Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What's The Conversation?

Over the last week, I've been thinking a lot about how people have conversations. This line of thought has mostly been stimulated by the post-election discussions in Massachusetts. The senatorial campaign, and the conversation about how it happened, so easily gets reduced down into small bits of digested sound bites. Based on the tv ads and most of the interviews I saw, I really don't know what either candidate stands for. I know they think this issue is good, or this other issue is bad. I don't know why they think so. I really don't know what plans either might have to make things better. In fact, I'm not even sure if I know what exactly either of them wanted to make better.

Conversations I've had with friends or have observed other people have haven't been  much better. See, they aren't really conversations. They are well phrased and nuanced sound bites that don't really reveal anything. Rather than talking about political parties with different ideas we've moved to a world of knee-jerk politics and reactionary sound bites. What ever happened to ideas? Where is the discourse about how to improve the world?

Take for example of few snippets of conversation on Facebook about the Massachusetts elections:

  • "You over tax the people, you over spend, you grow government to big, and you push bills that the American people overwhelming [sic] don't want. Health care, cap and trade, bail outs, etc. That's how they lost his seat. There will be many  more to follow in November."
  • "Good. Maybe in 3 years the president will be next."
  • "Were you living outside the United States between January 2001 to January 2009? The country between those dates was in utter shambles and I don't understand why you would feel the need to repeat that."

It's hard to find good conversation about politics. This morning at the gym I was listening to a pod-cast from Talk of the Nation. It struck me on several different levels. First, and perhaps foremost, it was a smart conversation. Secondly, I stopped and thought for awhile. I first found this caller funny, though I don't think he intended to be so. After I finished my chuckle, I really noticed just how ill-equipped we all are for having conversations. We don't talk about things (my mini-tirade about the election is about that). This caller made me see that we've lost so many conversational skills that we don't even know what one is. This is a portion of the callers question:

"I have a question regarding the conversation whites and blacks folks are supposed to be having... I've never seen anybody having an actual conversation. I've seen people talking.. we need to have a conversation. What is the conversation supposed to be about? Hey, what do you hate about white people? Hey, what do you hate about black people? Are we supposed to have that? What is the conversation supposed to take place? I'm thinking like a CSPAN or some sort of news thing... I want to see the conversation actually happen."

If I had a chance to respond to the caller it would be something like this: the conversation is one we could have right now. It's not about what one group of people hates about another group of people. It's a conversation about what your own experience is like to be you. What does being white mean to you? What does being black? Why does it mean that to you? How has it come to mean that? What might you not know about your own experience or that of someone else? How might you get to know it?

I've often said that part of effective psychotherapy is the ability to have (or the ability to learn to have) a really good conversation. For the rest of the morning I thought a lot about different interactions I've had in my office this week. Among other things, I've talked about race, sex, politics, feelings, and martial problems. Each time I met this situation with a conversation--I ask good questions that I hope make my clients stop, think, and look at a situation in a new way. It mostly doesn't matter to me what a client is thinking about a particular situation: it matters to me how they are thinking about a particular situation.

What are you thinking today? How are you thinking about it? Can you think of it in a different way?

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