This week’s Unthinkable column has some sobering news for you. Despite all those years of voicing opinions and dazzling others with your intellect, you may not be able to hold a conversation.
Talking with someone is a lot harder than talking to them. It means active listening, staying curious and understanding that if someone says something wrong, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is something wrong with them. So Nihal Arthanayake writes in Let’s Talk: How to Have Better Conversations.
Now before you think here’s another critique of public debate from the liberal establishment – Arthanayake is an award-winning BCC radio presenter – Let’s Talk does something quite original by setting a bar for conversation that only the most open-hearted can reach. No matter what side you’re on in the culture wars, you’ve no justification for feeling smug.
Arthanayake talks to a range of experts about what makes for good conversation. In a chapter on conflict resolution, he profiles former president Mary McAleese who, along with her husband Martin, held secret meetings with loyalists to shore up the Northern Ireland peace process. Psychologists, a hostage negotiator and business leaders are also interviewed but one of most memorable lines in the book is from TV presenter Lorraine Kelly who sighs: “People are at opposite ends throwing rocks at one another. When did that become the norm?”
Brexit provides a backdrop, and Arthanayake recalls being at the centre of a pile-on when he drew a comparison in a tweet between Remainers in the UK and Republicans in the US for the way they dismissed opponents as “stupid” or “conned”.
“There was on social media, and still is to this day, some people with a kind of intellectual superiority because they voted remain,” Arthanayake tells The Irish Times.
“My gosh, the vitriol that I received for making that comparison. What I was trying to do was encourage people to look in on themselves, and the language they used, because people voted to leave the European Union for all kinds of reasons. The idea that you tell a huge group of people that they are just stupid for doing so is ignorant; or that they are all racists, it doesn’t further the conversation.”
Arthanayake is speaking via Zoom from Manchester – coincidentally just a week after travelling to Kerry for his “first Irish wedding”. The bride’s family – the Sullivans from Kenmare – used to be neighbours in London, and “I came out of my self-imposed DJ retirement” at the hotel reception. Days after returning home, he is still singing the praises of Irish hospitality, including the “charming and friendly” official at passport control. However, we steer the conversation back to the book.
You highlight how, in meetings with loyalists, Mary McAleese spoke about being “good neighbours” rather than discussing politics. Is that the key to a healthy conversation: focusing on common ground?
Nihal Arthanayake: “After I interviewed her for her memoir and I knew I was writing a book about conversation, honestly, how could I not have her in the book? It’s one of the starkest examples – the Northern Ireland peace process – of what is possible in conversation…
“What she points out most eloquently is you have to look at yourself, you have to understand the trauma isn’t only yours; the feeling of oppression isn’t only yours… Something she said to me which really stuck is that the one thing they all had in common was they did not want their children to go through what they’d gone through – and that’s profound, isn’t it?
“She also said we didn’t talk about the serious stuff first, we talked about the weather, we talked about sport, we talked about the little things – neighbourliness absolutely – and in that way we began to humanise people.”
What can you do, however, if the other side doesn’t want to converse and would rather be in conflict?
“I think it requires curiosity and patience but also, as Mary McAleese pointed out, she didn’t start the conversations with the most hard-headed people. She identified the ones who were willing to talk and through them you get to talk to the hardest-to-reach people.
“You also have to be willing to have the door slammed in your face a few times.”
A lot of public speech takes place today in the performative space of social media. Are we losing the ability to hold a conversation?
“The key word there is performative. I don’t think we should believe that when we are sharing on social media we are having a conversation. It’s not really a dialogue – you think it is but it’s not – it’s a monologue. It’s a series of opinions.
“It also goes back to something my daughter said to me – something she picked up at school that a teacher had said – which was: Are you listening to understand, or are you listening to talk? Social media is about listening to talk. You are just waiting to get your side in, whereas an actual conversation is about listening to understand.”
How do you reconcile that with using Twitter yourself?
“Writing this book has changed the way I behave on social media. I now no longer go at people with the same level of aggression or wiliness to prove a point, or one upmanship, that I did before. Now I put limits on my social media – I’ve timers on Twitter and Instagram… 45 minutes or 50 minutes a day, and I want to get that shorter and shorter.
“Also, when someone is abusive to me, I say ‘You don’t have to do that; you can get your point across but you don’t have to be that person’… So I think I’m in a calmer space on things like Twitter.”
In a chapter on racism, you look at Deeyah Khan’s documentary White Right: Meeting the Enemy which tries to understand the mindset of neo-Nazis. How should we respond to someone who says something racist?
“The fact that they are a racist in that moment doesn’t necessarily mean they will be a racist forever. There is a mistrust, an anger, a frustration, a pain, all of these things.
“It’s not simple – the simple thing is to say ‘Oh they’re a racist,’ that’s the easy thing; the more difficult thing is to ask ‘How did you become that person?’ and to try to understand it and not justify it.
“What Deeyah Khan said was ultimately I want one less racist in the world and I’m not going to get that by shouting ‘You’re a racist’ at them but I might get that if I sit down and talk to them and let them understand I am not who they think I am, and I try to understand they are not who I think they are.
“Now, it’s not within everyone’s grasp, nor should it be, to go and find their local racists and hang out with them. But when everybody says ‘education is important’, it is massively important but the education is not just about educating the racist, it’s about educating ourselves – in that the racist element of them isn’t 100 per cent of who they are.
“Unfortunately, we are in an age now when we tend to wholly define someone by one thing – you know, you’re Catholic, you’re Protestant, you’re a Leaver, you’re a Remainer, you’re woke, you’re racist, but that’s not all of who someone is. And one of the book’s aims is to encourage people to be a little bit more introspective about who you are, and look at your own prejudices and biases. If we do that more effectively, we can connect with others more openly.”
Let’s Talk: How to Have Better Conversations by Nihal Arthanayake is published by Trapeze (£16.99)