Discuss is a new feature in which two people – from politicians to journalists, academics to authors – engage in a conversation that flows out of a single question. Today’s topic: How to talk to one another in a polarized world.
Sakyong Mipham is the head of Shambhala, a worldwide Buddhist initiative, and author of The Lost Art of Good Conversation: A Mindful Way to Connect with Others and Enrich Everyday Life; N.J. Enfield is a professor of linguistics at the University of Sydney and author of How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation. They held their discussion, over e-mail, in late November.
Illustration by Lauren Tamaki
The idea that conversation is a lost art implies that it is both an art and that it is lost. Could we start with the idea that it is an art? In How We Talk, I don’t use the term. If anything, I emphasize that it is a skill, one that is mostly out of our awareness.
I believe that conversation is both an art and a skill. Conversation comes from, or is fuelled by, an innate desire to make a connection, fulfill curiosity or to find meaning. It can be as simple as saying “Hello” or as complex as forging peace between nations. But I emphasize conversation as an art because I am interested in what we find at the core of ourselves as human beings, and how that can be expressed in the world.
Within our current global climate, I find it interesting that we both decided to write about aspects of speech. While I’m approaching conversation from the “core of humanity” point of view, could you share what inspired you, as a linguistic anthropologist, to write How We Talk?
Anthropologists recognize that, on the one hand, our species has qualities that no other species has, and on the other hand, that there is radical diversity between human groups, with great cultural and social differences. We want to find out both what is common to all humans and how much diversity there can be among different groups.
Language is an obvious place to test this question. There are literally thousands of utterly different languages spoken around the world.
How We Talk was motivated by a major gap in research on language as part of what makes us human. A lot of work has been done on the structure of sentences, but relatively little has been done on free-flowing conversation. This is partly because conversation, unlike the written word, is fast and fleeting, and is not easy to dissect. But it is also because certain influential traditions in linguistics have (inexplicably!) ruled out conversation from the scope of research.
A major theme in How We Talk is the idea that when we have a conversation, we are not only passing on information or making a connection, but creating mutual obligations: a duty to pay attention to the other person, and to respond in a relevant and appropriate way.
I often say that listening is the price you pay if you want to be heard. Conversation is certainly an exchange, offering an opportunity to dissolve the boundary between ourselves and others. That moment when we decide to enter into conversation presents us with an opportunity to leap out of our own comfort zone, into a space of vulnerability. Then, we are sowing the seeds of mutual trust from which a deeper connection can blossom.
It’s a two-way street. In Laos, where I do much of my research, there is a saying about drunken parties: “After the 10th glass, there are only people talking, nobody listening.” It’s interesting that even when people are sober, they often want to be heard more than they want to listen. If we take the view that language is purely for exchanging information, this fact would be hard to explain: people should be more interested in listening, as it should benefit them to have more information. Instead, people want to be listened to.
If someone is listening to you, they are committing their time and attention. These commitments must be reciprocal. So, if I’ve just told you an anecdote, with you paying attention and giving me feedback, then we should be able to switch roles in the next phase of the conversation. Every minute you choose to spend conversing with someone is a minute that you have chosen not to spend conversing with others, or doing other things.
I view conversation as a context in which two people merge, however fleetingly, as a unit with shared goals. It is not only a matter of each person having equivalent obligations to the other, but it is also a matter of having a single, shared set of goals in that moment, as well as having shared accountability. If the conversation went well, this is something we achieved, as a pair.
I think that our desire to feel heard arises out of a deep desire for connection. When this is not acknowledged, personal conflicts, cultural violence and even war could arise, all because someone did not feel heard.
I mention in my book that in the Shambhala tradition, the main quality of humanness is called “basic goodness.” The notion is that, at our core, we are worthy and complete. Not in a moral way, but in an elemental or universal way. From there, we connect with others, and then with society, knowing that, at the core, others are basically good, and society is basically good. Conversation is the conduit through which we communicate this feeling. I think this is ultimately why people yearn for connection – that sense of becoming one through conversation. There must be something in others that we recognize and want to connect with.
Can the moments of sharing through conversation occur on a societal, or even global, level? Do the principles – if not the mechanics – of conversation continue in these arenas?
Yes, I do think that the principles of conversation operate at the highest and broadest levels of social and political life. When leaders act, they act on behalf of others. Their actions are almost always done through language, and so, in this sense, their work is done through conversation. Whether they are forging partnerships, offering assistance, escalating tensions or declaring war, they will do these things with words – from which, of course, other kinds of action may follow.
With the increasing speed of our culture, it is often easy to forget that this process of cause and effect occurs. In Buddhism, we call this karma. Words cannot be controlled once they leave our lips, and they always affect the environment, other people and ourselves in both seen and unseen ways.
For me, the question then becomes: How do we decide to use this tool? Do we use it to bring down others, as is seen so frequently in political social media? Do we use it as a means to an end, as in bargaining, negotiation or debate?
In your opinion, what role does intent play? Can we genuinely connect if we are using conversation to achieve an outcome?
We engage in conversation with certain outcomes in mind. I might ask a stranger how to get to a building I am looking for. My goal is entirely practical, but even in this kind of conversation, we make a connection. If the stranger gives me directions, they are being altruistic. And in even the most fleeting conversations, the people involved make a genuine connection by agreeing to co-operate for a moment, to play by a set of shared norms and to accept and adjust to the moves that the other makes, even if those moves go in unexpected directions.
As to your question about intent, conversations allow us to meet numerous goals at the same time. We might use the frame for quite practical purposes, as I’ve just described, or we may be talking in order to connect at a deeper level. This takes us to the realm of our enduring human relationships. Conversation with our closest friends and family members can strengthen our relationships. One way it does this is by transmitting information about ourselves and the things going on in our lives. Indeed, if we are not up to date with our closest friends’ personal developments, then this can be a problem – we might wonder why someone is hiding the information. Another way in which our relationships are strengthened by conversation is through the commitment of time and attention. This itself can be part of the intent behind conversation. We can talk simply in order to connect.
Part of what I emphasize in my book is the moral architecture around conversation, the sense that we agree to be held accountable for playing by the rules. What is the role of accountability in your conception of good conversation? Do you mean something more than the agreement to abide by certain rules and the readiness to be called out for transgressing them?
As you say, there are many different levels of conversation. But ultimately, I think we use conversation in order to contextualize our existence. The underlying question that we hold is, “Who am I?” or, “Who are we as human beings on this Earth?” There is a quality of us trying to navigate to the core of those questions. Underlying the framework of every conversation is a longing to continue that contextualization, to answer that fundamental question.
I think about moral architecture as decorum, which I define as putting others at ease. We uphold the forms of the conversation in order to foster balance, compassion and insight. This is opposed to using the rules of conversation for manipulation. This is why I use the word “good” in the title of my book. Rather than being neutral, conversation’s main purpose is to uplift. When it comes down to it, I think that conversation is an obligation to decorum, but more deeply, to connect with the basic humanness of the other person. You could call this friendliness or openness. From that, culture is created. This is what separates humanity from animals.
At a primal level, animals do have the ability to care for others. And of course, animals converse and have sophisticated relationships. But there is something special about the human connection. It is the awareness of others, as opposed to concern for the self alone.
Regarding culture and human sophistication, I am wondering what you think about technology and our modern age. As technology develops, is conversation becoming more sophisticated? Is it denigrating?
Technology changes things a lot, perhaps most obviously by allowing us to converse when we are not in each other’s physical presence. This is something new in the history of our species, but it seems completely natural to us. I don’t think that the essence of conversation itself is made especially more or less sophisticated by most technologies.
Do you think that technology detracts from the connection that you see conversation making?
Technology’s purpose is to enhance and uplift our lives. Just like in conversation, as soon as we begin using it to bring down others or denigrate the environment, it becomes a tool for negativity.
This is why I am so interested in investigating the core of human experience. On the one hand, it’s as if the whole world has lost touch with its own identity. And on the other hand, we find ourselves in an age where the smallest word can be used as the most powerful weapon. I believe we are now witnessing the repercussions of what happens when we use tools of such impact from a place of deep confusion about who we are. But all is not lost. Humanity is standing at a crossroads. We have the opportunity to dig deep within, see the potential of conversation being empowered and used as a force for good. As you mentioned, genuine connections are happening all the time, even in the simple moments in our day. It is up to us to foster these for the benefit of ourselves, others, and society as a whole.
What fascinates me is that even in conversations that are negative, the people involved are still agreeing to follow the basic rules of exchange. We can compare it to organized sport. In competitive tennis, people are trying to crush each other, and yet they agree to stick to the rules, and are – mostly – willing to be accountable to transgressions. But within the rules, there are of course differences between players in their degree of sporting conduct. One person might play by the rules and yet be a poor sport.