The Talking Cure, Part III (productive talk)

RobertFrost stampI talk in order to understand; I teach in order to learn. ~Robert Frost

As I wrote in my last post, the Arts Talk model envisions an environment where a variety of forms of talk, from dialogue to discussion to debate, are not only possible but also are common. While dialogue as a mechanism for achieving consensus and greater understanding is a key goal for engendering engagement around the arts, thoughtfully facilitated discussions and debates can also be fruitful (and deeply pleasurable).

But in order for these various forms of talk to be an engine for a new era of arts appreciation, they have to be productive.

Productive talking begins with a need—in this case the need to arrive at a shared appreciation of the multiple interpretations that can be voiced in conversation. For philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, language is at the core of our ability not only to know the world but also to know another. “Language is the medium in which substantive understanding and agreement take place between two people,” he writes in Truth and Method, stressing that in participating in the act of conversation we have to put our own prejudices (he calls them fore-meanings) and understandings to the test.

As linguist Ronald Wardhaugh writes in How Conversation Works, a conversation is “not simply about something, nor is it merely a series of somethings, such as topics. A conversation is something. It is a performance, a kind of show in which the participants act out as well as speak whatever it is they are doing.”

Taking my cue from Gadamer and Wardhaugh, my definition of productive talk, whether in the form of dialogue, discussion, or debate, is talk that originates in order to (1) communicate about a specific topic, (2) air publicly a range of opinions and perspectives on that topic, (3) listen and consider other points of view, and (4) work toward both collective and individual meaning making. This definition should hold regardless of whether that “room” is physical or virtual.

The productivity here is both literal, involving the effective exchange of information and viewpoints, and symbolic, in that people finish the experience with a new connection to the information and ideas that came out of the exchange and a new understanding between participants. In an environment where productive talk is encouraged and supported, community spirit flourishes, arising naturally out of the new understanding in the room.

But of course defining productive talk and actually achieving it are two different things. In the final two posts on the theme of The Talking Cure (coming this week), I’ll explore the nature of powerful questioning and attentive listening and offer a set of values for facilitating productive talk around the serious arts.

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  1. says

    “The artist has some internal experience that produces a poem, a painting, a piece of music. Spectators submit themselves to the work, which generates an inner experience for them. But historically it’s a very new, not to mention vulgar, idea that the spectator’s experience should be identical to, or even have anything to do with, the artist’s. That idea comes from an over-industrialized society which has learned to distrust magic.”

    SAMUEL R. DELANY, Dhalgren


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