What’s Up With Conversation?

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It’s probably no coincidence that a lot of folks are talking about the importance of and need for conversation today. News feeds are full of shouting matches, scenes of verbal attack and counterattack; everyone seems to be talking and no one seems to be listening. Conversation? Not likely or even possible, some say. 

Into this scene steps conservative columnist David Brooks with a book called How to Know a Person. Brooks says he has spent a lot of his life taking and advocating for positions with little regard for what others think or say. it has taken him years, he realizes, to learn to listen with genuine curiosity to others, especially those he doesn’t agree with. In short, he was engaging in one-way talk, rather than two-way conversation. And that got him questioning his own modes of communication.


David Brooks in conversation at LBJ Library in 2022David Brooks in conversation at LBJ Library in 2022


Extensive research for his book eventually led him to identify two levels to any conversation: the first layer is the subject—what the participants are literally talking about. The second layer, which he calls the “underconversation,” is the “flow of emotion” going between the people talking. That second layer, Brooks argues, is very important: is it making the speakers feel safe? Uneasy or. unsafe? Angry? Listened to and respected? Or not? Paying attention to the underconversation led Brooks to ask different questions: not “what do you think about X or Y?” but to keep opening doors by saying “Tell me more. What am I missing? Tell me more.” 

Even more recently, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Charles Duhigg takes a close look at the need for productive conversations in his Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection. Like Brooks, Duhigg has done a lot of research, interviewing people all over the country and working up what amount to a series of case studies on how effective or “super” communicators manage to be able to “connect to almost anyone.” This research taught him that a key to success is, first and foremost, understanding what kind of conversation you are having: one focused on practical issues (what is this conversation really about?), emotional issues (how does each participant feel?), or identity issues (who are we and how are identities silently shaping the conversation?). The rest of the book focuses on what Duhigg calls “learning conversations,” which I think of as deeply rhetorical, and shows how working through the four “rules” his research found at work in the powerfully effective communicative practices lead to understanding (of both self and others) and learning. Here are the four rules, simple sounding but hard to live by:

  • Pay really close attention to the kind of conversation you are having
  • Share your goals—and invite others to share theirs as well
  • Inquire about how others feel, and share. Our feelings too.
  • Explore if and how identities are central or important to the conversation

In case after case, Duhigg shows how listening without judgment, sharing feelings, and identifying common ground can lead to productive conversations and sometimes (!) to changed behavior. In chapter 6, titled “Our Social Identities Shape Our Worlds,” Duhigg follows Dr. Jay Rosenbloom as he conducts numerous “well baby exams” and talks with parent about vaccinations, quickly learning that some parents are eager for such immunizations while others reject them outright. Rosenbloom does his best to give good advice but generally defers to parental wishes—until Covid.

As the pandemic spreads, Dr. Rosenbloom becomes more and more frantic about the number of lives being lost land by the number of patients who refuse vaccination. When he asks a senior colleague for advice, that doctor says “tell them you’re the doctor and you know best.” Predictably, this tactic didn’t work, and often just alienated patients and infuriated doctors. You can check out the chapter to read about how Rosenbloom learned to talk with patients, sharing values and personal stories, listening to what part of their identities are at play—and eventually finding ways to connect—and sometimes to change minds and to save lives. The potential and power of conversation.

Writing classes often rest on a conversational foundation, though usually more implicitly than explicitly. What I’ve been thinking about since reading these books is how I might bring what Brooks called the “underconversation” into focus in my classroom and then how we could use Duhigg’s three kinds of conversations and his four rules to guide us in classroom talk—especially on topics that are uncomfortable, that trigger strong emotions, and that are often skipped over or ignored because they are “:just too much.” The way to begin, I’ve found, is by having a conversation about conversation, one in which we sketch out what’s in it for us as a class (and as individuals) to learn how to connect to othe\rs, and to learn in the process.


Image via Wikimedia Commons

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.