Paul Poulton on the art of non-egocentric conversation

Paul Poulton
Paul Poulton

Have you ever been talking to someone and you notice that their face has begun to contort around the mouth region and their nostrils have flared like a race horse making you suddenly realise they are stifling a yawn? It can be awkward, are they genuinely tired? Or are they so bored with what you have to say to them that you are hypnotising them into a state of semi-conscious slumber? You could of course use the situation to infiltrate their subconscious and whisper, "Next time you see me you will give me all the cash you have on you", and then carry on talking normally. Or you could be polite and shut up. If they want to keep the conversation going then they will use the gap you have given them to either make good their escape or interject with some topic that pursues the conversational track you have already laid down. Conversation is an art after all, and art as you may be aware, is not so easy to perfect.

Having taken part in quite a number of conversations I have noticed how my first instinct when talking to someone is to revert the subject matter back to me. Let me give you an example: Keith from my running club approached me and said how much he liked his new guitar, I immediately want to say, "Oh yeah, I've got a new guitar, it's a Sheridan, they are a new make of guitar, that's why my guitar is new, ha ha ha!". "Oh right" says Keith trying to make some sense of my rambling, he continues by telling me some more about his guitar and I reply by telling him some more about my guitar. What I seem to be saying reading between the (conversational) lines is "I don't want to talk about you, or your new guitar, okay? I want to talk about me, right?" What happens when two self-interested people meet and talk is not what the gift of language is meant for, what takes place is 'conversational ping pong' not a meaningful interchange of ideas and thoughts. If I keep on talking like this to people, I may end up like one of the two old ladies in the TV comedy scenario who seem to be able to talk to each other for an hour while neither of them listens to the other but keeps going with their own subject. When Keith tells me about his guitar I should be interested enough to ask him a question or two about his new guitar, not because I am necessarily interested in guitars but because I am interested in Keith. It is God's intention after all, for us to spread his love around and I'm not going to do it by taking the minimum interest in what is happening in Keith's life and stealing the conversation for my own self-centredness.

I was asked to speak to a group and challenge them about what is important for Christians to do in their daily life, so for the challenge I asked them to make sure the next few conversations they took part in didn't revert the subject matter back to them until at least three 'turns' had occurred in which the theme of the chat focused on the topic set by the other person. After three turns of talking then they could feel free to spout on about themselves to their heart's content. Of course the idea is that we become so interested in other people that we genuinely care about what is happening in their life and what they think about things. It is a discipline at first but then turns out to be quite enlightening, educational and fun. When I say my prayers at night I have some real information on which to base them. Someone told me that friendship evangelism works best these days, it may be true. When God's love shines out from us it has an attraction to it that is hard to resist. When I was 16 I met a long-haired Christian in London named Tony, he invited me to meet his wife, they cooked me a meal which was all very nice but the one thing I have remembered about the time I spent with Tony is that he listened to me, he looked me in the eyes and showed a genuine interest in me. I saw Jesus in Tony, and it has stayed with all my life. I have never seen Tony since that day and he may not have realised it but my short stay with him helped to change my life. He taught me how I should talk to other people.

There was a gentleness about Tony that pulled me in. Taking an interest in what people are saying does something to us, it changes us. It's hard to be selfish when empathising with other people. Empathy transfers the feelings of other people to ourselves, we feel a little of what they feel. There's no room for selfishness left in us, their feelings push out our own egocentric feelings. Perhaps that's why we are told to laugh with those who laugh and weep with those who weep. It is something that God does with us. "In all their distress he too was distressed" Isaiah tell us about the Lord. We are also told the he is touched by the feelings of our infirmities.

I suppose that what happens when I talk to other people can also happen when I talk to God. His feelings can also become my feelings, his Spirit can infiltrate my heart. So when I pray I am not rambling on with a host of requests that are all about me but I can listen to what he is saying and respond appropriately. My prayers become meaningful two-way dialogue, and that is something that Jesus tried to teach us. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.