The Art of Conversation: Are You an Illuminator or a Diminisher?

By: Brian Harris

I recently watched a YouTube talk in which David Brooks discusses his new book How to Know a Person – which explores listening to and seeing others well.

It is filled with deep insights, but one especially struck me. Brooks asks if we are essentially illuminators or diminishers in our conversations.

Naturally he elaborates.

He suggests there are those who listen to reply, often to top what has been said, or to claim the same experience but more so. They take hold of conversations to redirect them to their agenda. They are not necessarily intending to be rude, but they prefer to be the one talking, and genuine and deep listening is either not high on their agenda or might perhaps be beyond their skill set. That’s not meant to be an insult, for Brooks perceptively notes that most of us think we listen better than we do and assume we are better conversationalists than we are. It is hard to listen well. It is easier to be a diminisher than an illuminator.

There are other ways we diminish our conversations. Often we simply listen for catch words that enable us to tidily categorise the speaker. In a world of “them and us” we listen for clues to see what camp they belong to. All nuance is lost, and serious discourse is near impossible. Rather than lean into the conversation with curiosity, we simply listen for words that confirm our suspicion. Not that the suspicion is always hostile. We might suspect they are one of us. We wait for them to say the right words, then breathe a sigh of relief. They have passed the test. They belong. But we didn’t really listen. We diminished. We wanted to know less, not more.

Illuminators Help People to Open Up

Illuminators are different. They try to get people to open up and expand. They are interested in the why behind a position, and know that stories are rich, complicated and moving. Illuminators don’t rush to fill every silence. They use it to think about what has been said. They follow silence with questions – not to interrogate but to understand. When they hear something that surprises them and which they suspect they might well disagree with, rather than a prompt challenge “Why do you say that… after all…” they are more likely to lean in and ask, “So tell me, how did you come to see it like that?” They listen to the story behind the position.

And when we listen, illumination and understanding becomes possible. Rather than talking at each other, we converse deeply with each other.

How to Become an Illuminator

How do we transition from diminishers to illuminators?

It starts with posture and stance. Brooks cites research which shows that most people can determine how people feel about them from the way they look at them, what their eyes communicate (interest, compassion, judgment, boredom) and their body posture. The irony is that before we have said a word we have said so much. Of course we might misread this. Shyness might be confused for aloofness or indifference. We don’t always convey what we intend to. The surest currency is a smile that reaches to the eyes and takes in the other person – trying to see them, not the suitability of their attire or their likely social status.

Brooks introduces another dimension. Its seeing each person with the deep conviction that they have been made in the image of God. They might not believe that, but if you do, it transforms every encounter. You can’t diminish someone when you remember that they hold an alien dignity – the dignity of coming from God and bearing God’s own likeness.

He then goes further. He suggests that paying attention is a moral act. Put in reverse, not paying attention is deeply immoral. It says, “you don’t matter and your view doesn’t count.” In its own way it is an act of violence to another – not necessarily an intended violence, but no less damaging for the lack of intent.

Brooks also makes some very down to earth suggestions. In conversation, invite people to tell stories that matter to them. Notice that he suggests stories. Don’t ask for 10 quick facts (age, education, work) but the stories of their life. One intriguing question he suggests is “How do your ancestors show up in your life?” It’s such a good question. I’ve been pondering it and have concluded “a lot more than I thought…” I suddenly realised that each time I tell a story when preaching a lot of my maternal grandmother’s voice comes through. Thanks granny… I always loved your stories, and wish I could tell them as well. But present me with a set of figures, and then the other side of my ancestry comes through. I will go into “facts are friends” mode and dissect them carefully. And I do logic pretty well thanks to my father and… But I digress – I think in the way Brooks wants people to digress when we ask expansive questions – questions that help us see them better, questions that illuminate.

Jesus the Illuminator

Have you noticed what an illuminator Jesus was? He kept asking questions – tough ones to be sure, but ones that always showed that he saw, really saw, the person he was talking to. Deep transformation often resulted. Who but Jesus would have seen that Zacchaeus in his fig tree would be up for a lunch invite that would change everything for him? Who but Jesus would have seen that a delightful and very wealthy young man needed to be challenged to give it all away? Who but Jesus would have cared that in overcrowded chaos, a woman who had a problem with bleeding for years, had touched his robe? Why did he stop, and pay special attention to her?

Is Brooks right? Are most of us poorer listeners than we realise? Why not reflect back on your last five or six conversations? Did they illuminate, or diminish? Perhaps this week we can lean in and listen in a way that lets the light in.

Article supplied with thanks to Brian Harris.

About the Author: Brian is a speaker, teacher, leader, writer, author and respected theologian who is founding director of the AVENIR Leadership Institute, fostering leaders who will make a positive impact on the world.

Feature image: Photo by Dylan Ferreira on Unsplash