“On Conversation” By Richard Sale

Richard Sale headshot (2)
Conversation is more and more a lost art.  And it is an art. It is the imparting of personal observations impelled by an impulse to share and learn, not dominate.

A successful conversation requires two minds that are similar in strength. A conversation is an exchange of words derived from your experience and your feelings, ideals, aims, hopes, etc. Both minds must have some sound knowledge of the outside world and a grasp of some of its major events. Both speakers should also be talented listeners which implies extensive contacts with different and varying personalities, a wide range of circumstances, and both people speaking must possess a knowledge of the events of their life that they can recount truthfully. Every human being is a vessel of unique experiences of  life.

So a conversation thus has to be based on the truth of facts and the truth of personal perceptions.  Both listener and speaker should have a sincere desire to share what they’ve learned.  You should never talk as if  your virtues are a matter of personal accomplishment, The spaciousness and the range and amplitude of each mind will make itself seen in dialogue so there is no need to rush for results. It is natural for people to take each other’s measure, but one should hold back and simply perceive.  Each should gauge the other in silence by listening. Half of the pleasure of conversation is sharing insightful perceptions that are accurate to the observed facts. The knowledge of each doesn’t have to be identical, but the replies of each have to form some kind of coherence.  The alternative is a dreary exchange of half-thought, half-understood gibberish or merely repeating stale clichés and superficial commonplaces that rule the day and manifest no new knowledge.


Any dialogue has elements of rivalry and competition but these should be kept far back and not be allowed to dominate the discussion.  It helps if both sincerely respect the merits they discover in each other as they talk. This can provide the basis for a friendship.

When I say that both minds have to have similar strengths I mean that both have to have some power of expressing themselves intelligently and in a way that simulates the listener, which requires him to be clear, lucid and articulate in return. Any person who expects to be listened to must have an adequate supply of words to use, and those words have to be used with some skill. The speaker’s thought has to manifest proportion, a grasp of the vital over the subordinate, and a sense of sequence and transition. Both sides of a conversation should have a sincere admiration for their own knowledge, and a growing appreciation of what the other is telling and experienced, and both must possess a genuine desire to convey the merits of their knowledge and perceptions to each other.

Both sides must have some solid frame of reference the lurks behind their words.  Both don’t really have to know the history of the Hittites, Greek democracy, Roman power and administration, the Dark Ages, the economic foundations of  power, the  history of the Earth etc.,  in order to converse.  A good conversationalist  has usually read enough to obtain of grasp of how things had happened in those extinct cultures and viable idea of how thing s happen in our own. But it fortifies a conversation if he has made himself learn who the key personalities were, their defects, their missteps, their triumphs and successes, the factors that caused their eventually downfall. 

 For example, if  someone who talks of Egyptian history, they  should possess illustrations, examples, anecdotes, myths, legends, etc and vividly telling these to a stranger hopefully will act to stir new strains of reflections. Stories and illustrations of Egyptian history, its beginning as eight city states ruled by eight kings, its expansion and wars  will provoke a response in someone who knows the history of the American Civil War because in every war there are irreducible elements that can be viewed by each and elaborated. Every history of a nation and its culture is full of contests with other histories, and there will be points where they collide or reinforce or refute each other in the course of a conversation. The discoveries of even faint similarity inflame and exhilarate any conversation.  If both listener and speaker can reason with deft skill, the differences in their talk won’t matter too much.  They will grope and find common ground, finally find it and the knowledge of each helps and strengthens the understanding of the personality of the other. But the bond must be founded on an adequate supply of words and their use must be clear, lucid, penetrating.

An inability to articulate your views or speaking with a sense of infallibility will murder any conversation almost at the outset. 

But a successful conversation requires that people listen to each other with deliberate care. This takes patience, self sacrifice and discipline, and it requires memory.  A talker has to absorb before they can speak. Above all things, you don’t sit and listen only for the sake of saying something superior in merit to what has just been said. Try to follow rather than lead.

Beware of opinion.  The first thing that comes to mind is very likely to be second or third rate or worse, and it is usually something everybody is saying at the moment.  Take time to reflect, choose, select, discern and discriminate.  Ideally you have an opinion based on accurate facts that you have taken time to think about, considered and analyzed, and cared enough about to have read the studies of others who have more knowledge than you do. Be very slow to manifest skepticism of another’s knowledge.  You probably don’t have grounds to be skeptical.  Try and listen to what the speaker is trying to delineate.  If it puzzles you, ask him to say it gain, ask for further explanations. Avoid making conclusions based on faulty or insufficient information. The idea is to learn things, not boastfully showcase what you already know. There is no progress to be had in that.

I said recently that newspaper readers are often not good conversationalists, mainly because they are so addicted to reading in brief snap shots, in easily digested short bits. Because of this, all of us learn a bit of the same thing from the same sources, what is likely to be the result? Often we cannot give an account of what we have learned because newspapers overwhelm us with voluminous details, leaving us with neither the will nor the intelligence to try and discern what these cumulative details mean.  It is unfortunate that today, any narrative that isn’t brief makes our attention wander. I have a friend who simply cannot give his attention to anything. He is astounding superificial, always restless fidgety, but people him are in the majority today. We as a people are not to be interested in depth of any kind. We are not interested in another’s thoughts if they are not topical. This is a sorry state of affairs. 

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14 Responses to “On Conversation” By Richard Sale

  1. Richard I hereby award you the honor of Public Intellectual. This post is a wonder. Could you explain with some brevity why you decided to reward readers of this blog with this post?
    I read too much to exactly remember when or where I read something. But I believe it was the forth volume of Robert Caro’s epic biographical work on LBJ! It is also a take on JFK! In it is revealed by someone who may have known both Stalin and JFK! Perhaps George Kennan. That person concludes that in a long life the two best listeners he had met were JFK and Stalin.

  2. Haralambos says:

    Thanks for this portrait. I recently read a quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people”if I am quoting correctly. I think a good conversationalist needs to command and range over all three and weigh each as appropriate.

  3. 505thPIR says:

    Thank you Mr. Sale,
    Some serious introspection at this end as a result.

  4. Babak Makkinejad says:

    You may wish to read the short pamphlet, “On Dialogue”, by David Bohm.

  5. nick b says:

    Mr. Sale,
    I truly enjoyed your essay. I too was quite curious as to what prompted it. I agree with the great majority of what you say, and strongly agree with this particular gem of wisdom: “It helps if both sincerely respect the merits they discover in each other as they talk. This can provide the basis for a friendship.” I think mutual respect is one of the core requirements of a good conversation.
    If I may be allowed to expand a little on what you have said. I agree that good conversation is an art, but in many ways it is also a skill, and must be practiced. Much of our interaction with other individuals falls outside what I would call conversation. More often than not, interactions between people resemble correspondence and debate, in that there is only action and reaction to what is said. The interaction being a delivery of information, orders or directions to be accepted and not discussed, or those debate-like interactions which are strictly a competition of ideas, and occasionally, verbal wit. To find actual conversation, as you have described it above, one must have and take the time to do so. Sometimes, you get lucky, and that time is created for you.
    Recently, the conversations I have most enjoyed were with people who were stuck in the same place I was for a period of time, a regularly scheduled period: my son’s football practice. All the parents who take their kids to practice sit around for 2.5 hours on benches in the dark while the kids play ball. It’s a random slice of people who probably would not have normally come in contact over the course of our lives, but because we all had reason to be in the same place at the same time we all talked. There was really nothing else to do. Over time and repetition tremendous conversations arose, and friendships were born. When football season ended, more than one parent remarked to me about the hole left in their lives from the end of our conversation time. Without the regiment of a scheduled time to converse, most of us slipped back into the business of our lives. The idea of setting aside a two hour block of time just to converse is a luxury indeed.
    I think we need to be open to good conversation where and when it can be found. An inquisitive spirit, or a belief that something about everyone is interesting, always helps (You see this vividly in conversations with children).
    That is why I the only thing I disagree with in the essay is its conclusion. People are able to converse wonderfully and meaningfully, if they have the time, are treated with respect and they feel interesting to the person to whom they are speaking. I don’t lament the end of good conversation, just the lack of proper time to practice and enjoy.

  6. kao_hsien_chih says:

    Beware of opinion, indeed! It is something that I try very hard to keep in mind, but not something I’m always successful at…and something that positively confounds people I run into, as we live in an era that extols opinions over the truth and facts…and sometimes, even have trouble telling them apart.

  7. The Twisted Genius says:

    Richard Sale,
    This is an excellent dissertation on the art of conversation. Thank you. Your point that effective listening takes patience, self sacrifice and discipline is something I recognize well. I think all facets of a life worth living require these attributes. At least that’s what growing up in a small New England town founded by Separatist Puritans taught me.

  8. turcopolier says:

    In re Israel, I think the hooks are in too deep with the sheeple of the US for the spell to be broken. As the familiars of the tribe like to say. “there is a consensus in Washington about Israel.” I recently heard a commentator on 24/7 news refer to the attacks on USS Liberty as a “friendly fire incident.”
    “patience, self sacrifice and discipline” I’ll buy that, but to the list should be added; intolerance, narrow mindedness, self-righteousness, and a general unwillingness to leave other people alone to be themselves in peace. I am descended from the founding stock of New England and these characteristics have not died out in my family. pl

  9. The Twisted Genius says:

    I agree on both points. As for the Puritans, we first read Cotton Mather in our 6th grade American literature textbook. My classmates and I quickly recognized that he was a jerk, even at that tender age. I don’t see anything good coming from a belief in predestination and being among the chosen.
    Gideon Hotchkiss was the first deacon of the Puritan parish established in what would eventually become my hometown. He threatened to disown one of his sons when he dared to establish a Methodist meeting house. Gideon never made good on that threat and remained on good terms with his “wayward” son. Perhaps his service in the French and Indian War and our War for Independence tempered his Puritan intolerance. Jedidiah Hotchkiss was a direct decedent of Gideon.

  10. nick b says:

    A nutmegger, eh?

  11. Edith Wharton [American author 1862-1937]when asked why she lived mainly in Europe stated that she was searching for “good conversation”! Her stories were all about Americans and she was the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize and that in 1921 for her “Age of Innocence”!

  12. The Twisted Genius says:

    nick b,
    Yes I am. The house I grew up in is a former glebe house for the Congregational church on the other side of the town green. One of the trees I often climbed is a scion of the Charter Oak. Now I am in the process of becoming a proper Virginian. As the motto goes, “Qui Transtulit Sustinet.”

  13. nick b says:

    While not a native, I grew up there, but along Rt 7, not Rt 8. My great grandfather, after leaving Italy around the turn of the last century, wound up starting a tool and die works in the Brass City. I cut my teeth in politics in the Park City. I left 20 years ago vowing not to return. Where I live in the Keystone state now reminds me much of how my old home town used to be.

  14. The Twisted Genius says:

    nick b,
    That’s some beautiful country along Route 7. I did a lot of hiking and camping around Cornwall Bridge. My father was also a tool and die maker. He apprenticed at Scovill after serving in the Marines. Then went to work at Pratt & Whitney. Retired as a master mechanic, Pratt & Whitney’s highest accolade for a tool maker. He moved to Fryeburg, Maine probably for the same reasons you left.

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