Ideas for Better Conversations

chairsThe Idea: A summary of the importance of conversation as a catalyst of cultural evolution, the seven purposes of conversation, some ‘cultural anthropology’ on how conversations ‘operate’ today, and a first stab at some rules or principles we could learn and adopt to produce better, more effective and productive conversations.

In my article Seeing the Big Picture (Building a Bigger Frame) I argued for the need for more expansive thinking to encompass, understand and build on different points of view, rather than reinforcing and polarizing those points of view through parochial and antagonistic argument. One of the crucial tools we use to exercise and expand our thinking is conversation, and it occurred to me that if we want to learn to think in ways that transcend the old, learning to converse in ways that transcend the old might be a good place to start. Humberto Maturana has said:

Human existence takes place in the relational space of conversation. This means that, even though from a biological perspective we are Homo Sapiens, our way of living – that is to say, our human condition – takes place in our form of relating to each other and the world we bring forth in our daily living through conversation.

If you’re like me, you’ve engaged in your share of eavesdropping in public places — restaurants, bars, elevators, cocktail parties, subway trains. What is disturbing is not that the subject matter and arguments are usually inane (though they are), but that the syntax, the flow, and the composition of the conversational threads are so awkward, sloppy, selfish and extravagant. It’s been said that conversation is like a dance: It requires some grace, some courtesy to avoid stepping on your partners’ toes, and agreement on who (at any point) is leading and who is following. Perhaps this is why conversations that involve three or more people at once are often so clumsy, more like a sequence of two-person conversations one after the other with (to strain the dance analogy) different people constantly butting in, usually before the song in progress has properly ended.

Recently I read a wonderful quote that went something like this: Are you listening or just waiting your turn to talk? Sound like someone you know?

A recent article by Australian Open Space practitioner Alan Stewart suggests five purposes for conversation: learning, reassurance, building trust, “working out what is important” and entertainment. Here’s (I think) a more complete list from one of my 2003 posts:

  • Educating: teaching or learning something useful or interesting
  • Conceptualizing: Thinking out loud, organizing and articulating thoughts, challenging, understanding something better, reassuring
  • Rehearsing: practicing to improve language skills
  • Socializing: finding people with similar ideas, interests or ambitions
  • Convincing: selling, seducing, persuading, engaging, building trust
  • Assisting: helping others or getting help
  • Entertaining: amusing, escaping, overcoming boredom, indifference, loneliness, shyness, or low self-esteem

It’s humbling to note that Bernd Heinrich provides examples in Mind of the Raven of all seven of these purposes to various raven vocalizations. And in his examples, ravens seem to be decidedly better at it than most humans. Perhaps that’s due to the fact they’ve been around longer than we have, so they’ve had more practice at it. It couldn’t be just that they have better manners, could it? ;-)

In his article Stewart says:

From circles of elders around ancient campfires to the conversations in the cafÈs and salons that spawned the French Revolution, people have always gathered for real conversation about questions that matter. In those times and places where innovation is born other simple conditions are also present. In addition to pursuit of a question that really matters and commitment to creating the space and time to explore it, it is crucial that mutual listening and a spirit of discovery infuse the conversations. A certain type of “magic” appearsóthe magic of a new collective intelligence arising from the individual minds present in the conversation. The wisdom needed to address the concerns of any group is already “in the middle of the circle” waiting to be tapped. These webs of conversations and the action commitments that naturally arise from them can serve as the energy generator, the amplifier, the core unit of change force for co-evolving the future in any system.

He quotes Konrad Lorenz’ on the hazards of conversation: “Said is not heard; heard is not understood; understood is not agreed to; agreed to is not carried out”. This is a more concise way of laying out the enormous intellectual and emotional challenge entailed in conversation that I described in my That’s Not What I Meant article. Here is a recap of my amateur observations about conversations from that post:

  • Linguistics professor Deborah Tannenbaum says women and men (with some notable exceptions) converse in entirely different ways, and they converse differently with members of the opposite sex than with members of their own.
  • Conversations have a myriad of complex but unspoken cultural norms, styles and rituals (taking turns, pausing, nodding, apologizing for interrupting or misunderstanding etc.) When two people with different norms, styles, or rituals try to converse, or when a third person ignorant of the styles or rituals shared by the other two tries to enter a conversation, the result is both comical and tragic. A form of violence, even.
  • Most people don’t appear to listen to what they themselves are saying. Many conversations include someone saying “I didn’t say that” when in fact they did. I suspect if people listened to a tape or video recording of their conversations they would be stunned. They might never say anything again!
  • Most of the real communication in a conversation is not in the words. It’s in the nuances of body and eye language. It’s in the tone of voice. It’s in the pauses. It’s in the physical proximity or distance of the conversants.
  • Many effective conversations appear to be really interviews. That entails specific roles for the two conversants, with the interviewer’s role being the more difficult and more important. If one person is mostly asking questions and the other person is doing most of the talking, it’s an interview, not a conversation.
  • Conversations with more than two people are generally either parallel sequences of two-person  conversations, or moderated conversations, where one person is clearly directing the conversational ‘traffic’.
  • Conversations would, I think, be much more effective if we had a ritual of having each conversant state upfront what their personal objective for the conversation is. I appreciate that in some cases this must be done tactfully: “I’ve wanted to meet you since Mr. A told me that you… “, or “I’m looking for some help with…” In the absence of such a protocol, a lot of initial conversations exhaust an enormous amount of participants’ energy trying to figure this out tacitly.
  • From watching online chat (the only written medium that in my opinion is fast and immediate enough to really qualify as ‘conversation’) and listening to young people especially talk, what people seem to want most from conversation with friends is reassurance. Everyone is always fishing for compliments and confirmation, and, unless and until they clearly know and trust the offerer very well, dubious of the offerer’s motivation when they get them. Few people, it seems, are really looking for advice, debate, or ‘constructive criticism’ in a conversation. But many seem enthusiastic to offer these things anyway!
  • You can tell almost immediately whether participants in a conversation trust each other or not. If you want to observe conversations where there is trust, go out for dinner a lot, and avoid offices and bars.


I’m coming to believe that good conversation, like good collaboration, is a skill, and, just as a lot of practice dancing badly does not make you a better dancer, just talking a lot does not necessarily make you a better conversationalist (in fact I suspect it may make you worse at it, by entrenching bad habits). If it’s a skill it should be possible to learn it and teach it. And, while the seven ‘purposes’ of conversations bulleted in red above might require somewhat different skills, I suspect that there is a basic conversational ‘skill set’ that is common to all purposes.

The following list of ‘rules’ or ‘principles’ or ‘elements’ of good conversation constitute my first attempt at identifying what we would need to learn, and teach, to be better conversationalists. Unfortunately, it seems likely that the quality of the conversation will inevitably be at the level of the poorest conversationalist, just as the performance of a dancing couple will reflect the least-accomplished partner. This list is the result of thinking out loud, and I’m sure it is far from complete. Please join the conversation!

  1. We need to learn to do three things simultaneously: (a) listen intently and carefully to what others are saying, (b) think the arguments and concepts through in our own mind (and draw our own conclusions), and (c) articulate what we are going to say before we speak. This is extremely difficult, especially in a large group. If all participants do not do this, the result is a vicious cycle of poor conversation: not listening (and disengaging), not thinking, and not articulating properly, leading to more ‘not listening’.
  2. We need to limit how many words we say before we allow, and encourage, others to speak, to keep the conversation ‘in sync’.
  3. We need to allow pauses in the conversation, for people to catch up, and think coherently about what direction the conversation might most effectively go next.
  4. We need perhaps (I’m not sure) to allow and encourage people to pull themselves periodically out of the conversation and facilitate it as if they were non-participants: summarizing, time-checking, asking questions, drawing people out, even suggesting how the conversation might be made more productive. Is that presumptuous and manipulative?
  5. We need, as I suggest above, a ‘ritual’ (protocol) by which each participant and new entrant in a conversation begins with a brief upfront tactful statement of their personal objective for the conversation.
  6. We need another ‘ritual’ that would allow participants whose objective in the conversation is not being met to leave without excuse or apology and without other participants (even if there is only one!) taking offense. How else will selfish conversationalists ever learn?
  7. Back to the dance analogy, we need to evolve (or rediscover) tacit ways to cede and request the floor without interrupting the conversation or its flow, and tacit ways to invite or welcome others to join a conversation without side-tracking it with formal introductions. Could we evolve, as birds seem to have done, some graceful (good conversation, it seems to me, has a lot to do with grace) wordless gestures that would accomplish this, and allow us to signal that we would like to speak, who (if we have the floor) we are inviting to speak next, when we are finished speaking, that we understand, that we don’t understand, that the speaker should let someone else talk, etc.
  8. We need to learn to read and understand body language, and to express body language unambiguously. It’s an essential part of the conversation, and suppressing it or distorting it muffles the conversation.
  9. There is a new technology just announced that captures every conversation you participate in, records it, compresses it, and transcribes it. I’m ambivalent about this. Recording of conversations makes me shudder, yet it might allow us to retrieve information (contact information, context information) later that could be enormously valuable. We need to decide how to extract the benefits from such technology without incurring its risks, and without its trust-threatening and conversation-dampening attributes.
  10. We need to learn to be much better story-tellers, and more improvisational.
  11. We need to learn effective listening techniques, and critical thinking skills.
  12. Prevailing wisdom is that we need to be more respectful, more polite in our conversations. While I don’t doubt this would be helpful, I’m not sure it can be taught or mandated. What are the ‘model behaviours’ that set an example for respect and politeness in conversations? What can we do to tactfully nudge those (especially when it’s our boss!) who fail to demonstrate respect and politeness even when others are behaving in an exemplary way?

OK, I’ve said (more than) enough. Thank you for listening. Your turn to speak.

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6 Responses to Ideas for Better Conversations

  1. lugon says:

    If cocreating a conversation is that difficult (and I think it is) then maybe we need to be patient about our own skills and allow the conversation to go on for a much longer time. That way we can go over already covered ground and fill in the blanks or correct our misunderstandings. Olympic swimmers don’t swim too fast when they learn to swim.Or perhaps we could practice with ourselves?Now I listen.

  2. Julian says:

    Interesting post! There’s part of me that wants to leap in and start analysing ways we could help people develop those skills in learnable chunks, but there’s also another part that was moved to pull David Bohm’s “On Dialogue” from the shelf. It’s a slim but densely-packed volume, and without further study/refresh I’m not going to be able to precis it here. However there is, I think, something in DB’s idea of a collective conscious arrived at through a new form of conversation which runs close to your thoughts…

  3. Dale Asberry says:

    »We need perhaps (I’m not sure) to allow and encourage people to pull themselves periodically out of the conversation and facilitate it as if they were non-participants: summarizing, time-checking, asking questions, drawing people out, even suggesting how the conversation might be made more productive. Is that presumptuous and manipulative?«These are common techniques that moderators use. I think some people fall naturally into that role – conversational infomediaries? It’s not presumptuous because they go into that mode when they notice the role is not being fulfilled – and, it is an “intentional” role by it’s very nature. It is only manipulative if the moderator intends to guide the direction of the conversation.However, if all participants performed this role, the group would be able to collectively avoid groupthink since the objective of facilitation is to encourage diverging opinions.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Lugon: Absolutely. Conversations are iterative, and recursive, and need time to evolve.Julian: Thanks for the reference — I’ll do some more reading on Bohm. From a quick read of some of his online stuff he comes across as a bit idealistic, but then so do I ;-)Dale: Yes, that works. Kind of makes the dance analogy break down, though, unless you consider the dance instructor part of the dance ensemble. Though there are certain unspoken clues that the dance ‘leader’ uses to guide his/her partner, so maybe the facilitation is like that.

  5. As a fellow sufferer I can only suggest a few things to reduce the suffering:1. Surround yourself with good people. Listen to them.2. When confronting your list, order the items by number, with important items at the begining of the list. Do the list in numbered order, ticking them off as they go.At the end of the day, look back and congratulate yourself on whatever progress you’ve made on the important, even if you don’t feel it – as attitudes follow behaviour.Write and place a sign in full view that says, “I have the ability to make the RIGHT choice NOW. ALl I need to do is say YES.”Good luck my friendJohn

  6. Phil says:

    Have you looked at Dynamic Facilitation? It helps to create conditions for group conversation even when there are difficult people in the room. The general idea is that everything is written down by the facilitator who doesn’t participate in the conversation. When people feel like they are being listened to, and then ‘dump’ all the things that are on their mind, they begin to listen. See for more. I do like the ‘law of mobility’ in open space technology meetings however, so that when someone is engaging in a boring monologue I can feel free to leave.

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