I’m not a great conversationalist, which might seem strange coming from someone who enjoys public speaking before large audiences. But one-on-one or in a small group, it’s a struggle for me to keep the gab going, especially if I have nothing worthwhile to say. For me, words are a precious commodity, and I choose my words carefully. Maybe that’s why I’m a writer.
I do admire people who can carry a conversation, and I have some friends who never stop talking. In a group situation, I am happy to cede the floor to those who are the life of the party. I’ll nod, I’ll grunt, I’ll throw out an affirming “Cool,” or “Aye-uh” if I’m in Boston. I may even chime in if I feel inspired, or if I can contribute some tangent on the topic. But in the Kingdom of Chatter, the one with the biggest mouth is king.
I admit that my hearing-impairment plays a big part in my conversational awkwardness. I can see the eyes roll when I repeat something that someone else already said. But I didn’t hear it, so how am I supposed to know it was said before? Restaurant noise also makes conversation difficult for me, and that may explain my preference to eat alone.
On the other side of the tin-can string, I am a good listener. If a friend comes to me with a problem, or with a need to talk, I won’t be formulating in my head an instant response to everything he or she is saying. I genuinely want to listen, and I might ask a few questions to keep their story going. If you come to me to chat, I will listen and affirm you. I won’t solve your problem but I’ll try and guide you to find your way yourself. I offer advice only when asked.
One of my favorite scenes from Lincoln, the great 2012 movie by Steven Spielberg, takes place in the telegraph room in the White House. It’s late night during the Civil War and the President is dictating a message to his general in the field, Ulysses S. Grant. But before Sam, the telegraph soldier, can transmit, Lincoln asks a couple of out-of-the-blue questions: “Do you think we choose to be born? Are we fitted to the times that we’re born into?”
Sam is clearly floored by the questions and he tries to deflect them back to his Commander-in-Chief. So then Mr. Lincoln poses the questions to Sam’s friend, who mentions that he’s an engineer. Notice how the President suddenly takes a keen interest in this young man and listens closely to his story.
This leads to one of the more memorable conversations in the movie as Mr. Lincoln reflects on Euclid’s axiom on equality: “Things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” The conversation was relevant to the era's struggle for equality that the President wrestled with, and it led him to amend the message to his general. My point is this: Lincoln was a good listener and that skill only made his decisions stronger.
Being a listener is a different gift from being a conversationalist but they can be complementary. I think there is room in our world for both.