The art of conversation in the digital age is still vital to society and our understanding of each other

Having great conversational skills isn’t innate, but rather something learned and, most importantly, practised, writes Robert Poynton, author of new book Do Conversation.

Many people hold the belief that there is a knack to conversation which they somehow lack but everyone else has, as if there were a gene for it that only a few possess, or they were sick on the day it was taught at school. This nagging feeling is magnified by extravagant claims that a few simple hacks will give you access to a land of ease and grace, where you are never stuck for words and always come across as intelligent, accomplished and witty.

But there isn’t a gene for conversational skill and there wasn’t a class you missed. The idea that ‘killer’ conversation starters or journalistic listening techniques are all you need is a fantasy which can make you feel incompetent and lead you to conclude that you just don’t have what it takes.

Hide Ad

The reality is messy, complex and something of a paradox, because you are amazing at conversation already. Really. We all are. To be able to converse at all, at whatever level, is an extraordinarily sophisticated skill we take for granted. The intricate dance of words and gestures we routinely engage in is a peculiar and delightful human capacity, hiding in plain sight. No machine, however sophisticated or powerful, can do anything like it.

Lean in to the art of conversation and you will learn about yourself and others PIC: Jim MarsdenLean in to the art of conversation and you will learn about yourself and others PIC: Jim Marsden
Lean in to the art of conversation and you will learn about yourself and others PIC: Jim Marsden

And yet, this is no excuse for complacency. As a Zen master once said to his students: ‘Each of you is perfect the way you are: and you can use a little improvement.’ Just because you are good at conversation, doesn’t mean you can’t get better.

But how? Rather than simplistic scripts of specific things to say, look for guiding questions that make you think. Whilst writing Do Conversation I collected a set of these ‘Maxims and Mantras’. Rather than a step by step model, they offer you ideas to return to, that give you something to practise.

I have chosen three to unpack here, but there are plenty more where they came from (there are 20 in the book). Which of them to work on is something to decide for yourself. It’s personal, so you might choose just one. The aim is not to become good at conversation but to become good at being you, in conversation.Maxim #1 - Have conversations, don’t avoid them

The first maxim is crashingly obvious and therein lies its value: have conversations; don’t avoid them. It is so easy to delay, defer or default to looking at your phone. Yet no-one ever got good at something by not doing it.

Make yourself available to others (which is also an act of generosity). Talk to a stranger on a train or on the street. Talk to different kinds of people. Assume you have something to learn from all of them and that will become true.

Hide Ad

Think about this the next time you shy away from a conversation. How many opportunities are there that you don’t take or even notice - with strangers or with the people you know and love? Do you create the space for conversations with the people you live or work with, or are you always rushing around trying to get stuff done?

Of course, there is a risk in talking to others. You have to make a little effort and be prepared to be vulnerable, You have to be willing to hear what it is that is on their mind, which may take you away from your own agenda, but that is what makes it worthwhile.Making conversation an ongoing practice is a different mindset to thinking of it as a stage where you have to perform. And what a relief that is.

Hide Ad

Maxim #9 - Listen with your body and to your body (it’s physical)Conversation is a physical skill as well as a mental one, so start with your body. Rather than get anxious about the ‘right’ words to say, focus on how you are holding yourself and what you feel in your body. Drop your shoulders, loosen your jaw, ground yourself by feeling the seat of the chair or your feet on the floor.

These physical shifts bring your attention into the here and now, making you present and helping you pay attention to other people rather than your own ego.Desert Island Discs researcher Julie Batty, talks of how, when you are really listening, your skin, fingertips and whole body feel alive. An extreme example of this is Evelyn Glennie, the Scottish percussionist who has been profoundly deaf since childhood. Her virtuosity is extreme, but everyone can listen with more than their ears.

Listening to your body and with your body gives you access to a different kind of information and brings other kinds of intelligence (emotional, intuitive etc.) into play, which helps you sense and feel where it might be worth dwelling or exploring further.

Think about how you physically set up a conversation. Whether you talk face to face or shoulder to shoulder, choose a board room or a bar, will shape the kind of conversation you have, so make choices that further your purpose.

Maxim #15 - Be playfulLevity does more than add light relief. Playfulness and humour release energy, shift the mood, invite novelty and make assumptions visible. When a US Air Force Colonel says to me ‘flying a fast jet is fun, but there is nothing more exciting than standing in front of a classroom of people who are eager to learn´ he is simultaneously being playful and making a serious point that opens up a fascinating conversation about teaching and learning. Being playful also makes conversations memorable. The Dean of Oxford college once described the university as a ‘medieval theme park’ and even 15 years later I remember that.

To play is to allow yourself not to have to have answers. Play around with who comes, where you are, how much time you allow, the materials you use (a talking object perhaps?) as well as with the words and language itself. Most of this is about giving yourself and others permission to let go of the idea that you have to adhere to any given pattern.

Hide Ad

An everyday miracleWe do a lot with conversation. We use it to develop relationships; play around; discover and learn; challenge authority; test and flesh out ideas; build worlds and forge identities.In a good conversation, something appears amongst us that was not there before and we are able to make meaning together. This enables us to bridge the unfathomable gap between one experience of being human and another, which is why I have come to think of it as an ‘everyday miracle’.

Yet conversation is bittersweet. Despite our extraordinary skill we feel incompetent. We crave connection but are nervous of each other. We yearn to be seen as long as we are free to hide. We want surprises we can control. The tension between these opposing poles is what makes conversation a dynamic, creative force. It is a living thing, like jazz or birdsong: more ‘call and response’ than question and answer.

Hide Ad

Thus as well as being a joy in itself, conversation is a crucible, where we can develop meaningful responses to meet the complex predicaments that we face, cultivating a local space of pattern, sense and meaning where we can think together. In today’s grim and turbulent world, this is no small thing. Moreover, there is no one way to do this. Conversation thrives on variety and no one does it quite like you.

​Do Conversation: there is no such thing as small talk by facilitator, experience designer and bestselling author, Robert Poynton is published by The Do Book Co, £9.99