Becoming More Aware In Our Conversations

Our addiction to right and wrong
turns conversations into conflicts

– Michael Kahn, Ph.D.

As human beings we spend most of our lives trying to communicate with other human beings. Given that, you would think we would be much better at it than we are. What is it that makes conversation so difficult?

This past week I used my commute time on the train to read a book loaned to me by a colleague. I knew by the end of the week that I had to set aside what I previously had planned to write for this week’s blog, and focus on the messages I found in the book. It is one of the most helpful books on interpersonal communications I have ever come across.

The book is titled, The Tao of Conversation, and it is written by Michael Kahn, Ph.D., emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California and faculty member at the California Institute of Integral Studies. The book was published back in 1995, but this is my first encounter with it – and it comes right, I might add, at a very significant and helpful time, as always seems to happen with me and books.

If you have followed this blog, you will know why I immediately was attracted to the book’s title when I saw it among my colleague’s collection. For many years now, I have been reading books that attempt to apply the wisdom of the Taoist tradition to the issues and challenges of everyday life. I have on my own bookshelves several which I refer to often: The Tao of Relationships by Ray Grigg, The Tao of Leadership by John Heiderand, and two by Diane Dreher, The Tao of Inner Peace and The Tao of Personal Leadership. Finally, there is even The Tao of Eating by Linda R. Harper.

In this post, I will share just a few of the learnings for me from Kahn’s book. I hope you will be as excited about Kahn’s helpful ideas as I am, and will be able, even from my brief description here, to immediately begin to put them into practice to improve your own conversations.

As Kahn (1995) explains, the word Tao (pronounced dow) is an ancient Chinese term which refers to the eternal, pervasive and “water-course flow” of nature. “Flowing water…never tries to batter its way through an obstacle, but finds its way around and through.”  Kahn uses the image of the Tao to point us toward conversations that flow naturally and easily, without discord, dominance, or derision. Kahn had me hooked right from the Preface, in which he summarizes the main message of the book as: “What a relief to discover that there’s nothing to argue about” (p. viii).

Nothing to argue about?  That does not sound like most of the examples of conversation we now see daily, whether it is at the office, on talk-show television, or in our government chambers.

The first thing I found helpful about Kahn’s guide to more successful conversation is that he divides all conversations into three basic types:

  • idea conversations,
  • relationship conversations,
  • decision conversations.

Okay, so it’s not rocket science. We probably could have figured those three types out if someone had asked us to do it, but it certainly has never occurred to me to stop, when I am talking to someone, to assess which kind of conversation it is. Is this about ideas? Is it about our relationship? Or is there a decision here we need to make? And, as we all know, being familiar with the territory can be very helpful in choosing how to negotiate the terrain.

Furthermore, Kahn points out that the first two types, idea conversations and relationship conversations, ought never to be about decision-making. Nor, and this is an incredibly freeing thought, should any of these three types of decisions be about who is right and who is wrong (there is nothing to argue about). The practice of “right” vs. “wrong” is the first thing to be jettisoned if our conversations are to flow with the ease of the Tao. When it comes to conversations, Kahn says, “Right and wrong are not useful concepts.”

Idea Conversations

This blog might serve as an example of an idea conversation. For Kahn, a good way to start an idea conversation is with a question. Beginning with a question, rather than an opinion, lets the other person know you are not out to sell your idea. It makes the conversation about the topic, not about you.

If you will recall, I began this blog with a question about the quality today of human everyday conversation. I continued by telling you that I had discovered a book on communication skills that really excites me, and why it does.

Now, keeping in mind the flow of the Tao, which means we want this conversation to progress forward without throwing up obstacles, or even in spite of them, you, the reader, might now respond by sharing your own insights about the problems or joys of contemporary approaches to conversation. Together, we could then continue the conversation, building on one another’s ideas. In the process, we are moving toward a common goal of better understanding the problem of conversation, and one another’s experiences with it.

In this imagined scenario, no one need be right or wrong in sharing their thoughts or opinions. There also need be no winner or loser at the end of this exchange. We are building a conversation together. In fact, Kahn soundly criticizes the practice of “one-upmanship” so prevalent in public conversations today.

To give this method a try, next time you find yourself in an idea conversation, start by doing what Kahn suggests. Ask yourself: “Do I want to have a good conversation about this, or do I want to win?” (p. 47).

Relationship conversations

Next, let’s look at how can we make relationship conversations flow more peacefully. Kahn says this about removing the obstacles to conversations in the terrain of relationship:

A relationship conversation is by definition one in which no decision need be made. And the chief decision that need not be made is who is right….It is just about impossible to listen – really listen – if the issue is winning or losing. It is certainly impossible to listen sympathetically (pp.70-74).

The reason relationship decisions cannot be about who is right and who is wrong is this: relationship conversations almost always are, at their core, about feelings; and, as Kahn advises, “There is simply no way to argue about feelings” (p. 74).

Feelings are the key to knowing whether or not we are in a relationship conversation or an idea conversation. If I start out talking to you about what I think is wrong in our relationship or with your behavior, that is a conversation starting in my head, not my heart. I might have some ideas about our relationship or your behavior, but that is not the place to begin. To start a relationship conversation means to start a conversation from my heart, speaking about my own feelings, which are the only thing on which I am an authority in this conversation. I am not an authority on your feelings; only you are.

Nor is there anything right or wrong about the feelings either of us has. They simply are, and once we come into touch with our feelings and express them, then the practice of empathy and compassion helps us to build a conversation together. With our feelings on the table and our empathy at work, there is at least a good chance that our conversation will take us to a new place in our relationship.

Where the key to idea conversations was to begin with a question, the key to relationship conversations is to begin with a disclosure of the feelings that lie behind or intertwine with the question. Kahn offers some questions to ask ourselves prior to the conversation that might help us identify our feelings in relation to the question we propose to ask:

1. Why am I interested in asking this question? (What is its importance to me, aside from proving I am right?)

2. How am I going to feel when I get the response? (What am I hoping for? What do I fear?)

Again, because of our culture’s addiction to one-upmanship, the final question we need to ask is:

3. Do I want this conversation to bring us closer, or do I want to win? (pp. 83-84)

Decision Conversations

Lastly, Kahn offers tips on decision conversations. In this section, Kahn relies heavily on the learnings of Harvard researchers, Roger Fisher and William Ury, published in the book, Getting to Yes. The most important kernel of wisdom here for me is Fisher and Ury’s insight that for our decision conversations to be successful, we must learn to “focus on interests, not positions” (p. 122). What does this mean? Kahn explains that the interest we have in a decision is the real reason behind why we are engaged in a conversation. Our positions – what we already have decided at the opening of the conversation, or even later – may be incompatible, and it may seem that the conversation is at an impasse as a result. However, our interests may not be incompatible. “For every interest there are several positions that could satisfy it,” explain Fisher and Ury. “Thus the task is to search for the position that meets the interests of both parties” (pp. 126-128).

In other words, to allow our decision conversation to flow with the ease of the Tao, we need to look beyond our positions to our mutual interests. Again, the key question here is, “Do I want us to arrive at the best decision, or do I want to win?”

Kahn offers many more tips on how to put these insights into practice, using specific examples of conversations we all have experienced. I hope that here, I have given you at least enough to get you started on how to improve those ever-present, conflict-laden, exchanges we find ourselves engaged in as part of our communion with the rest of humanity.

And don’t forget, I will be happy to hear your ideas on how to improve our everyday communication. Let’s keep this idea conversation going!

Kahn, M. (1995). Tao of conversation. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger

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