What makes a good conversation?

I’m delighted to welcome you to my blog. I’m excited to be starting a conversation with you about… conversation. I believe that talking together is central in our lives. If we improve how we converse, we enrich our lives.

HSBC Ad: A world of investments is just one conversation awayWalking down Oxford Street in central London last week, I saw an ad in the window of HSBC bank. It read: “A world of investments is just one conversation away”. It made me think how valuable a single conversation can be and how a career can change as a result of one short talk.

Some years ago, I spoke with a fellow consultant about my passion for dialogue. I was inspired by Bill Isaacs’ work, particularly his book Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together. We often think of dialogue as between two people, but Bill had described how to create a conversation amongst 20 people so they could access their collective wisdom.

“But what’s your thinking on dialogue?” my colleague asked. “What do you have to say?”

I was so stirred by his question that I went home and sketched out some ideas. Several years later, when I received an unexpected email from the commissioning editor of Duncan Baird Publishing asking me to submit a proposal for a book on conversation, I dug out the scrappy notes that I’d tucked away. Because of that short talk years earlier, I wasn’t too overwhelmed at having to write a book proposal. Nearly a year later, when I delivered the manuscript for my book, Life-Changing Conversations, I gave thanks for the gift of that question from my colleague.

Let me know what you think

I look forward to exploring with you how we can expand our capacity to talk, even when there are tough things to say. I welcome your comments, queries and insights, and I want to hear your stories about the power of good conversation in your lives.

4 replies
  1. Jane
    Jane says:

    Hello there! Two of my favorite conversationalists – how fab. And many congratulations on your book, Sarah. I look forward to reading it.

    I’m exploring an interesting dimension of conversation at the moment. Living and working in a country where I do not speak the language and have no common third languages to share with my new work partners is a fascinating experience. On one level it is frustrating. Things I would be doing early in a project where we had some common language aren’t open to me – dropping by for a quick chat, bit of gossip (essential strand of conversation in an institution?) or to check something I’m not sure of and talk all the issues through. I bumped into someone from the office at the traffic lights near the office earlier this week. We walked down to the building smiling at each other encouragingly knowing all we could really do was smile and mime some kind of positive emotion. But there are unexpected benefits. When I know all I can offer an interlucutor at this point is clear evidence of my attention then I try and give it – strong eye contact, nodding when I recognise a word etc. I have an interpreter, of course, but it’s key to look at the speaker not her. And I have to think carefully about what I say so it’s easier for my interpreter – shorter, clearer sentences and much less chance to gabble on and take too much air time. The other day I got very enthused about something and forgot some of those rules and was off on one of my passionate perorations. My assistant gently touched my arm and said “Jane – “. We all laughed and with the translated comments in the room the full connection was made as the actual content was evidence of how we all understood each other and had made a leap forward together. So I am seeing that better conversation isn’t only about learning new ways but maybe ‘unlearning’ some old ones!

    still, I shall look forward to continuing this conversation with you and best of luck with this new pathway for dialogue – and congratulations.

    Reply
    • sarah
      sarah says:

      Hi Jane,

      It’s great to converse with you in this forum! Thanks so much for sharing your experience. It’s a very fine example of how much can be, and indeed IS, communicated without words.

      There’s a classic piece of psychological research (that you might well know) that reveals that, in fact, only 7% of meaning in face-to-face conversations is transmitted verbally. The rest comes through the “music” (our tone of voice – 38%) and our “dance” (body language – 55%).

      I’m delighted – and not surprised – that you were able to experience the connection you did with your colleagues. You are a gifted – and reflective – communicator.

      I’d love to know what you make of the book once you’ve had time to read.

      Very best,

      Sarah

      Reply
  2. Roger Cross
    Roger Cross says:

    Hi Sarah. Great to see the book launch goes so well the other evening! I think for me the best conversations are the ones that “change gear” rapidly and sometimes unexpectedly to open up new topics and ways of relating. Often this takes a little bit of bravery on the part of one or other of the people involved – a little bit of truth that might also be a risk! Also, I want to put in a little plug here for pointlessness! Sometimes apparent pointlessness is a necessary starting point: – a bit like first gear when pulling away from the curb (to continue one of my favourite analogies!) But if there is empathy and a desire to go a little further than just passing the time of day, then it’s a delight to see and hear and be part of a conversation that really takes off, moving from small talk, to an exchange of views, to agreement to disagreement, to humour, to a true meeting of minds and so perhaps to the creation of something that could not have been were it not for THAT conversation. Also, I think it’s helpful to see conversations over time – maybe, sometimes, one unusual or unexpected word is returned to much later in reflecting on an encounter that might have been quite ordinary in many ways – and the next conversation may then start: “you know when you said [….] last time we met? Well, I’ve been thinking…”

    Reply
    • sarah
      sarah says:

      Hi Roger, it was great to see you at the book launch. Many thanks for your support. I like what you’re saying about conversations being unpredictable and therefore creative and energising. This is most likely to happen, as you say, when there is also empathy and a desire to talk about what really matters rather than simply skim along the surface. Seeing how a conversation evolves over time is indeed a gift – and we don’t always know the impact we’re having!

      Reply

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