Conversation is so important for our well-being as social creatures that depriving someone of it through solitary confinement, exile, or social ostracism has been used throughout history as a form of punishment.
When Socrates, for example, was found guilty by an Athenian jury of badgering people to think for themselves about the meaning of human life, he was given the choice between drinking hemlock or getting banished from his beloved city. He preferred to drink the hemlock then spend the rest of his life without his fellow Athenians to talk to about the things that he loved to discuss.
Let’s take a closer look at the role conversation plays in determining the quality of our lives.
The Surprising Power of Conversations
- Conversations to heal the soul.
Just as withdrawing conversation from someone has been used as a form of punishment, encouraging people to open up and talk has proved remarkably beneficial for improving their mental health and feelings of well-being. Psychological counseling is based on the premise that conversation can be healing. For instance, conversation as a healing modality has been effective in helping people struggling with substance abuse addictions. Reflections Recovery Center is an accredited therapeutic facility whose success is based on its emphasis on both group and one-on-one counseling offered by Masters level therapists.
- Conversations to develop the mind.
The education system is based on creating conversations that increase knowledge of the world. At the grade and high school level, these conversations are usually focused on introducing knowledge. Then, at the university level, it expands to encourage intellectual debates, creative thinking and original research. Conversations to develop the mind are not of course just an invention of the education system. When Frederick II, later known as Frederick the Great, took the throne, he invited the great thinkers of Europe to his court in his fabulous palace in Prussia, including Voltaire.
- Conversations to improve human performance.
Coaches have long realized that the best way to create top athletes is is to talk to them in a specific way, a way that motivates them to push past emotional and physical resistance. In fact, this idea of motivational conversations has been so powerful that it has been adopted to improve performance in all areas of life. An entire industry of professional speakers who specialize in delivering motivational talks has been developed around the idea of using conversations as a means of encouraging excellence.
The Resistance to the Power of Conversations
In any field, there are people who know so much that they become recognized experts. Moreover, some fields are so complicated that they develop their own technical vocabulary. The result of this separation between people who are highly educated and those who know little or nothing about it has been the source of a breakdown in conversation.
If there is a teacher-student relationship, then the conversation flows; otherwise, there is an uncomfortable silence between the two different camps. This discrepancy has created a culture of anti-intellectualism that is slowly destroying the social fabric.
This is not a new phenomenon. Based on his observations through his telescope 375 years ago, Galileo discovered that the Copernican view that the earth revolved around the sun was correct and the Ptolemaic view that the sun revolved the earth was incorrect. The Catholic Church punished him for this discovery by putting him under house arrest for the rest of his life. It took 300 years for the Church to clear his name.
The Decline of the Power of Conversations
Ironically, despite the fact that the Internet has made information more easily available, the art of human conversation appears to have lost much of its verve and power.
One reason for this is that people would rather have virtual conversations than meet in person. Social media and cell phone texting has replaced the pleasure people used to enjoy spending time together. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see a couple at a restaurant spending less time improving a relationship and more time texting to their friends.
Another reason is that people have developed lower attention spans. This means that they often only communicate with each other in a superficial way, resulting in little meaningful heart-to-heart or insight-generating conversations. Accustomed to communicating in emoticons and acronyms, spoken vocabulary and grammar skills appear to have taken a hit.
One simple way to gauge the decline in our ability to comprehend the world around us is to compare the way educated people talked in earlier times to the way they talk today. For example, compare the transcripts of 18th Century US Presidential speeches with presidential speeches delivered in the 21st Century. You will come to the conclusions that inaugural speeches appear to be getting worse, not better.