1.4 The Key Modes Of Conversation

Conversations deal with everything under the sun. There is no end to the content of conversations. Nevertheless, throughout The Guide, four common kinds of ‘explaining/telling’ are used to illustrate the skills and wisdom of dialogue. In this chapter we identify these key ‘modes’ and also discuss small talk and conversations that combine different modes.

a. Telling a story

A story is a narrative of some kind or another. For instance, Ian describes to his wife what his day at work was like.

He says, "You won't believe this, but Sam launched off into one of his tirades again. But this time Susan, his boss, happened to be talking to someone in one of those little cubicles. She heard the whole thing. She came around to his desk and told him that she would see him in her office immediately. He was still in there when I left."

Telling stories includes such things as giving presentations, using examples, giving explanations, and the like.

We tell stories for all sorts of reasons. One is to pass the time by telling hopefully entertaining stories. Humankind has a rich history of storytelling. But this kind of storytelling usually involves a storyteller and an audience. In this Guide, the emphasis is on stories that support dialogue. We use stories to give focus to explanations, to help get our messages across, to add spice to a point of view, and to bring proposals to life.

When we talk about the kind of job, or spouse, or life, we would like to have, we are telling ‘future’ stories. Stories help us communicate more fully, clearly, and forcefully. For instance, Alice, in a visit to her doctor, describes her internal pains, relates the story of what she has eaten and drunk over the past two days, and gives a couple of examples of the stress she has been under for the past two weeks. This helps her doctor with the diagnosis. Becoming a competent storyteller can add value to all of your conversations.

b. Delivering a message

A message delivers a decision that has some implication for yourself, for others, or for both yourself and others. Messages include such things as giving commands and providing instructions.

For instance, Dennis is talking with a group of friends at the end of the work day. He says, "I'm too tired to go out to dinner tonight. I'm going home to watch the game on television."

Messages have implications. Dennis's message has implications for himself and for his friends from work. They will have to do without him this evening.

People in authority often deliver messages to those who come under the influence of their authority - bosses to team members, parents to children, teachers to students, police to teenagers, government officials to citizens, and so forth.

For instance, Lucy says to her teenage son in an exasperated tone of voice, "No, you can't go to the party. You know the rules. First homework. Then play. You should have thought about this earlier."

Messages can be tricky. Often enough, how they are delivered greatly influences the impact they have. Sometimes people rebel against the messages we deliver because of the way in which we deliver them. If you were Lucy's son, how might you react to her message?

c. Sharing a point of view

Your point of view is your perception of someone, your opinion on some issue, your view of some situation, well, your thoughts on almost anything.

For instance, Jess's spouse, Silvia, says to him, "I know you like John, but he's too pushy for my tastes. No matter where he is, he seems to take over."

Obviously Jess might have a quite different point of view. Once he understands Silvia's point of view, he might want to share his own.

You may be entrenched in your point of view or hold it only tentatively and be open to change. When communicating your point of view to others, it helps to be clear and to give some indication of how deeply you feel about it.

Let's say someone says to you, "I never know what you really think about the curriculum and disciplinary changes that have taken place at school."

Either you have not expressed a point of view at all or you have and it's vague.

You reply, "Well I think that some of the changes are overdue, while others are suspect. For instance, I think they're giving the students too much freedom. But I'm willing to take a wait-and-see approach."

Not a bad beginning. Now there are lots of things that you and your friend can explore. Such as the things you do like about the changes. Or what you mean by ‘too much freedom’. Or the reasons for your tentative ‘wait-and-see’ approach.

d. Making a case

‘Making a case’ moves beyond merely sharing a point of view. When you share a point of view, you are not asking others to act on it, at least not directly. You might be pleased if they were to do so, but that's not what sharing points of view is about. When you make a case, however, you want to influence others. You want them to act in some way on what you say.

Tina and Trevor are talking about next summer's vacation. Tina is making a case for going to an island with nice beaches. Trevor makes a case for going to the mountains. Edgar, their teenage son, makes a case for his staying home and working (and also being with his friends with a bit more freedom than usual). Making a case includes such things as offering proposals, indicating preferences, making suggestions, and giving advice.

These days many people in authority prefer to make a case rather than just tell people what to do. This is part of their personal philosophy or the institutional culture. Often, they feel that they can't get away with just giving orders. People subject to authority, such as children, students, and team members, are more and more permitted, or even urged, to makes cases in areas of life that affect them and their interests.

Peers are a different story. Since you can't just order your peers around, making a case with them often becomes an essential part of interpersonal communication. Simon and Louise are married. They're both doctors. Simon makes a case for working in Liverpool since there's an excellent research centre in his specialty there and his main interest lies in research. Louise specialises in general practice. Although she can do that in Liverpool, most of her family members are in the London. She muses on making a case for taking a position at a similar research centre in London.

e. Engaging in small talk and gossip

Small talk plays an important part in establishing and maintaining relationships. Through small talk we pass time pleasantly. Small talk need not be a waste of time. It acts as a kind of lubricant in our relationships. Indeed, some people rightly complain that they are not good at small talk. They instinctively realise that they lack the ability to make initial contact with others. Or they don't know how to use small talk to set the climate needed to address more substantive or sensitive issues.

Small talk includes gossip. In a Harvard Business Review article (July-August,1998), Nigel Nicholson discusses the purpose of gossip in stone-age society. Survivors in that society, he maintains, were those "savvy enough to anticipate power shifts and swiftly adjust for them, as well as those who could manipulate them". Gossip was part of their social wisdom. By gossiping, they got important bits of information before others did. Nicholson claims that we are still ‘hard-wired’ for gossip.

Another, but related, way of looking at gossip/small talk is to realise that one of its main functions is ‘reputation management’. When John tells his colleague about a compliment paid to him by the company’s MD, he is aiming to enhance his own status. When Anne tells her sister how their neighbour starts drinking after lunch most days, she is diminishing his reputation, for whatever reason.

Whether you buy such evolutionary psychology or not is beside the point. Gossip is in no danger of going out of style. It’s a pastime probably impossible to root out of social intercourse. Some gossip is benign, some deplorable. Of course, it’s no longer a question of survival. Many people do fine without it. But who knows? In the workplace and in the corridors of government it might still contribute to ‘survival’.

f. Combinations

Actual conversations are often a mixture of these different modes of discourse. For instance, Liz, a university lecturer, during the course of a conversation with Sibyl, a first-year student, tells the story of two different students' approach to their first year and the outcomes of each approach, explains a couple of the study rules (message), shares her point of view on developing relationships with fellow students, and makes a case for joining at least one student club. The conversation begins and ends with some small talk.

On her part, Sibyl might tell a story about what she hated in secondary school, share her convictions about her own personal autonomy (message), share her point of view on joining clubs, and make a case for more flexibility on the part of the college, regarding the assignment of both rooms and room-mates. Of course, she, too, engages in some small talk at the beginning and the end of the conversation.

Consider a movie scene that has been played over and over again. The Chief Detective is talking with one of his best detectives, a person who annoys some and pleases others because of his non-traditional and somewhat flip style. The Chief says that the detective is wasting his time pursuing a line of inquiry, that he's closing the case and giving the detective a new assignment. During the conversation the detective tells a well-known story of a miscarriage of justice related to the premature closing of a case, sends a message about his losing interest in a department that is so rigid, shares his belief that behind the Chief's rough exterior, beats a ‘heart of gold’ and then makes a case for a week's more time to pursue the investigation. And that’s all covered in a single scene of dialogue.

Stories, messages, points of view, and cases are not necessarily set in concrete. Through dialogue, initial stories can be clarified, initial messages can be reworked, initial points of view can be strengthened or modified, and initial cases can be accepted, challenged, or changed. Remember the ‘uncertainty’ element of dialogue. In true dialogue, the exact outcome is not known by either party, at the beginning. The outcome ‘emerges’.

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