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Talking with me, not at me, against me, or for me!

Updated: Oct 24, 2022

We learn to be in conversation and learn language by taking turns. At best there is a jazz like, co-orchestrating rhythm to it. You speak and I give my whole attention to your words, your voice and your presence. It is more than listening. I am engaging with you, assisting your way of finding the words you need for your feelings, ideas and stories. You can tell when my attention is no longer with you, wanders or worse, when I am just waiting for my turn and am about to interrupt you.

Interruption is important to co-orchestrating a conversation. Let's say that there are four kinds of interruption. The first kind of interruption is that mix of responses in support of you and the flow of your words. Gestures of validation, questions seeking clarification, repetition and recap of your words for emphasis and validation. There is phatic quality to some of these phrases: 'yeah, you're right, that's so, but also'. As a conversational relationship goes there is room within this type of interruption for challenges ( I am just wondering if you might also see it this way) and invitations to elaborate (do you mean such and such?). Over and above this is a conversational style of interruption when I show I am listening and going along with you by briefly taking the spotlight on me and giving an example from my experience that echoes your experience. I amnot trying to steal your show in that moment but hoping to amp up yours. This whole style of interruption has a quality of talking with each other. That is where a good conversation starts from, has its struggles and comes back home to at the end. The side-by-side interpersonal quality of talking with is beautifully touched in the lines from Seamus Heaney's poem Album (Human Chain 2010) "Side by side about a love that's proved by steady gazing not at each other but in the same direction."

The second kind of interruption is when we start talking for the other person. It can have qualities of controlling, colonising, patronising, rescuing whilst possibly being caring in intent. It can be a dance with two partners. I say something like, you can put this better than me. I invite you into talking for me. Or you may be primed to go there by default of the power of your role or position and social heritage. You speak for me: I think what Steve is trying to say. I may resent that or by my role and position submit to it. Or I may want you to talk for me. I may feel I need your power and your voice or your way with words. Fine let's wander at times in our conversations into talking for each other but the main home for the conversation and its base note in any such orchestration of power and influence should be talking with. That means talking about the subtle and not so subtle shifts in power and control.

It is easy to rock the mutuality of the conversational boat in this way and the third kind of interruption is waiting to tip it right over. This is when our interruptions, once in the name of turn taking, or assisting each other become talking at each other. The tone becomes declamatory and accusative. It is the tone of bickering as pairs and bantering as groups: the pronouns of choice are you, you, you or me, me, me. It is the conversational style of our worst politicians and pundits. The convivial, mutual and democratic purpose of conversation is lost.

The fourth kind of interruption is the opposite of side-by-side. It is one that goes head-to-head. It is divisive and confrontational. It is a feeling of talking against each other. It pushes the conversation into a binary of either I am talking or you are talking; either I am right and you are wrong - a mutually assured destruction of accusative knowingness.

We need awareness of these changes in the reciprocal dynamics of moments in conversation. Talking at, against or for may serve the purpose of warding off the threat of entanglement and the loss of self in the intimacy of the conversation; or it is an encounter with differences of beliefs, memories and values. In the form of bickering one to one or bantering in a group, it may be a narrow but necessary way of surviving being in contact or maintaining a partnership in spite of perceived differences. Or it is a way of coping with the threat of being caught up in ghost roles from past of being silenced in childhood or feeling out of depth in teenage conversations.

Mary and John could so often lose the conversational goodwill of talking with each other which was where they started with phatic nods and smiles (we need to talk, yes great let's talk). Talking with each other turned to talk for each other (I know what you are saying) and talking at each other in a yeah, yeah, yeah kind of routine bickering that ended feeling like talking against each other. They had a deep yearning for a good talk and could end up with the kind of protective banter of talking things up (we'll be fine) or down and away (never mind, not important). What helped them was a capacity to step back and see the push and pull of the conversation from the outside (is this the talk we want or need?). A spirit of talking with each other is not some special therapeutic nirvana. As in the grid diagram above the shared feeling of talking with each other can lively, unstable, volatile and fragile if achieved and is easily and inevitably pulled or pushed into talking to, or for, against, up or down and away.

We cannot talk well when it is our turn in the conversational spotlight without us doing some of these things that add up to talking with but the risk is that these interruptions slide imperceptibly into interruptions that end in talking for, talking at or talking against each other.

The challenge is to notice, name and negotiate these micro shifts in the conversational spotlight and the give and take of voice and attention as they push and pull our words along.

For more on this theme see: Chapter 5, Conversational Awareness in Potter 2022 Talking with a Map Shoreham on Sea Pavilion Publishing.

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