The Art of Empathy in Conversation

The pleasure of good conversation is rarely one of mutual agreement – because that’s dead boring. De Montaigne, in his famous essayOn Friendship’ (1580), urges us to cast aside harmonious conversation but to seek out worthy opponents, ones that ‘attack you on your flanks, stick his lance in right and left, his ideas sending your mind soaring…’ He argues that rivalry, competitiveness and glory is what opens the soul to new understandings.

The application of De Montaigne’s advice, in my opinion, is often misunderstood in Western culture, and no more is this demonstrated in our film culture. Audiences cheer when protagonists humiliate antagonists with loud verbiage and display, mistaking the pursuit of public humiliation for glory. We see gross manifestations of rivalry when one character undermines another to suit the means to what is usually a self-serving purpose and competitiveness is often portrayed as an apology for envy.

Robust debate, lively conversation is not only satisifying, it gives opportunity for personal growth – not just in subject, but in conduct – namely, empathetic listening of your opponent, allows for for genuine learning to take place.

Empathy in conversation starts with self-discipline. Curb your desire for one-upmanship and cultivate the desire to hear a contrary perspective. Considered listening of another opinion rarely results in agreement, but it always means respect. The best part about considering contrary opinions in earnest, is that it allows us to confirm or challenge our own convictions with more honesty.

Empathy in conversation means the more foolish your opponent is, the more humble one should be in conduct. Allowing a fool’s discourse (i.e. ignorant bigots on social media) to vex you to the point of succumbing to rude retorts is worse than being a fool – because if you know better, you should behave better. Being gracious is more conducive in turning an unworthy opponent, into a worthy one. Surely the one who can maintain constant virtue in the face of fierce opposition is the one we cheer loudest of all.

Empathy in conversation, above all, is about having a desire to learn. This means always thinking of yourself as the student, never the teacher – no matter how much of a smarty pants your mum says you are.

Till next time, drop a whid!

WordSmith Jo

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