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Today in My History

2000:  The Piano
2001:  I Have Slept--Hear Me Roar
2002:  Pass the Kraft Dinner
2003:  Little Friend of Mine
2004:  I Do, I Do, I Do
2005:  The Esbilac Olympics
2006
Ten Years
2007: Gone to the Dogs


IN MY OPINION
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Books Read in 2008
 
Updated: 4/27
"Dead and Doggone"



 


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THE ART OF CONVERSATION

18 May 2008

I have stated here, repeatedly, that I am very shy.  I have also repeatedly received comments from people scoffing at the idea that I could be shy.  But it's easy to be open and forthcoming and garrolous when writing.  Writing comes easy for me.  It's yet another thing entirely to have a conversation with someone. 

There are some folks with whom I am never uncomfortable, with whom conversation comes easily.  There are other people, some of them good friends (occasionally my own children), with whom conversation sometimes is more difficult, where I went to get it "right" and end up tripping over my tongue.

And then there are those strangers with whom I am frequently supposed to converse, particularly if I am conducting an interview, when every fiber in my being tenses up and it's a terrible effort to bring myself to speak.

Fortunately, I learned awhile ago, in this interviewing business, that everybody likes to talk about him or herself.  I learned that for most of the interviews I do, if I get a good opening question, the interview pretty much runs itself.

The secret, however, is to pay attention.   I heard someone recently -- I don't remember who now (it was probably Barbara Walters) -- talking about what distinguishes a good interviewer from a not-so-good interviewer is that the good interviewers are engaged with their subjects and their follow-up questions come out of whatever the subject is giving them, even if it takes them far afield from where they thought they were headed.

A not-so-good interviewer has an agenda, subjects that he or she feels must be covered and so while the subject is discoursing on something absolutely fascinating, the interviewer is already thinking about the next question, whether it pertains to the topic at hand or not.

Sometimes it seems like James Lipton falls into the second category of interviewers when you watch Inside the Actors Studio.   The interviewee has just revealed that she was raped by someone when a young teen, got pregnant and had to give the baby up for adoption and he will follow up with "and then when you were 20 you appeared in this other play." 

I do know better.  The Inside the Actors Studio interviews go on for several hours, out of which is pulled 60 minutes worth of the best material (unless you're Robin Williams, and then 60 minutes isn't nearly enough and they give you 120).  You can't be that successful an interviewer and as persnickity as Lipton without knowing how to be a great interviewer.

It works the same way in conversation with the people in your day to day life.  Some time ago, I wrote an entry about my sister-in-law, and said that the thing I admire about her most is her total engagement in a conversation.  She listens with every fiber of her being.  She tunes everyone out but you and she listens in rapt attention as if you were the most important person in the world.  When it is her turn to speak, whatever she says, or asks, will follow logically from what you have just said. 

My mother is the same way.  She amazes me at the depth of knowledge she has about...well, pretty much about everybody.  It's astonishing the things I learn about people from my mother, because she has a way that makes it easy for people to open up and she is genuinely interested in their lives and what is happening with them.

And then there are the OTHER people.

I am thinking in particular of someone with whom I cross paths on a fairly regular basis.  This is an extremely well read person whose interests are many and varied.  Someone who knows pretty much something about pretty much everything.

Conversations with this person are extremely frustrating.  Topics are many and fascinating and the conversation seems to invite input from myself, but all I have to do is utter an idea, express an opinion, or recount a personal experience, and I am immediately deluged with better facts, with more impressive experiences, with more complicated feelings. 

Each time we are together, our conversation follows the same path, as if we were performing a choreographed ballet.  We start chatting, I start giving input, I'm interrupted with a bit of "I know more than you do" and as the conversation progresses and I am interrupted more and more often, I participate less and less until by the end of our chat, I've been reduced "uh-huh" and one word responses.

I always end the conversation feeling sad, because I think that I would enjoy this person much more if I could only get a word in edgewise, or if I wasn't always being made to feel that my opinion or experiences didn't matter, or paled in comparison.

It would be a wonderful world if everyone in it took lessons from my mother or from Alice Nan on how to have a conversation with someone and have you both enjoy it.


(Carly Simon was on Ellen the other day, talking about "You're So Vain," and I couldn't help thinking about that when writing this entry, knowing full well that the person I have talked about probably doesn't even know I keep a journal, but feeling the need to sing "You're so vain, you probably think this entry's about you..." anyway!)

 

PHOTO OF THE DAY

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