Talking is a pretty important thing. Evidence for its importance comes in just how early we human beings develop language skills. About the time you learn to walk, you also learn to talk. While pretty much everyone can talk, we all know that not everyone is equally skilled at conversing. Some people are really good at talking but terrible at conversing.
Conversations require we talk in specific ways. Even among friends, there are unwritten rules for conversing well. These rules ensure that both parties in the conversation gain value and pleasure from the exchange of words. Not everyone knows the rules. Others maybe think the rules don’t apply to them.
In my experience, one basic rule for good conversation is broken so often that I am beginning to wonder if the rule is changing (I certainly hope not). What is this basic rule? It’s the rule that you should not keep the conversation focused on you.
I recall one painful instance when I was on the receiving end of this rule violation. Several years ago a friend and I met for coffee and catching up. I started the conversation asking how things were going for him and for the next hour and a half he talked about what was going on in his life: about a new job he’d started, about some key decisions he was facing, about how he saw things politically and culturally, about some life lessons he’d recently learned, and so on. As continued to dominate the conversation, I tried my best to be a good dialogue partner by listening and asking questions. I was interested in him, but apparently not as much as he was interested in him. Five minutes before we both needed to leave he said, “I know we need to go soon, but I’d love to hear about you. What’s going on in your life these days?” His question had barely left his lips before he unlocked his smartphone and scanned emails while I mumbled something incoherent to the both of us.
My friend is not alone in breaking the most basic rule of conversation. Research shows that on average people spend 60% of any given conversation talking about themselves and we do so for one simple reason: it feels good. In fact, it feels so good to talk about yourself that one Harvard study found people were willing to give up money for the opportunity to talk about themselves. It turns out any of us can mistake a listening ear for permission to engage in a me-centered monologue.
When a person finds talking about himself so pleasing that he excludes the other person in the conversation, he’s practicing “verbal masturbation.” Pardon the graphic term, but that’s what it is: it’s a way of pleasing yourself by hearing yourself talk (especially about yourself). When we practice verbal masturbation the other person’s pleasure is of no consequence or little consideration. We are using them for our own hedonistic gain.
Verbal masturbation might feel good for the talker, but it’s no fun being on the receiving end of this conversational vice. There’s no mutuality, no sharing, no back and forth. You walk away from these conversations feeling used, disconnected, and maybe even frustrated. And for the one who did all the talking, there’s no growth, no learning, no connection. Instead of making a connection and developing the friendship, they’ve engaged in a self-centered consumption of the other person’s time and attention. Such conversations actually diminish friendship. Self-centered talk not only indicates a self-centered soul, but also worsens the condition.
Conversations are meant for communing, not for consuming. At its best a conversation is kind of mutual dance where both parties share and listen. Some Christians describe the Trinity with the term “perichoresis,” which pictures the Father, Son and Spirit in a holy dance of giving and receiving of love. While we fallen and sinful folks will never experience such godly perfection in our conversations, we are wise to try our best to hold perichoresis-like conversations. Our friendships (and our souls) will benefit from being less self-absorbed and more other-centered. When we seek to know the other person and find pleasure in their sharing as much as in our sharing, we much more fully reflect the image of our Creator and enjoy life in a way that truly pleases God.
Think about your own conversations. When was the last time talking with a friend left you feeling used? On the other hand, is there a recent conversation in which you did most/all of the talking? If you had it to over, how would you engage either of those conversations differently?