Mondays with Mike: The (lost?) art of conversation

May 16, 2016 • Posted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, Uncategorized by

This is totally anecdotal. Subjective. Not data driven.

But I’m pretty sure that people are gradually losing the art of conversation.

Not that we don’t talk. I think we talk more than ever. But it seems to me that we too often talk at each other, not with. We’re flashing aural bumper stickers at each other.


A good conversation is greater than the sum of its parts.

I’m talking about this thing where conversation can be a medium for learning, but it seems to have morphed, too often, into an opportunity for self-promotion.

For example: You tell me you’re going to Paris. I could say, “Oh, where are you staying?” “Business or pleasures?” “Do you have friends there?” I could seek more information and then see where it goes.

Instead, I say. “I’ve been to Paris. I love Paris. I stayed in the Marais. I had the best falafel every In Paris. Can you believe it?”

And boom. I’ve stopped things in their tracks. Now it’s not a back-and-forth, let’s compare notes, let’s explore where we interpreted things differently, or one of us like something the other didn’t, and learn something new.

Now it feels like a contest of sorts, a competition of our experiences.

This happens all the time. Travel, restaurants/food, and maybe especially health care. One person mentions having their gall bladder out, and next thing you know, their friend is off on a tale about his gout.

The initial impulse is still pure. That is, say, you tell me you’re taking care of a sick relative. I say, yeah, I know what that’s like because…”. The idea being to signal the other party that we have something in common, you’re not alone, you can talk to me.

But in the modern world, it can quickly become a sort of SNL skit about how my experience trumps yours. We’re unwittingly running commercials for ourselves.

I think this is real, and it’s something that has developed in my lifetime. And I have a theory about it. Namely, it’s the hyper-commercialization of our culture, particularly since around the 80s, when we started using terms like, “You have to learn to market yourself.” To the point where, the other day, I saw an ad for a seminar on “How to become a brand.”

As the idea that selling ourselves is a 24-hour job took root, bragging and self-promoting somehow shifted from a vice to a virtue, and only suckers didn’t get the memo.

Fortunately, conversation isn’t extinct. A good conversation can be a little epiphany. You find out something about another person you’d never have guessed. You find out what you had wrong about them. It can make you take a fresh look at your own opinions and find them wanting. You find out you have common ground you’d never believe.

No one’s immune from the conversation-killing bug, including me. I try to catch myself and remind myself: Ask questions — you learn more from listening than talking. It’s OK to bring up your own experience in the interest of exploring the topic, but not with the intent of changing the spotlight. The spotlight will shift back and forth if you let it. And, well, just listen.

I’ll try to remember all that, and talk with you soon, I hope.






Mike Bowers On May 16, 2016 at 4:52 pm

Anecdotal or not, I’ve observed the same with other folks as well as myself…………but I never thought about it, until you mentioned it, Mr. K.

Mike On May 16, 2016 at 5:56 pm

Mr. B., I’ve always found you to be a good listener and conversationalist. Must be your upbringing. Or you married well. Or all of the above.

Pat O'Malley On May 16, 2016 at 5:50 pm

Hi Mike.
I have a friend who hijacks conversations regularly and it drives me crazy. We are talking about the friend’s recent trip to Paris and suddenly he’d off on a story about his trip to Europe 30 years ago. Then I miss out on hearing about the first speaker’s Paris experience.
Any suggestions on steering back the discussion to the initial topic without embarrassing the hijacker?
I agree about self-awareness in this area. I, too, catch myself and try to step back and re-engage with the first conversation thread.
Although I am so very fascinating …

Mike On May 16, 2016 at 5:55 pm

That’s very interesting Pat, but have I told you about me lately?:) You know, like I said, I’ve caught myself, so self awareness is the key but that doesn’t help midstream. Beth’s actually really good and interjecting and saying, sincerely, “Wait a minute, I wanted to hear about Pat’s trip…”.

Joan Miller On May 16, 2016 at 8:44 pm

Very good essay on the art of conversation. I agree, good conversation should include questions & finding out more about the person to whom you are talking. Finding common ground. We shouldn’t kill the conversation with taking over with our own experiences.

Mel Theobald On May 16, 2016 at 11:37 pm

Mike, I’ve never read anything that so perfectly describes the art of conversation. And, I have to admit to being on both ends of the spectrum. Unfortunately, most of the time on the wrong end. This is not a modern problem, this is a human nature problem and we would all be better off if we could recognize it. Thank you for one of the best entries to “Monday’s with Mike” to date. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to know you think yourself as guilty as I in this need for recognition. We are all guilty of this, even when we think we aren’t.

Mike On May 17, 2016 at 8:54 am

Thanks Mel. Everybody does it from time to time. I’m just curious about why. Maybe a fundamental insecurity we all share.

Milt On May 17, 2016 at 7:39 am

The urge to be a tooper is insidious. I catch myself too often doing this. There’s a classic skit in Portlandia about the folks who engage in competitive “have you read . . .” behavior.

Mike On May 17, 2016 at 8:53 am

Tooper! That’s a new term and I like it.

Mary Rayis On May 17, 2016 at 8:48 am

Mike, This is one of my flaws and something I consciously work on on a daily basis – how not to make the conversation all about me. Sometimes it’s hard when I meet someone else who seems singularly determined to draw ME out. It then becomes a battle of one-upmanship on who can ask the most interested questions!

Mike On May 17, 2016 at 8:52 am

Mary, you know, it’s not cut and dried. I think if someone is asking you questions it’s sort of an implicit license. And it’s nice when someone’s interested. I don’t really have an answer. I just feel like it happens a lot.

Benita Black On May 17, 2016 at 9:53 am

You’re so right. The art of conversation has devolved to Person A speaks and Person B waiting his turn to speak, as opposed to listening and responding. This is why Terry Gross is a master and then there’s everybody else. I fear that the millennials, with their noses always buried in a screen, will drive the last nail in the conversation coffin.

Monna Ray On May 17, 2016 at 10:42 am

Mike, pretty soon you’re going to out Brooks, David Brooks! I have discussed how conversation so often is completely self centered (of course the other person) with no thought given to the person you are conversing with and what’s going on in their life. Listening is so important but so is sharing.

Thank you Mike. Monna

Annelore Chapin On May 19, 2016 at 1:49 pm

Yeah Mike! Being a caregiver to Mr. Alzheimer in advanced stages and who at times needs to let off steam to a friend, I find that several of them burst into knowing ‘someone who was worse off’ or insist on giving totally irrelevant advice….. leaving me more frustrated than before. But then, there are these treasures, which (or who??) bring joy with old-fashioned, well-crafted conversation. About anything!!! Like ‘the art of conversation’.

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