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A Fred Astaire of Conversation

A Fred Astaire of Conversation

by Rich Simon I grew up in the Bronx in the 1950s, a now-ancient era, when extended families spent hours visiting each other every weekend. Most of this time was filled with the low-key drone of tales about who was getting married, who was having a baby, who was scheduled for or recovering from surgery, how work was going at the store/office/practice, and, of course, who’d died. Noticeably lacking was much real conversation, at least as far as I was concerned. It was all so predictable, unspontaneous—except for Uncle Arthur.

If conversation was a dance for which most of my family members seemed to have two left feet, Uncle Arthur was Fred Astaire. He was a dentist by profession, but his true calling was as a conversationalist. He had a gift for turning whoever was sitting next to him at family dinners, no matter how seemingly dull or stodgy, into a sparkling raconteur, with amazing adventures to recount. I remember Uncle Arthur once performing one of his conversational miracles with my doleful Uncle Jack, whose thick Eastern European accent marked him as the epitome of Old World irrelevance to my teenage self. With Arthur’s active encouragement, Uncle Jack began recounting a tale of how he’d escaped conscription by the czar’s army in World War I by fleeing to Poland, living from hand to mouth until he accidentally met someone in a small shtetl, whom, by a remarkable coincidence, his father had befriended years earlier. This surprise benefactor wound up helping Jack emigrate to the United States and embark on the great adventure of a new life and of starting his prosperous Lower East Side pharmacy. Before my eyes—and ears—Jack was transformed from a drab background character into the star of an incandescent saga that was a mix of Fiddler on the Roof and Doctor Zhivago.

Arthur interviewed me for many years—about my friends, school rivalries, what sports I liked, my best and worst classes, what I wanted to do with my life. Throughout my teens, we talked (and argued) about books, movies, politics, society, and religion. Through all this improvised back-and-forth, he taught me about the power of conversation to bring a person’s inner self to life—he made my inner self alive to me, introducing me to the new person I was becoming, but hadn’t yet started to know. He had no “method,” no training in “joining” with people, no hidden agenda about what he wanted to find out—just genuine curiosity, a gift for asking good questions, and above all, a real interest in what I had to say.

This is, of course, what good therapists do. For all the time we devote to learning techniques for handling clinical issues, the bedrock of all psychotherapy is still a conversation between therapist and client. Yet, even though this ability to connect through words, gestures, tone of voice, and body language is critical to what we do, we hear very little about it in most clinical training programs. For all the mountains of books and articles and hours of classroom time spent on psychological theory and treatment models, precious little attention is given to helping therapists acquire the skills or craft of beginning a conversation and keeping it going throughout therapy.

Even though talking and listening to people may come naturally to most therapists (if not, we’re in the wrong profession), as the writers in this issue make abundantly clear, it takes conscious thought and long practice to become reliably adept at engaging clients in real conversation, and not anxiously falling back on what sounds like a routinized, Saturday Night Live parody of therapyspeak. As Miles Davis once put it, “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”

Our latest issue, “The Craft of Conversation,” fills the void. Click here to read it free online.

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9 Responses to A Fred Astaire of Conversation

  1. Great article, Rich! I couldn’t agree more. I think Dan Siegal’s term “attunement” is one I would use here as well. It is that “tuning in” ability that sets exceptional therapists apart from the mediocre ones, in my opinion.

    Jennifer at iChooseChange.com

  2. Avi says:

    Dear Mr. Simon
    I liked very much your uncle Arthur story. Unfortunately in this digital age we lost the routine: “extended families spent hours visiting each other every weekend”, a great experimental field of conversation. We also, for many reasons, have become more and more alienated from each other. As a result we’re most of the time not REALLY interested in others stories but in our own. As therapists we too often think what will our next question, intervention interpretation etc, be… We lose, somehow, the human being in front of us and we don’t convey: “…just genuine curiosity, …and a real interest in what [he/she... has] to say.”

  3. Bev Coulter says:

    Rich, you are so much like your Uncle Arthur! Today, we call this interrogative communication as well. Your warmth and genuine interest shine thru. Thanks for what you do for all the therapists out there.
    Looking forward to putting you on a horse at Christmakkah, 2012. All my best to you and Jette,
    Bev

  4. Rich, As usual and and always I appreciate your personal stories. Conversation is therapy and it does occur everyday with friends and a casual moment in the grocery store. Life as you know is an ongoing conversation. That’s why I love your Symposium which are very personal especially the keynotes. I love to read and hear about Native Americans and all the wisdom they share. Thanks. See you next year. Jay

  5. Rich, As usual and always I appreciate your personal stories. Concersation is therapy and it does occur everyday with friend and a casual moment in the grocery store. Life as you know it is an ongoing conversation. That’s why I love your Symposiums which are very personal especially the keynotes. I love to read and hear about Native Americans and all the wisdom they share. Thanks. See you next year. Jay

  6. John Patredis says:

    What a privilege to have an Uncle Arthur. It seems that some people have a natural curiosity and interest in others. Those characteristics lead many of us into this field (that and trying to understand or fix ourselves).
    In addition to my training as a therapist, I have found my training in sales and personal and professional coaching beneficial in asking questions. My training in coaching took my ability in asking questions to a whole other level. More importantly it taught me to ask questions without any ulterior motive to lead, diagnose, or build a case for my theory and values.
    Three books that were helpful were: 1. The Art of the Question by Goldberg, Making Questions Work by Strachan, and Coaching Questions by Stoltzfus.
    I will end with something I recently read: People have stories-and need listeners.
    I imagine Uncle Arthur knew that.

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  8. First, let me see how I can put this in English being Swedish an all…

    Thank you Rich for inviting us into your family. Now it make sense, how you got both great dancing, and the knowing of how important attuned communication is, in your blood. For me attuned communication is like good dancing, and a key for healing therapy. Being a couples therapist teaching couples to “cross the bridge” to each other (and to our selves), and really GET were we are on that bridge – is so important.(Is it you or me that are feeling..) It has taken me a long time to understand how I did not listen. Maybe more at clients – but at my husband, my kids and the people close to me….. No, that was harder. Thank God their is something called neuroplasticity – were the core is, as you say, just genuine curiosity! Helping each other really “show up” in our life’s – especially as life is so dam short.
    Again, thanks for inviting us into your family and your Uncle Arthur.
    Warmly, Eva Berlander (Sweden)

    Author of: You Can Make it Happen; How Breakthroughs in Neuroscience Can Transform relationships.

  9. Joyce Wolpert says:

    Rich: I wish your Uncle Arthur could have met my Aunt Maty (who is still inspiring us at 92). She was a teacher and school librarian, still leads book clubs, loves words and is a master at linking clues and anecdotes in people’s lives to mirror back to them their own now wondrously crafted stories. For my ‘special birthday’, she presented me with a loose leaf binder of articles and letters from every work/volunteer activity I had in my life. She had been saving those over the years. Her intense interest in every person made/makes us feel we are all special all of the time. This is a true ‘mensch.’ Joyce Wolpert

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