Nietzsche: On Good Conversation

Do you know the feeling: you are speaking with someone about something important, and you can see them champing at the bit, waiting impatiently to weigh in with their own experience, or simply to divert the conversation back to themselves – their favourite subject?

It’s not really speaking with someone: you are speaking past them; they are speaking at you.

We’ve all been guilty of this at some point. I’ve friends and family who are struck with spasms of verbal diarrhoea, in which every aspect of and occurrence in their life comes torrenting from their mouths, quite involuntarily. This is not necessarily a wrong or rude thing, oftentimes it just reflects excitement and a need to offload. It can be flattering to be identified as an adequate receptacle for their pent-up life experience.

However, there’s a time and place for this. An important conversations is an unsuitable time and place to offload in this manner.

True, productive conversation is not about recounting the past. They take place in the present, and – if they are conducted sincerely and seriously – they create something new for the future.

Original ideas only originate in a great mind and – for the rest of us – within a good conversation.

Nietzsche says these sorts of things better, and with brevity:

“One seeks a midwife for his thoughts, another someone to whom he can be a midwife: thus originates a good conversation.”

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, §136

A good conversation is held between two people wishing to bring into existence something new, a natal idea or outcome. It approximates thinking more so than speaking, hence why you seek a midwife, not for your words, but for your thoughts. This requires another person – Nietzsche’s ‘midwife’ – who likewise holds the goal of giving birth to and nurturing a new idea or outcome.

Serious conversations are painful. If they are not at least uncomfortable, it is not a serious conversation. The midwife to your thoughts should be considerate, patient, but firm. Though it is a perfectly natural natal process, carrying on without a midwife is madness at best, hopeless at worst.

A midwife cannot do the work for you, but remains crucial to the whole process. Likewise within a good conversation. You should coax, not cajole; comfort, not coerce; listen, not lecture; encourage, not instruct; all of which is to say, you should help and not hinder the development of thoughts, which are ultimately not yours to articulate.

Midwives do not assume ultimate responsibility of the newborn, they assist in the birthing and aftercare. There should be no ego involved. Midwives are not there to judge you, or allow their personal lives and private opinions interfere with the task at hand.

Such is the case within a good conversation.

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