Linda Douglas, Principal of Ruyton Girls’ School, reflects on the art of conversation.
American author Ursula K. Le Guin explored the vulnerable process of conversation in a piece titled Telling Is Listening. It focuses on understanding the art of conversation, where the message involves both the speaker and the listener, but is also a relationship between the two. The message is a complex code: a culture, in which the language, the speaker, and the listener are all embedded. Le Guin describes face-to-face human communication as intersubjective, a continuous interchange between two consciousnesses. Instead of alternating between the roles of speaker and listener, between the active and the passive, it is continuous and goes both ways all the time.
News Corp journalist Ruth Ostrow recently wrote in The Australian about the lost art of conversation. She questioned our modern habit of confining points of view to a few characters, making statements rather than posing questions, and imposing selfies and self-obsessed tweets that create envy, rather than connection. Her fear is that we talk at rather than talk to, with words geared to a pathologically short attention span. She wondered if we are forgetting how to talk to each other and how to pose questions that allow us to go deep very quickly, to unpeel the soul and to philosophise.
Important cues such as body language are an essential component of the art of conversation because a conversation is about giving, not just receiving. It requires active listening in order to question in a way that enables a substantive experience that stretches the imagination, or makes the participants feel challenged, leaving them with something of value. Listening is not merely a reaction, it is both a connection and an action. Listening to a conversation or a story, we don’t so much respond as join in and become part of the action. When active listening is achieved, you are synchronising with the people you’re talking with, physically getting in time and tune with them. When speaking you can feel when you have the full attention of the listener.
As we find ourselves engaging in various forms of multitasking during a busy day, there is good reason to reflect on our important conversations. Was I an active listener? Did I play my part in that conversation to ensure that it was one of value? What did I give to the conversation? We can never underestimate the power of the spoken word and the power of being present in the moment.
As educators, we recognise the power of conversation in creating strong connections and promoting both student and teacher learning. A coaching relationship, just like a teaching relationship, isn’t about providing a quick fix or a recipe for success. Rather, the most powerful and effective conversations and relationships focus on reflecting, exploring, analysing, and digging deeper into good practice. In the process, we hope to change reflections into insights, expand knowledge into wisdom, and evoke changes in behaviour that improve performance in both learning and teaching, providing benefit for all learners.