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Shelley Karliner, LICSW, and Tricia Bassing, LICSW, Licensed Psychotherapists image



Shelley Karliner, LICSW

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Most of us are not very good at carrying on conversations. Some of us dread making conversation. It makes us nervous. We feel awkward. On the other hand, some of us like to converse, but find the conversations we get into are limited; they get stuck pretty quickly, they don’t go anywhere. The way we generally talk with each other is what one could call contractual conversation.

For instance, I say: “I just love chocolate ice cream. And my co-worker says: “Oh, really? Well, I like vanilla.”

Or I say: “It feels cold to me in here.” And my sister-in-law says: “ I actually feel comfortable.”

Or I say: “I love you.” And my partner says: “I love you, too.”

What is taking place in this exchange is: “I give you something of mine, then you give me something of yours.” The assumption is: we’ve done something together.

But there’s a difference if I say: “I just love chocolate ice cream.”  And my co-worker says: “Oh, really, what is it about chocolate that you like?”

Or if I say: “It feels cold to me in here.” And my sister-in-law says: “Oh, would you like a sweater to put on?”

Or I say: “I love you.” And my partner says: “Oh, It just makes me tingle when you say that.”

Creating conversation is listening to what someone said and responding by building off of it.

It’s not:

  • making your statement;
  • getting your point across;
  • getting your idea in;
  • waiting for the other person to finish so you can say your piece.

The key word here is listening.

We use contractual conversation in order to stay away from each other, to stay away from the emotional experience of creating something with someone. It’s hard to listen because then you have to allow yourself to be impacted by what you hear. You are changed because of what you heard. You allow yourself be touched by the other person. When you are truly listening, you cannot simply move forward with your own agenda.

Contractual conversation would be like two people doing two projects in the same room, whereas creative conversation is like two people writing a poem together.

It means creating another kind of conversation—something different than what we are used to.

It’s changing how we speak, becoming both better listeners and better question askers.

It’s slowing down: asking big questions about little things, things we never think to ask a question about and asking questions that may not have answers.

It’s having the cornerstone of our conversations become listening. It’s allowing ourselves to be impacted by what we hear, and directing what we say to become a building activity rather than a competing activity.

Generally, what we think of as important in conversation is what we have to say. What if we focused our conversations on not what I’m thinking about but how I’m thinking about it.

This leads to a different kind of conversation. That is what I call “philosophizing.”

In a “philosophizing” conversation we:

  • Ask questions about what the other person is saying;
  • Accept what they say, not necessarily agreeing with but not negating it;
  • Incorporate what someone says into our response;
  • Open things up by asking questions rather than shut them down by giving answers;
  • Give up the need to be right;
  • Stop trying to establish or refute the truth;
  • Are more interested in what we can discover than in what we already know;
  • Gauge what we say on whether it will build the conversation.



 Anger: What’s So Powerful About It Anyway?
 Creating the Relationships We Want
 Creating Conversation: Philosophizing at Work,
 Home and on the Playground
 On the Job and In the Director’s Chair
 Living With Loss: Letting Go and Moving On
Shelley Karliner is a psychotherapist who has helped thousands of people from all walks of life develop new emotional capacities and create healthy intimate relationships. She was trained at the East Side Institute for Group and Short Term Psychotherapy by Fred Newman, the founder of the social therapeutic approach to emotional development. She gives talks and workshops on topics related to the emotionality of everyday life.

Grow. There’s Nothing Stopping You. Feel better.

Shelley Karliner and Tricia Bassing, Licensed Psychotherapists
4115 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, Suite 203, Washington, DC 20016—202-244-0442

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