In the award-winning novel, A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, two characters and dear friends, Willem and Jude, inspired me by their ability to conduct difficult conversations yet still maintain a strong love for one another. Jude, a victim of sexual assault, continually cuts himself as a way to pacify pain. Struggling to understand this awful practice, Willem must carefully wade into many deep psychological discussions. At one point in a conversation Jude says,
“It’s going to be fine, Willem”…”I know” replies Willem and “what comforted him was not so much reassurance itself but that Jude seemed so confident, so competent, so certain that he, too, had something to offer. It reminded Willem that their relationship wasn’t a rescue mission after all, but an extension of their friendship, in which he had saved Jude and, just as often, Jude had save him.” (1)
Patience and a stunning “give and take” within their relationship illustrate how we, too, might conduct ourselves during conversations. Although there’s often a natural cadence of “I talk, you talk, we’ll take turns”, thoughtful dialog is about the “Give” and friendship.
Here are five gifts of conversation always available for giving to others.
Recently I had a small argument with my daughter. The reason for our dysfunctional dialog had more to do with my lack of presence than the actual issue. I was feeling distracted. Instead of pausing and fully engaging my attention, I had reacted negatively.
Being present is a requirement for every conversation, especially for the difficult discussions and even the mundane topics. When we’re fully absorbing what is being said, we affirm those sharing with us. We sense each other’s attention. Krista Tippett, a well-known commentator for “On Being”, suggests being “attentive to more than the words.”(2) Presence is an endearing gift that strengthens relationships.
2. Deep Listening
Presence and deeply listening are tied together. Instead of preparing a response in our heads, we listen. We’ll know what to say next when it’s our turn to speak. Listening to understand builds confidence and momentum in an exchange. It also demonstrates a genuine interest on behalf of the listener.
When listening well we bring our best, full selves to the conversation. We have much to share and much to experience, including joy from relationships.
3. Face Value
Instead of making assumptions based on what we think we know about someone, we need to instead accept what’s actually being said and take it at “face value”. Unlike marketing labels on a product, we want to trust that the other person is being genuine.
The opportunity to converse with another person is an act of friendship. It feels like a gift when others are willing to share their stories with us. Relish the chance to get to know and enjoy another person. It’s as simple as that!
Needing to feel heard, we sometimes charge right into a conversation. Being unnecessarily aggressive, however, alters a conversation for the worst. Instead, remember that there’s plenty of time for exploring a topic. Until there’s a natural opening, consider reining in too much enthusiasm. We’ll have a turn to share when the time is right, allowing our positive energy to shine through.
At work, home or when out in the world, be on the “giving” side of the equation in a conversation. As any “Giver” knows, we receive just as much, if not more, through generousity. Gather with friends, family and acquaintances around the table for a meal and let the many gifts flow!
(1) Pg 538,539, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara; Anchor Books, New York, 2015;
(2) Conversation Starter #2, Lecture #7; “+Acumen presents: Krista Tippet and The Art of Conversation”; Udemy.