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The Art of Conversation: from Michael McCarthy’s Blog

Conversation – a spoken exchange of thoughts, opinions, feelings; talk.

A New World

Conversations may be becoming a lost art in our digital and technological world. The ability to slow down and simply spend quality time with each other seems more and more of a challenge these days. We have so much to do; we are always on the go. The pace of life today is relentless. It is more than busy; we are all swimming in a systematically frenetic world. Our way of life is becoming more complex. During my childhood, there were eight television stations. Today there are hundreds. The main means of communication during the time of my upbringing (other than direct person-to-person conversation) were the rotary telephone and the postal mail service.   There were no computers, cell phones, emails, social media, etc. As a friend once observed, “For all the communication devices we now have at our disposal, we in fact do very little real communicating with one another.” When I was a youngster, I played little league baseball with a reasonable 12 game schedule (and I loved every moment). Moderation had its place. There were no year-long travel teams then. In high school, I took the Scholastic Aptitude Test [SAT] college entrance exam only once. There were no SAT prep courses that I (or my parents) knew about or would even think about taking. Today, many students take the SAT exam three times and enroll in extensive and expensive prep courses or tutoring to prepare for the exam (whatever happened to the notion of measuring one’s aptitude based on his or her years of schooling and lived experience).  In those good old days, there was even talk about moving towards a 4-day work week for adults to free up more family time for leisure. Now the norm in many families is both parents working full-time and both working in excess of 50-hours weekly. More and more is coming at us. We own more things and gadgets. There’s more to think about and consider. We face a “tyranny of options” in this brave new world of ours.

Around the Dinner Table

What seems to be a lost practice today in many families is a set dinner time. While growing up, I have fond memories of gathering on a daily basis for dinner as a family (6 sisters, two bothers, and my parents) to eat – – and to talk. Sure, at times, it may have been a bit unruly, but we settled down with a meal blessing. We passed around the meat, vegetables, and potatoes. There were, as I recall, always six or seven slices of Wonder bread on a small plate in the middle of the table. While eating our meal, we were asked to go around the table and share a little something about our day. One by one we’d begin the conversation. It was no big deal, but I do re-member looking forward to my turn to speak. Deep down I wanted to share my tale. I wanted to be funny and, more importantly, found out. I was a young person given an opportunity to speak. Each of us had to learn to wait their turn and listen respectfully to the person speaking. I re-member many of these discussions filled with laughter, insight, and excitement, as well as occasional balking. These conversations were probably messy at times, yet always revelatory. I was hearing the inner voices of my sisters and brothers. These dinner time discussions seemed the natural thing to do. As I look back, I will always savor the rich flavor of our table talk and the soul nourishment they provided

Real Presence

The conversations which I have had with my dad over the years are greatly cherished. During my adolescence, we could spend hours at the kitchen table (often after a Saturday breakfast) discussing all sorts of topics, from religion to world affairs to Frank Sinatra to baseball to the pilots of World War I, back to religion, and then we’d move onto other topics that popped into our minds. On and on we would discuss. These conversations were often thoughtful and thought-provoking. I gained lots of knowledge from my dad, but, more importantly, I also got to spend time with him. I was learning about life from him – – about what it means to be a human being. Dad was giving me a keen and indelible lens out of which to view the world. He was teaching me, by word and action, to love and be loved. My mind was being sharpened and my perspective on life was being broadened. Dad was an avid reader and deep thinker. He would often pause in our conversation to literally retrieve the latest book he was reading. He would then read me a quote from the book which was germane to our discussion. While sometimes during these conversations my adolescent mind wandered or became restless, these moments with dad were special. Our conversations bonded us. We continued our heart-to-heart and mind-to-mind conversation with each other throughout our adult lives.

Questions

My wife is a wonderful questioner. When we first met in our early twenties, I was struck by her inquisitiveness. She asked me hundreds of questions: What was your most embarrassing moment?           What’s your biggest dream? When are you most silly? What do you fear? How would you describe God? What do you seek in friendship? What were you like as a child? What are your passions? What places in the world would you like to visit? What’s your favorite ice cream flavor? And my favorite question: Can you tell me something I do not know about you? She would ask fun questions and profound questions. She was really interested in me (and that is a powerful thing to experience). In turn, I started asking her all sorts of questions (and that was loads of fun). We were truly discovering each other. As philosopher Sam Keen infers, we define ourselves not so much by our answers but by the kinds of questions we dare to ask. Twenty five years into our marriage, I can say the foundation of our love is rooted in our knowing each other. We are friends – – we are blessed to be anam cara (soul friends). We have continued the simple (yet, at times, difficult) habit of talking to each other. By and large, we enjoy conversing (except in the early morning when I have a tendency to talk too much). Having the courage and initiative to speak your feelings and thoughts to the other, and the ability to intently listen to the other with humility seem, to me, to be the key ingredients of a good and enduring relationship. After all these years of marriage, we continue to discover (and uncover) more and more of each other by way of our conversations. Love is kin-d.

Conversations in the Classroom

It is gratifying when a lively discussion is percolating in the classroom. Students are engaged with the subject matter and are connecting (although not necessarily agreeing) with each other’s ideas and opinions. Students feel something strongly from their deep gut. Like a spark lighting a fuse, the student’s point of view is ready to erupt from the depths of their soul. The conversation is highly spirited and there is a dynamic synergy among all those in the classroom (students and teacher alike). Collective learning is happening. What is it that ignites such good conversation? It is hard to know. Based on some of my classroom experiences, here are some thoughts on this question: First, students’ ideas and opinions need to be respected. They need to feel safe to give voice to these thoughts. Respecting opinions, however, does not constitute concurring with them. You put their ideas in the mix and stir it up together. When it has been cooked, serve it and see what it now taste like. Keep in mind, some ideas need to be chewed on for awhile. Secondly, good conversation is tied to relevancy. In what ways is this topic pertinent to our lives? All topics, one way or another, apply to our lives. The key is to help students ascertain how a particular topic or subject matter, in fact, relates to their lives and the lives of others. Examine carefully and critically what the “experts” of a particular topic say and explore what our “lived experience” may have taught us about the topic. See learning as a grand adventure; be open to what it reveals. To me, conversation lies at the heart of effective learning – – it is foundational. Good conversation is a true art form, requiring boldness of imagination and ingenuity. Add your verse to the great script of life.

Questions

  • Describe a good conversation you recently had. What made it good?
  • What, for you, impedes good conversation?
  • When do you feel most free to speak your thoughts, ideas, and opinions?
  • What three questions would you like to ask your spouse? Best friend? Boss?
  • What kinds of conversations do you generally have with your spouse? Friends? Co-workers? Neighbors?
  • Is good conversation more of an “art” or “science”? Explain.
  • Do you see a relationship with these two words: “conversation” and “conversion”?

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