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The art of steering conversation

Last week I was listening to a press conference for some senator. I can’t remember which state he was from or what party he represented, but it didn’t matter. His view on the subject of the interview wasn’t what I found interesting. What fascinated me was the way he could turn the conversation, no matter what the question. At one point the interviewer interrupted to say, “Senator, we have only 20 seconds of air time left, and I would really like to get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer on this matter before we’re out of time.” Of course, she didn’t get it.

When I was in college, I admired my rhetoric professor, Dr. Alan Huckleberry. He would enter the classroom, ask if anyone wanted to get a coke or a cup of coffee before we began. When we were, all settled in and comfortable, he would start by asking if anyone had heard or read anything that might be a good topic for the class to discuss. Someone usually did, but no matter what it was – politics, campus rumors, the latest hit movie, etc. – Dr. Huckleberry could (and this is what I admired) maneuver the talk around to the lesson he had planned. He did it so smoothly that it was only when class was over that we realized we had covered the material.

Later, I tried the same kind of “sneak attack” with my students, but I never was as skilled at it as Dr. Huckleberry.

An early colleague of mine, John M. taught at a nearby university. One of his classes was for Ph. D. candidates, most of whom were busy finishing their doctoral dissertations. These long research papers were to show the students’ expertise in the subject of his choice. Usually, these papers are necessarily limited in scope, but highly detailed and thorough, or, as John once told me over coffee, his students continue to learn more and more about less and less. “What really amazes me,” he continued, “is their ability to bring any class discussion around to the subject of their dissertation.”

What is true of John’s students is true for most of us. When some matter is of utmost importance to us – a recent operation or a new grandchild – we wait politely for a lull around the coffee table, noting the subject being discussed and searching our minds, not only for a related experience or a comment, but also for a smooth transition that will make our operation or grandchild seem appropriate without abruptly changing the subject. I confess that I notice myself committing this type of social scheming just as often as I do in others. This nearly universal trait is why a really good listener is so valued - and rare.

It’s difficult to be both a good listener and a good talker, thus, it’s logical that the worst listeners are politicians. They are naturally verbose animals, so we don’t expect them to give straight, brief answers to questions at a press conferences. We no longer scratch our heads in confusion when President Trump answers a query about a budget item with a diatribe about “Dirty Hillary.” It may seem an abrupt non-sequitur, but we must remember that he is new to politics. He’ll get smoother. He may still answer with rants about Dirty Hillary, but with more experience, his segues will be less abrupt.

An old adage tells us that we never learn anything when we do all the talking. But it’s also true that most of us find ourselves fascinating. I actually enjoy learning from people who have something to teach me, but if they pause, I’ve got an anecdote about my youngest grandson.

It’s a really cute story.

Chuck Avery is a former high school English teacher, published playwright and dramatist.