The face muscles relax, and the eyes become empty before boredom urges them to seek another centre of interest. The restlessness culminates with some leaving and others immersing themselves in the exploration of their phones. Others seek to divert the discussion with a joke or hasten its end through a detached or ostentatious silence.
Then, after the serious conversation has been suppressed, the group re-engages in small talk—trends, gadgets, photos, social networks, the news, and so on. The exchange of remarks and wisecracks becomes the centre of the conversation, and time flies, without any wins or regrets.
Why do people abandon serious discussions so easily?
The answers to such a question range between blaming the discussion’s perceived difficulty and blaming the lack of intellectual prowess amongst the members of the group. Another explanation is less damning, and justifies the abandonment by invoking the untimely character of the discussion in relation to the context in which it could potentially take place. “It was not the right time, we came here to relax.” This reason is first invoked during one’s teen years, but remains popular and comes in handy in college too, and even later on.
As it is sometimes wisely described by adults, young people’s attention is usually captured by frivolous and fun ideas. It isn’t that a thoughtful discussion matters less for young people but, most of the time, they believe it is more appropriate to postpone it for a future moment. The present moment seems to be worth it if it is lived in a different way. Other times, abandoning an important discussion is explained by the low capacity of young people to focus their attention for longer than a couple of minutes. Young people have a lot of energy and a negligible number of existential questions compared to that of the following decades of life. Isn’t playfulness most appropriate for childhood, romance for youth, and the great questions of life for old age?
The child laughs:
The game is my wisdom and my love!
The young man sings:
My love is wisdom and my game.
The old man remains silent:
Wisdom is my love and my game!
(Lucian Blaga, Romanian poet)
While Blaga’s poem reveals the indisputable tendencies of the aging process, it does not explain why some people keep avoiding valuable discussions even after they have grown older. In reality, growing up or getting old does not implicitly bring along wisdom, self-edification or balance self-perceptions.
A slalom between pressures and complexes
Often, beginning in youth and continuing into adulthood, many run away from serious discussions because they perceive themselves as being below the standard of educated people: they do not know enough important authors, or any at all, they haven’t read most of the books considered to be must-reads, or have not accumulated sufficient information on various subjects. A typical consequence of such a self-evaluation is the fact that such people refrain from discussions and, at times, resolve to make up for the disability in the near future.
Still, when the results fail to appear, complexes grow together even more deeply, with the conviction that the situation will never change. Social abilities are no longer trained and the person withdraws more and more and eventually develops convenient prejudices regarding those he perceives as intellectually superior or accomplished.
In reality, the list of compulsory reading is not a sine-qua-non condition of meaningful conversations. There are many components of an edifying discussion which should be taken into consideration. More often than not, a person who is self-conscious about their level of education does not realise that a quality discussion can be born out of someone’s wish to know more and understand better. Additionally, uplifting discussion can arise from the pleasure of listening to a person who thinks and expresses themselves eloquently. Careful questioning, which determines the support or elaboration of the subject at hand, honest, decent and pertinent logical counterarguments, or someone’s capacity or determination not to abandon an insufficiently unravelled subject—these can all lead to quality conversations.
There is no unique way in which we can come to have edifying and inspirational conversations. Perhaps counter-intuitively, even silence may generate substantial conversation.
What, in your 40s, will you wish you had done in your 20s and 30s?
1. Having tempered your appetite for action and permanent diversification, at least in order to be able to identify the most valuable ways of spending your time;
2. Not having been “friends” with just anyone or at least not with that many people, but having given more time to a small group of people, having been more selective;
3. Having had the patience and perseverance to listen to educated people instead of spending most of your time in insignificant small talk;
4. Having asked more questions each time the opportunity presented itself;
5. Having performed a longer and more focused search for examples and mentors to help one understand earlier what matters most in one’s 30s and 40s;
6. Having understood beliefs and convictions better, and being inoculated against cynicism as soon as possible.
The silence that brings forth meaningful conversations
I remember sitting down one day and looking at a colleague of mine, not being able to grasp how his presence mattered so much in various group meetings. He was silent most of the time, he would rather sit in a corner and somehow still managed to become a point of reference for those present. Challenged by his example, I decided to carry out an experiment when I was around 20 years old. On a camp, where most people did not know me, I decided to keep quiet. Not absolutely quiet, not ostentatiously, obstinately or arrogantly quiet, but to use the minimum number of words to offer short, friendly, and kind answers to the questions which were directly addressed to me. I discovered many unexpected things during the seven days of relative silence on that camp.
When you talk a lot, you force people to see you, but you do not necessarily help them to know you. Furthermore, you do not get a real opportunity to know them. In those seven days of silence I had the opportunity to listen, see, and better understand those around me, something which made me try to be useful to them in one way or the other (as much as possible, without using any words, as I had resolved). At the end of the camp I felt more deeply connected to the others than I had felt with any other people in any other similar context until then. But I would come to discover even more.
Towards the end of the camp, following an incident, the group gathered round for a discussion sprinkled with reproaches and interruptions, all against the background of a disgruntled murmur. After analysing the situation, I decided to say a few words and what happened totally surprised me: while I was speaking, I was being listened to in complete silence. I was being offered a respect which I realised I owed directly to my silence during the previous days, and its relational consequences.
People understand when silence is born out of superiority or ignorance and they distance themselves. They notice when the silence comes out of decency, and respect it. They also can tell when silence is actually a meaningful contribution to conversation, and feel attracted to it.
The sources of value
How should we feed quality discussions then, when they also require words? First of all, a valuable conversation must be protected. The hardest thing is to avoid the almost inevitable tendency towards small talk. Sarcasm or jokes as a way of socialising, gossip, critique, unending discussions about food, vacations, shopping and so on, are tempting opportunities to steer the dialogue towards a manageable, risk-free area. These temptations are actually so strong that one really needs to get into a serious conversation to resist them.
Since the odds of a serious conversation being born accidentally are generally small, it is important to understand the ways in which we can stimulate and maintain valuable discussions. Identifying the answers to the following questions can help us reach this goal:
1. What helps us/prevents us from trusting the friends we talk to?
2. What does it mean to really listen to someone, in order for them to feel our empathy and support?
3. What is happening to us on a personal level—is there anything that we feel the need to talk about?
4. What are the important subjects which affect our lives?
5. Is spirituality a real and sufficiently important part of our lives so that it may naturally find a way into our relationships?
6. Do we wish to seek the connections between God and our lives together, with the purpose of undertaking the necessary measures?
7. Are we, in our group of friends, all interested in offering open feedback and support to each other in identifying and correcting our shortages or excesses? If this is the case, have we discussed the way in which we can do this? Do we have a conversational approach which allows us to easily give each other this feedback?
The steps of a conversation that lifts us up
Besides the identification of a good conversational subject, and the development of the ability to listen and give feedback, there are a few other essential principles for a substantial conversation.
Do not draw the attention to yourself! Quality discussions do not grow in the shadow of self-preoccupation. Our words and actions must not be ways of self-promotion. Furthermore, our image does not become better just because we force people to focus on us.
Do not make a splash in discussions! The level of a discussion is not established by showing off one’s entire arsenal of knowledge, titles, and personal skills. The parties interested in a quality dialogue cannot be kept by trying to make a good impression or by methodically building illusions.
Do not keep to yourself and do not isolate yourself out of fear of making mistakes! Quality does not imply the absence of mistakes or errors but offers the opportunity to identify and correct them. A quality conversation is not a show staged in front of a knowledgeable audience. It’s the teamwork backstage, where the performance is built on openness, trials, feedback, and perseverance.
Focus on the needs of others! The preoccupation to really contribute is the only honest principle for choosing the words one should use in a conversation. This choice is the only one that speaks of us and our perspective in a dialogue.
Refuse to choose just because of the pressure! People whose answers place us under pressure to be who we are not, are not the most appropriate interlocutors. To participate in discussions with such people means to feed their need for an audience. A quality discussion is a partnership, an understanding between two travellers to continue their trip together. It’s an opportunity to explore and discover together.
Go beyond your comfort zone! It’s the only way to avoid hitting a dead end. We normally tend to develop prejudices and arguments to justify our reluctance to converse with people who communicate differently to us, or have a different level of education.
However, to know who you are also implies knowing who you are not at a certain point. To remain honest with yourself and others in such situations, not making any efforts to be someone you’re not, is the shortest and straightest way to a desirable result. Not only does this make us authentic but it allows us to avoid the complexes that grow in the shadow of fakery and lies.
Who we are does not depend so much on how much we know, how much we have accomplished until now, or what we have. Despite the pressure we often feel, the truth is that who we are depends a lot on what we manage to do using honest and dignified means, regardless of the situation in which we find ourselves. Dignity, authenticity, balance, and the intelligence exercised first and foremost through the questions we ask (ourselves) are the main traits determining our reactions and defining our presence in any context.
Intelligence is not proven by how much someone knows but by the questions he asks (himself).
But the greatest of them all is…the book
So far in this article I have made the case for the expansion of one’s perspective on how many dimensions and components a quality discussion has. I even affirmed it is not necessary to have a particular list of compulsory readings. But I cannot end this article without pointing to the most important thing, capable of totally changing someone’s quest for self-edification.
“To write you must read.” A poet friend of mine once said these words to me, and I’ll probably remember them forever. Nothing creates in us and orders fertile thoughts better than the words of those who have distilled their whole lives onto a few pages. When we read rich texts, we discover constructions built by entire generations before us, to which we now have the honour of bringing our humble contribution. When we read, we choose our inheritance.
Norel Iacob is Editor in Chief of ST Network and Semnele timpului.