The (Lost) Art of Conversation

The world right now needs the most vivid, transformative universe of words that you and I can muster. And we can begin immediately to start having the conversations we want to be hearing, and telling the story of our time anew.”

Krista Tippett

There is a sense that many of us are longing for – and seeking out – better conversations. How can we do this? Should we collectively seek new forms of conversations, or rekindle forgotten ones? Could this be something we commit to practising in order to improve on?

Many of the exchanges we witness, take part in, or lead, don’t focus so much on the conversing part, but on lecturing, competing or having the last word.

Not every exchange we have must necessarily be a conversation, but it is through conversations that we grow individually and as a society. Peace and reconciliation, for example, are achieved through dialogue. 

So what do we mean by conversation?

“A conversation is a work of art with more than one creator,“ Philosopher John Armstrong writes. It is civilised speech, it is “the encounter of two polished minds: tactful enough to listen, confident enough to express their true beliefs; subtle enough to search out the reasons behind the thoughts.”

Good conversations are rare and are not easy to have. Many wise thinkers and writers highlight listening as the most essential skill, but also caution that it does not simply mean to open our ears and be quiet when someone speaks. It’s about how we engage with what someone says; with honesty, curiosity and compassion.

Even trying to get someone to agree with us or reach consensus can get in the way. Krista Tippett says we’ve all been trained to advocate for what we care about and that has value in a civil society, but what really will begin to make a difference, she says, “is if we are able to create a space in which we are at least curious, interested in why someone believes something, or how they got to believe something. That is where the art lies.”

Real change is often most likely to occur when the focus is on connecting with the person we are engaging in conversation with, rather than seeking our own predetermined outcome. Gadamer’s hermeneutics examines the nature and ethics of dialogue, arguing that openness to others, including allowing ourselves to be put into question by others, is crucial in order to reach understanding, and by extension, solidarity. 

We can find inspiration in the socratic dialogues of the Greek philosophers, in particular, Plato, whose writing was largely in the form of dialogue. Dialogue doesn’t presuppose agreement or consensus but invites us to develop our critical thinking, something we should develop and nurture as a collective societal skill.

Some conversations are hard and can be scary, and we often choose to remain quiet for fear of offending or being misunderstood. This often highlights the work we need to do on ourselves first, which involves understanding our position, privilege and responsibility. 

Obenewa Amponsah says the question of whether and when to raise an issue will be different for each person, and those “who come from dominant communities, and who most directly benefit from the oppression of others, have a particular obligation to speak up and to do so often.” 

She points out that there are many great conversations today that are necessary for us to have as a society, including about race, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, class, and all of the other ways we differ. And it is in those conversations that we learn, grow, develop and build communities.

In the words of Armstrong, “as civilised human beings, we are inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, not of an accumulated body of information but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries.”

Words, Veronica Yates, illustration, Miriam Sugranyes 

Visit our website page for resources. See also related posts on the art of listening, openness, curiosity and compassion.