Back in the 80s, in an episode of the TV show ‘Greatest American Hero,” the hero and high school teacher, Ralph Hinkley, and the FBI agent, Bill Maxwell, were walking along the beach talking about the huge and growing problem of drugs. For me, it was one of the best depictions of the art of conversation – or lack thereof – I’ve ever seen. Bill saw drugs from the perspective of crime – in other words, catch ’em and put ’em all in prison – while Ralph saw the problem in terms of the young lives drawn off course and lost to potential – in other words, rescue them. The fascinating thing was observing their sentences running parallel to one another but never intersecting – though they were together and talking about the same thing at the same time, at no time did they ever actually meet in conversation.
In April Oprah had a guest on her show who put a name to this; he called this syndrome parallel monologues. What a great term – parallel monologues – two people carrying on monologues simultaneously with neither really hearing or even acknowledging the content of the other’s words. No change can be effected in lives or perspective because no true communication ever occurred between them.
Parallel monologues may not only have an impact on our one-on-one conversations with friends and acquaintances, but may be one of the biggest dilemmas we face in our world today. We are faced with so many problems in our world – in business where corporate greed and the bottom line trump people issues every time, in families where divorce and latch-key kids have almost become the norm in a world described by a similar phrase [at least to my ears] to parallel monologues – serial monogamy – in government where the direst economic situation we’ve faced for most of our lifetimes is upon us and our politicians still can’t stop spending billions of dollars on silly things – even in the name of stimulating our economy.
A few days ago, I read an opinion piece in the Oklahoma Gazette on the right to life/choice issue in which the writer called the issue “black and white” – between a woman and her body and the health insurance/medical community only. I was so struck by that label that I finally wrote a post on my blog site in response to it. This complex issue is anything but black and white – nothing with such financial, emotional, medical, relational and spiritual ramifications could possibly be labeled black and white, particularly when trying to include the points of view of the mother, the father, the grandparents, the child and society. In my post I tried to look at all the possible ramifications (though briefly, of course – it was an Internet blog). Someone apparently read my post and sent a comment that said something to the effect of, “pregnancy is a time of joy for the mother, and prenatal health and vitamins are very important.” Though I would say her statement is true most of the time; in this instance – based on the subject matter of my blog – her comment was an illustration of parallel monologues – she was responding out of her own experience without regard to anyone’s else’s experience.
We’ve likely all participated in those parallel monologues. For example, the DHS attorney telling an absent father he has an obligation to provide financial support for his children and his response is something like “ain’t no way that ‘expletive deleted’ is getting’ a dime out of me.”
In Toastmasters, evaluations are a way of getting immediate feedback on our presentations; those evaluations aren’t designed to be conversations and so can’t truly be parallel monologues, but I do believe there should be some evidence of at least attempting to develop listening skills. However, I couldn’t count the number of times evaluations of my speeches have included comments on content that made me wonder whose speech they were evaluating because it certainly had little relevance to the one I had just given.
Although I think this is important and I’ve given it some thought, it isn’t an area I’ve tried to solve on a global basis so I don’t know what the answer is, but I can, off the top of my head, suggest a few beginning changes to try to develop better communication skills:
- Actually pay attention to what people are saying, instead of formulating your response during their discourse;
- Investigate some of those areas of gray on issues – actually think through as many possibilities as you can – instead of just looking for support for your own position;
- Reflect on/think about things you’ve heard or seen in sermons, speeches, movies, songs or books. Ken Gire in his book “The Reflective Life” provided a sample page to record your thoughts. The sections of the reflective sheet include Reading the Moment, which is the place for you to write the specific thing you saw or heard or felt. Reflecting on the Moment is the place where you record what you thought or researched. Responding to the Moment is the place where you set goals and begin to allow change or growth in your life because of this experience.
- Read on the subject. The library has books available. One of my favorites is Virginia Satir’s “Making Contact.” Another couple of available books are Deborah Tannen’s “That’s Not What I Meant” and Catherine Blyth’s “The Art of Conversation.”
George Bernard Shaw once said, “Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.” Just think how much we could learn and grow if we just followed his example and thought – even once a month or so.