The Art of Skillful Conversation – Scary Mommy

The Art of Skillful Conversation

I noticed this for the first time in a conversation with someone several months ago. We were talking about social media, but before long, I realized that whatever I’d say, he’d disagree with me. If I said, “X is important,” he’d say, “No, actually, Y is important.” For two hours. And I could tell that if I’d said, “Y is important,” he would’ve argued for X.

I saw this style again in a chat with friend’s wife who, no matter what casual remark I made, would disagree. “That sounds fun,” I observed. “No, not at all,” she answered. “That must have been really difficult,” I said. “No, for someone like me, it’s no problem,” she answered. And on and on.

Since those conversations, I’ve noticed this phenomenon several times. Here are my questions about oppositional conversational style:

1. Is OCS a strategy that particular people use consistently? Or is there something about me, or about those particular conversations, that induced these people to use it?

2. Along those lines, is OCS a way to try to assert dominance, by correction?

3. Do people who use OCS recognize this style of engagement in themselves? Do they see a pattern in their behavior that’s different from that of most other people?

4. Do they have any idea how tiresome it can be?

In the case of the first example, my interlocutor used OCS in a very warm, engaging way. Perhaps, for him, it’s a tactic to drive the conversation forward and to keep it interesting. This kind of debate did indeed throw up a lot of interesting insights and information—but, I must admit, it was wearing.

In the second example, the contradictory responses felt like a challenge.

I described oppositional conversational style to my husband and asked if he knew what I was talking about. He did, and he warned me, “Watch out! Don’t start thinking about this, and then start to do it yourself.”

I had to laugh, because he knows me very well. I have a strong tendency towards belligerence—for instance, it’s one reason I basically quit drinking—and I could easily fall into OCS. (I just hope I don’t exhibit OCS already, which is quite possible.)

But I do recognize that to be on the receiving end of the oppositional conversational style—to have someone keep telling you that you’re wrong, over and over—is not pleasant. It’s tiring at best and highly annoying at worst. Even in the case of my first example, when the OCS was done in a fun, friendly spirit, it took a lot of self-command for me to stay calm and un-defensive. Many points could have been made in a less “Let me set you straight” way.

The second time it happened, I felt patronized. Here I was, trying to make pleasant conversation, and she kept contradicting me. It was all I could do not to roll my eyes and retort, “Fine, whatever, actually I don’t care if you had fun or not.”

Now, I’m not arguing that everyone should agree all the time. Nope. I love a debate (and I’m trained as a lawyer, which definitely has made me more comfortable, perhaps too comfortable, with confrontation). But it’s not much fun when every single statement in a casual conversation is met with, “Nope, you’re wrong; I’m right.” Skillful conversationalists can explore disagreements and make points in ways that feel constructive and positive rather than combative or corrective.

To read more by Gretchen Rubin, visit her site.