Suggested Reading

  • "The Talk Book" by Gerald Goodman and Glenn Easterly

Certainly one of the most common forms of interpersonal interaction is talking with someone. By its very nature then, talking provides an excellent means to help others deal with their suffering. However, most of us never really learn to talk with someone, we learn to talk to them.

Most people learn how to talk from their family and friends. Generally, we don't consider whether or not our manner of talking can be improved. I don't mean whether or not we speak with an accent or whether our manner of speech is more common than educated. What I mean is that when we talk with someone, do they feel heard and understood, and are we ourselves heard and understood? Or perhaps do others feel dismissed and frustrated? If we or the people that we talk to feel worse for the interaction, then we have an opportunity to eliminate suffering by learning how to talk better.

Learning to talk better first of all involves learning to really hear – to listen deeply and intently. If you don't hear the other person, you're not talking with them; you're either lecturing or taking turns at giving points of view. This is what most of us have learned to do. We sit and wait for a pause, then throw in what we think. It's a hard habit to break, but necessary if you want to talk with someone.

A good conversation is like a musical improvisation between two good instrumentalists. A good improvisation requires that each player have some idea of the context (and hence the rules) of the situation, a reasonable command of their instrument, and the willingness to listen to what the other player is playing. Without the listening, there is very little good music; the interest is focused on each performer and their ability rather than on the music itself. It's more like a cutting contest than an improvisation. A similar conversation is more of an argument than an exchange of thoughts.

Once you've learned to listen, you have to let the other person know that you understand. No matter how well you understand someone, they'll never feel understood until you let them know. There are various ways to let someone know they're understood, but one of the simplest is to try to repeat to them what you've heard. Not a summary, and not what you think they've said, but exactly what they've said. Of course, you can use more or less freedom in repeating depending on the situation. The more tense it is, though, the less freedom you should exercise.

Finally, you need to be able to find out if the other person understands you. Once you've said something, if it's important to you, you have to be able to determine if the other person really gets what you're saying. This is especially true in cases where you have some authority, perhaps as a parent, a manager, or a coach. For instance, when a manager says something, if an employee doesn't answer or says OK, the manager generally assumes they're understood. However, employees are often reluctant to ask questions, because they're afraid the manager will think they don't know what they're doing. The job of ensuring understanding is at least as much the manager's responsibility as it is the employee's, if not more.

Perhaps one of the most important things to remember about talking is that it is more of a skill than most people realize. We tend to assign it the same level of mystery as we do art – either you can draw well or you can't and similarly, either you can converse well or you can't. Most art teachers will tell you, though, that everybody can learn to draw reasonably well as long as they have enough control to be able to write their name. Regardless of the activity, each of us has varying degrees of ability, but each of us can almost certainly improve. If you've never taken the time to learn something about how to talk, you'll find yourself pleasantly rewarded with a small amount of effort.