Dominating the Conversation

On a warm but windy evening this week, I went on a walk with my friend Donna.

And I accidentally dominated the conversation. I guess I had a lot on my mind and in my heart. Donna asks such good questions and listens with such interest and patience that I always hardly notice when I’m talking the whole time. It is truly a gift.

Nelle Morton says that one of the greatest tasks of our time is to “hear people to speech.”

Now that I think about it, a lot of my intimates have that gift — hmmm… I wonder what that means about me and my insatiable capacity to talk about myself!? Ahem.

Anyway, the next morning, I emailed Donna to say, “Thanks again for the walk last night and for letting me talk all about myself. I needed it.”

She emailed back, “Have to laugh, because I had met a friend for lunch and pretty much took over the conversation. Felt better afterwards.”

It got me thinking: I guess we all have the need to dominate the conversation at times. I’ll own it – I have the need to dominate the conversation lots of the time. It makes me feel sublimely grateful for all of the dear ones in my life who seem to tolerate it – even encourage it – so effortlessly, so graciously. You know who you are.

And I guess we all have the need to be the one who lets the other person dominate the conversation at times. We all get to be the ones to give the people around us the gift of “hearing them to speech.” We all get to practice the very spirit-ual discipline of hearing, asking, listening, understanding. Even when it’s a bit boring. Even when they’re problems are something we struggled with long ago and have moved past. Even when it seems like they have the same old struggles regurgitated over and over again. Even when it all seems quite childish to us (as it often does with, well, our children).

I find that I often benefit most from conversations in which I both talk and listen. (Duh, right?) The talking is easy for me; the listening is more difficult. But when I listen, I reap the benefits of hearing others’ insight, wisdom, and perspective. Probably there are some people (wired oppositely of me) for whom the listening is easy and the speaking up is more difficult. If they’d speak up, they’d reap the benefits of shared vulnerability and acceptance from others.

I also think that “hearing others to speech” is a dynamic practice that must happen in two directions, simultaneously.

On one hand, it is much more than just being quiet while the other person talks. You know exactly what I mean, right? Haven’t you poured out your heart to a quiet person only to find that 1) they weren’t thinking at all about what you were saying, but rather they were thinking of what they ought to say next 2) they were distracted with something else going on in the room 3) they misunderstood what you were saying in a way that ultimately made you wish you’d never started talking. A vital part of “hearing others to speech” is opening oneself up to the other, accessing one’s empathy and compassion for their situation.

On the other hand, we who are speaking must also open ourselves up to our listener. Even when it is our turn to dominate the conversation, we must return the favor and also “hear them into speech” – allowing them to ask, to speak, to give insight back to us and into the mess that is our lives.

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All of this seems to me to have a lot to do with the relationship and the conversation that is Prayer.

I tend to dominate the conversation with God. I feel a lot of things very deeply; I have a lot to say! My direction of growth in Prayer has been toward sitting in silence, just listening and just being with God. Other people must feel more at ease in the quiet being with God. They must be better listeners than me, but perhaps they are more restrained in what they tell God, hesitating to pour out what they really feel, think, and want. Their direction of growth in Prayer must be opposite mine.

I also think that God must want to mature us relationally and conversationally so that Prayer will eventually, actually change us. The psalms are an obvious invitation to pour out all of our thoughts and cares to the One who cares for us. But maybe He, too, wants to be “heard to speech.” We must open ourselves up to Him. We must let Him say more than only what we want to hear from Him. We must let him say what need be said, especially when it does not fit with what we’d always thought about Him, about ourselves, about the world.

What is your direction of growth in Prayer? Are you quiet and engaged enough ever to “hear God to speech?”