Editor's Note

Editor's Note

Playing the Conversational Instrument

By Rich Simon

September/October 2012

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 ther- apist and client. Yet, even though this ability to connect through word, 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 psy- chological 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.”

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Sunday, November 4, 2012 10:55:10 PM | posted by Laurie Canevali
Interesting and amusing article

Saturday, November 3, 2012 11:58:35 PM | posted by Debbie
I want to add, that the excerpt of your interview hear with Yalom is also very relevant to the article:


He talks about how he gets to know the inner life of a person through the "writer's trick" technique.

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Saturday, November 3, 2012 11:45:58 PM | posted by Debbie
This is an excellent article both for therapists as well as for anyone hoping to connect more with others. I would say that your point about Uncle Arthur having a "real interest in what I had to say" was key. But, also he seems he wanted depth and meaning in conversations.

Sadly, it is easy to fall into mechanical conversations, waiting for a session to end or even gossip as a substitute for being present and drawing out the other person.

Yalom and some of the existential therapists remind us of this. Hopefully most people have had a relative, special teacher or friend that helped to show what is possible in true dialogue.


Sunday, September 16, 2012 3:23:27 PM | posted by Larry
A wonderful story and it focuses on the the most important part of therapy. The ability to connect with another person. In some ways I think you don't have to focus on the patients problem or its solution or the therapeutic approach. Often the most important part is the connection between patient and therapist. And how do you teach that ? You pose a great question.

Thanks for the story.

Larry Drell,MD
Anxiety and Depression Therapy Services
Washington, DC