The Art of Conversation Versus Small Talk Blues By MK McWilliams

I was recently discussing with a colleague how hard it is dealing with all the incessant small talk that comes with working in our day-jobs, a patient-facing industry. Our days often consist of having the same conversations over and over again about the same topics: the weather, our weekend plans, any holidays coming up. It tends to always be the same, and I’m sure many of you reading this can relate. What makes it hard in my particular case (and that of my colleague) is that we see patients for ten to fifteen minute intervals, for up to ten hours per day. It’s not enough time to develop an interestingly deep conversation, but too much time to sit in silence together without it feeling awkward. So many people tend to reach for the simple, seemingly innocuous topics. After experiencing the same conversations over and over, it can be draining. It leaves me feeling exhausted, trying to maintain a happy face, trying to keep the conversation simple, trying to talk way more than ever feels natural to me, as a quiet introvert.

This  is not to say I dislike people or my patients; quite the contrary. I love the work I do with them (stretching, massaging, myofascial work to assist in the healing of injuries and relieve pain.) I’ve gotten to know many of them over the years and it’s an honor to be able to help people feel better and get back on their feet after being in pain. But I am a naturally quiet person and small talk tends to make me uncomfortable after a while. 
My colleague had a similar point of view for different reasons. He is more of an extrovert, loves engaging in deep conversation and dislikes the “fake” feeling that small talk tends to have. He would rather have a real discussion, something soul-baring and real. He asked me if that would be better and I felt horrified. No! At least not in a professional setting. But it got me thinking about my reaction and that there seems to be no real solution to this dilemma. 

It’s true that the shallow themes of small talk leave me feeling empty, and the continuation of it over and over throughout the day is overwhelming. In fact, I even wrote a poem about that in my book, Stereospace. But when faced with the suggestion that I should engross myself and my patients in the opposite, something esoteric or profound, I became embarrassed. That feels inherently private to me. Something reserved for close friends, trusted confidants, or at the very least, someone who is not currently on my massage table. Not something to broach in a fifteen minute muscle work session. 
So is there a happy medium? Small talk feels too shallow, real talk seems too deep. Where has the art of conversation gone and how can we relearn it? I’ve been thinking about this for weeks but came up with no answers. People are so different when it comes to conversing and that’s okay, in fact, that’s a beautiful aspect of our society. None of us is alike but we can come together to talk to and learn from each other. But in this fast-paced world, where everyone is connected to their virtual space and it’s easy to zone out in person to person discussion, how can we return to a more personal connection without feeling like we need to expose our hearts and innermost thoughts in order to appear authentic? 

Celeste Headlee gave an interesting TEDx talk in which she shares ten ways to have a better conversation. But she said something before her list that really got me thinking. She was discussing the common advice on how to converse well (eye contact, nodding, repeating what the other person said) and basically told us to forget all of that. Those things make us look like we are paying attention but as Headlee puts it, “There is no reason to learn how to show you are paying attention if you are in fact paying attention.” My mind was a little blown by that seemingly simple statement. It should have been obvious.

I always thought I was a pretty good listener but this has me really thinking about the way I listen, and the way it affects my responses. I believe many people, myself included, tend to be more focused on showing they are paying attention and thinking about what their response will be, than on genuinely listening to the other person. We need to listen more, and we need to listen better. This simple, yet important, revelation will hopefully go far in bridging the gap between the shallow and the deep, and I am eager to put it to practice. A dialogue has more meaning when we are truly committed to listening to the other person, even if it’s simply about the weather or the weekend.

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