What Novels Show Us About The Way People Talk To Each Other


Tuesday, 5.40am

Sheffield, U.K.

An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind. – Mahatma Gandhi

What happens when two people talk to each other in a novel?

Take a detective story, for example – there are characters you will come across again and again.

There is the pompous, overbearing and arrogant superior.

And there is the fiercely independent protagonist, haunted by the ghosts of her past.

How do you build that story, show the conversation?

Dialogue in a story is built on conflict

A novelist throws away all the real-life words, all the “ums” and small talk and leaves in the dialogue that matters, which the characters shoot at each other like arrows from a bow.

Each line is meant to pierce, to wound, to provoke a reaction.

If the lines didn’t make you feel angry at one character and sympathise with the other the novel would be dull and lifeless – the conflict is what wakes you up and draws you into the story.

Behind every well crafted line, behind every armour piercing delivery, is an unspoken aftershock of implied intent.

The clueless person in charge, for example, has total belief in their own competence, has manoeuvred their way into a position of absolute power in that situation and acts with what they believe to be good intent towards others which, for them, is the same as what’s good for them personally.

The tortured hero, has a history of her own, with a background and experiences that makes her distrust people like the person in power – people who have betrayed her in the past.

And so she keeps things from the questioner, responding to questions with questions or carefully veiled answers, which in turn causes the person in charge to get angry and push further which in turn causes more resistance – and now you have conflict and the start of a story.

Does this mirror what happens in real life?

Making your point

Have you ever been in a meeting where a lot of people had a lot to say?

The topic was an important one and different people had different approaches and ways of thinking about it.

Each one barely listened to what others had to say, they were too busy waiting for their turn to say what they thought.

And, wherever possible, they were quick to point out flaws they thought they saw in the arguments of others.

This is perhaps the norm rather than the exception with meeting.

People often talk to win, not to share and listen and learn.

Decision is reached based on what the people who control the levers of power think, rather than what kind of consensus is reached.

The person with the loudest voice or the most dominating personality often carries the day.

This approach, it has to be said, is a masculine one, focused around the idea of winning.

But the opposing approach, a feminine one, has issues of its own.

A feminine approach may be better at talking and listening, letting people say their piece without leaping to conclusions.

But it’s not necessarily non-judgemental, politics and gossip and relationships will play their part in how the levers of power are distributed and how decisions are taken.

Unsaid or implied conflict is still conflict, whether aired in a masculine or feminine way.

Does this kind of conversation really help us understand each other better, or do we instead get better at arguing our own point of view?

Take your position and dig in

This conflict ridden approach to communication is the one we see most often all around us – from the home to the workplace to the people who run the country.

The process of debate and argument is supposed to lead to better, mutually agreed outcomes but all too often leads to simply showing you who is powerful and who is not.

Think about the last discussion you had with your child, for example.

Was it resolved through the peaceful use of a negotiated settlement or was it ended through exercise of power – with you imposing your will or them walking away and refusing to engage?

A refusal to cooperate is also a power play – one that people with less power can use quite effectively.

In fact, politicians these days have learned that their objective is not to do what is best for their people.

Their objective, as professional politicians, is to win.

So, they only talk to the people who will support them anyway, who agree with their views, and to people on the fence.

The other side is of little importance.

What matters is that you fortify your position – you dig in and stick to your guns, your arguments, whatever the attack.

But what do you do if you actually want to understand the other person’s point of view?

We’ll look at that next time.


Karthik Suresh

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