conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Verbatim: “Pursue truth behind our differences,” Wayne C. Booth

with 6 comments

Who will you argue with today?

The late Wayne C. Booth was Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Chicago. Among the many books he wrote was The Rhetoric of Rhetoric, which I reviewed here. In that book he talked about three kinds of conversations: win-rhetoric where the point of the conversation is to bash your conversation partner into submission. Bargain-rhetoric is where we dialogue toward the goal of finally getting to common ground that benefits both of us. In the business world we called this “win-win” because everybody benefits, though deep concessions were often made. But Booth favored this final type: listening-rhetoric, which had the goal of “pursuing the truth behind our differences” by listening with the intent of understanding what the other is saying. There are many benefits to that way of holding a conversation.

Listening-rhetoric sounds pretty obvious as the way forward, right? I agree. Yet when I check my intent in the middle of a conversation (hard to do), I find I am more often trying to listen strategically to counter whatever obstacle my conversation partner places between us. Or I am not even listening. Instead I’m thinking some far away thought (but maybe that’s just me—I’ve always had a problem staying anchored in the present).

I propose a fourth kind of conversation: reconciliation-rhetoric. I see it as Listening-Rhetoric Plus. Pursuing the truth behind our differences can often lead to a very fertile place—a place as uncomfortable as it is fecund. But leaving the conversation as just touching the two of us does not reveal the whole truth. In reconciliation-rhetoric, me and my conversation partner invite God into our discussion. This isn’t churchy stuff. It isn’t religious stuff. It is a human connection that recognizes the bigger stuff going on around us. It is actively asking and talking about how (if?) God’s plans enter our discussion. Maybe it looks like a silent prayer. Maybe it looks like an out-loud prayer. Maybe it is the recognition that larger plans may be in motion, subsuming our own. I’m taking my cue from a pivotal ancient text written by Paul the apostle in his second letter to the church in Corinth (Chapter 5).

Just who is involved in our discussion, anyway?


Photo credit: Niklaus Ruegg

6 Responses

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  1. Kirkistan,

    What a beautiful post and an excellent reminder that a simple conversation can shift from listening to bargaining to winning. Frequently, I find myself playing devil’s advocate for no apparent reason just to introduce a new perspective when if I were listening with the intent of listening the conversation could venture somewhere deeper and more meaningful.

    Thanks for helping me see this by putting words to something quite complex.



    May 27, 2011 at 9:37 pm

  2. And yet sometimes the Devil’s Advocate shakes us in a way that helps us move forward. Thanks for the comment.


    May 27, 2011 at 11:08 pm

  3. […] the realm of how we talk with each other, Wayne Booth saw three options: convincing someone of our position, bargaining for concessions or listening to “pursue the truth […]

  4. […] And this is also more than saying “Be yourself,” though I generally agree with both (with caveats). This is about garnering a vision for the person you want to be at work and having the balls and […]

  5. […] The generous approach to another person’s thought reminds me of Wayne Booth’s notion of listening-rhetoric: looking for similarity of thought before blindly reducing and striking back with […]

  6. […] frame how we talk and how we listen. Wayne Booth posited that sometimes we come into a conversation with the intent to win—to bash our conversation […]

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