured in the knowledge that as a group, kidlit writers have to be some of the warmest and supportive people in existence. I also have the happy past experience of the winter conference to bolster me. In my experience, starting a conversation with someone with a shared and consuming interest like writing is not generally a difficult accomplishment.
However, this leads me to one of my recent subjects of interest: namely, the art of conversation. I’m not talking about the skill of small talk, which while useful, isn’t that thrilling for me. I’m also not talking about the art of debate, which can be interesting, but only if the debaters (or at the very least, me as their audience) aren’t completely and finally wedded to every last detail of their opinions. No, I’m thinking about the art of interesting conversation. You know, when you’re talking to someone and you feel you could just keep talking for hours? Or when someone says something and it actually requires you to (gasp) stop and think? That kind of conversation.
One of the main barriers I notice to achieving such a level of worded bliss is the question problem, which goes both ways. First and most simply, it’s been my observation that a lot of people don’t ask enough questions. Questions have interest built-in because they include the supposition that there is more than one possible answer (otherwise, why are you asking?) They also show a pleasing desire to get to know the conversational partner and place value on said partner’s opinions, which develops rapport. A well-asked question can be the instigator of a lively discussion in which the people involved might actually learn something, help each other come up with new ideas, or be exposed to a different point of view. Alternately, questions can encourage a friend to talk about something challenging or exciting in their lives that they might not otherwise have felt comfortable discussing.
On the other side of the equation, people don’t always encourage good questions with their responses. If I offer an opening question or two and receive only monosyllables or replies designed to shut me down, I am left high and dry without any hooks to continue the conversation or discover what that hidden gem of a question might be. In the same way, if the answers to questions aren’t approached in a thoughtful manner, it is much less likely that there will be any part of the answer worth pursuing. And don’t even get me started on the monologue problem.
The ideal conversation requires all people involved to do some heavy lifting. Without mutual questioning, the talk turns into a parody of an interview. Without actively listening to your conversational partner’s points, it is difficult to be affected by the conversation or to respond in a genuine and engaged way. Without the willingness to realize your own knowledge may be limited (or even wrong!) or another point of view might offer valuable ideas and perspectives, what’s going on isn’t a conversation so much as a two-sided internal monologue spoken aloud.
The point of conversation is to both entertain and engage (and possibly to educate, although this one is dangerous as it can lead to pomposity). This means, among other things, making an effort to keep track of who you’ve told what funny stories in the past. Or at the very least, for those with poor memories, you can ask your potential audience if you’ve already told them about that time in Cairo, thereby allowing them a graceful exit. It means asking others for their opinions instead of merely expounding on your own. It means choosing conversational topics that include all people participating – so for example, maybe you shouldn’t speak too long about a role-playing game with a group that includes one or two people who didn’t play the game, or maybe you shouldn’t have deep technical-speak shop talk with a group that includes someone who isn’t part of your field. (Yes, I live in Silicon Valley, can you tell?) This is not to say that you can’t talk about subjects relating to your career and/or passions (my husband and I talk about various writing, scientific, music, and computer-related topics all the time), but it does help to gear them towards a non-specialist audience when appropriate.
I firmly believe that good conversation is an art, and an art that I need to continually consider and practice. So tell me, dear readers, what do you look for in a satisfying conversation? What are your favorite conversational moments or pet peeves? Let’s talk about talking, shall we?