The lost art of conversation

Deep and meaningful discussions, as opposed to awkward small talk, can improve our quality of life and work.

  • The Australian
  • The other day I faced one of the most poignant questions I’ve been asked in a long time, and it opened up my mind. It was something to the effect of: what is one of the most beautiful moments of your life and what did it teach you?

I was forced to run through myriad images to try to define the one I most wanted to talk about. In those few moments I saw my daughter’s face as she was handed to me for the first time; I saw my closest friends and me lying face-up in a pool under the stars watching a comet streak across the sky; I saw myself dancing around a fire feeling at one with nature; I saw myself curled up with my cats staring into each other’s eyes, all of us purring.

Each taught me about connection. Each reminded me how exquisite and meaningful life could be, even amid this day-to-day drudgery that so often makes us forget the precious moments.

I mention this to show how a simple question can evoke a lifetime of joy and lead to profound discussion and contemplation. I left the conversation elevated.

But, sadly, it’s the reverse I want to address: the inability to converse, that is. What has happened to the art of communication and conversation in these days of online chatter and social media and texted sound bites? It’s a time when points of view are confined to a few characters or boxes, and statements are made rather than questions posed and pondered, when narcissists impose selfies and self-obsessed tweets to create envy rather than connection, and words are geared to a pathologically short attention span.

I go to a lot of events for work, sit next to a lot of people at conferences and dinners, and some conversations are so puerile and banal I’d rather chew a tarantula spider. Often I’m being talked at, not talked to. Recently I sat next to a man who was boring me senseless with details about his daughter’s schooling and his pompous views on everything. Eventually I butted in facetiously: “You know, I’m a very interesting woman. I travel the world, I’m a journalist, I explore so many things.” He looked momentarily stunned, asked a question or two, then used my answers to revert to his self-absorbed monologue.

Indeed, it appears we have forgotten how to talk to each other and, more important, how to pose questions that allow us to go deep very quickly, to unpeel the soul, philosophise. Answers are equally important. With some people, you ask one question and they waffle on for an hour and don’t even notice you are nodding off or looking away. No amount of body language alerts them that you may not be fascinated because they are busy looking at “me”. The art of conversation is also knowing when your turn is up.

At a recent function, we had a table full of people on their mobiles, typing in unison. The dearth of conversation affects all ages, we all spend too much time in front of screens. But the problem has become so bad for millennials, it is in many cases affecting their ability to work. Experts say the capacity to draw others into meaningful conversations can determine whether business contacts or clients want to get to know you, or remember you at all. And to be inept at it can damage career prospects.

According to The Wall Street Journal a new breed of networking consultants and communications coaches is springing up to advise professionals and employees who lack the skills to engage new clients or customers, or middle managers who lack the internal networks needed to rise to executive jobs.

One corporate trainer, Vanessa Van Edwards — the author of Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People, a new book on social skills — who was interviewed for the story, realised she was having the same conversation again and again at business events. “And so what do you do? … Do you live around here?” She took flight verbally to combat the monotony by asking refreshing questions — “Have you been working on anything exciting recently?” or “What was the highlight of your day?” or “What personal passion projects are you working on?” — to create positive experiences.

I find good opening lines about Netflix always provoke conversation or humour — which can quickly lead to a fascinating discourse on, say, the nature of evil, which in turn can spiral into a talk about the listener’s childhood. Research confirms people are likelier to remember encounters that are emotionally charged.

But some experts warn that getting too intimate too quickly may make others feel uncomfortable at boundaries crossed; or tired because of having to think too hard; or simply irritated they can’t pop over to the next contact. So, knowing how and when to go deeper is of the essence.

Many people dread social settings such as cocktail parties or dates because they feel anxious, not good enough or like frauds. The benefit of great questioning and active listening is it takes the heat off you and allows others to shine. But how to do it?

The urgent need for communication training has inspired my journalist friend Rebecca Batties, a former MTV executive, to launch next month. It’s a site devoted entirely to provoking conversations: how to talk, what to talk about, how to ask questions, how to stay informed and maintain an appropriate pace.

The site will curate compelling topics for social occasions, business networking, cocktail or dinner parties, family situations and especially for those awkward online dating catch-ups. It will feature a selection of unusual and quirky topics, as well as advice on how to start and navigate a conversation.

“I found a great story to post the other day. Aeroflot has said that as part of our new branding we won’t hire overweight or unattractive hostesses because it’s not what our customers say they want. That would be a great, provocative conversation starter,” Batties says.

“Conversation is about giving, not just receiving, knowing how to actively listen, to question in a way to elicit something meaningful or fun. You’ll go further with people if you make conversing a fruitful experience that stretches their imagination, makes them feel good or challenged, leaves them with new information or something of value.”

She believes the craft of conversation is harder for men. Women are more chatty by nature and nurture, with more neural connections in the brain to emotional expression, so she will be catering to the male demographic too, as well as the business networking and dating sets. And especially to millennials.

The verdict is in. Research at the University of Arizona shows people who have more substantive conversations with others have a greater sense of wellbeing than those who engage in small talk.

Now there’s something worth discussing.

Reader comments on this site are moderated before publication to promote lively and civil debate. We encourage your comments but submitting one does not guarantee publication. We publish hundreds of comments daily, and if a comment is rejected it is likely because it does not meet with our comment guidelines, which you can read here. No correspondence will be entered into if a comment is declined.

15 people listening

Avatar for Genevieve


What a splendid article and I so agree with you ! I sometimes despair when my adult children will make nothing more than a statement, when I ask  what I hope, will start an interesting discussion ! They then quickly return to the mobile phone. Dinner parties thirty years ago were absolutely delightful: witty, informative,superb food, and the most genial company…

Avatar for Italo


I sense the gravitas. Persons and reasons appear in various ways where deep connection may be to philosophize, but that too can seem to be too aloof. It may be about determining ideological typologies that ‘crank your case’, or understanding the variables correlated to core values, and shifts in desire.

Avatar for Michael


I don’t see how that conversation about Aeroflot not hiring overweight or unattractive hostesses could be a good idea.  According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, almost 2 out of 3 Australian adults – 63 per cent – are overweight or obese.  For those 2 out of 3 people it’s a touchy subject.  I wouldn’t go near it.

Avatar for C


@Michael the paradox of conversation?  (It should be controversial to be interesting…but not so much so as to clear the room…)

Avatar for Jeffery


A very interesting piece.  My tendency to avoid being “trapped” in a social setting as if it were the plague is almost overwhelming.  I am not shy, or under confident or unable to engage in conversation, I just find most discussions in a social setting (I am retired and thus the work related setting no longer applies) are such a huge waste of time where there rarely is a genuine exchange of ideas.  Added to this is the dumbing-down  of our society and the morons whose conversation and analysis of issues is limited to social media, and one can hardly be blamed for more gainfully using one’s time.

Having said that, I will visit the website detailed above and one never knows.

Avatar for Geoff


This article is especially relevant after reading the Andrew Denton article on assisted suicide!  Deeper (and respectful) communication leads to better relationships. Looking at the bigger picture, I think families would be better connected and supportive and therefore less inclined to want to euthanise a loved one, rather than give them our loving time and efforts to honour them in their final years.

Good communication goes way beyond the social scene.

Geoff’s wife

Avatar for Matt


@Geoff  From Ruth’s article, the question is interesting: “what is one of the most beautiful moments of your life and what did it teach you?”

The thing is, coupled with Denton’s article, a different key question is missing: “what did the most painful moment in your life teach you?”

All of life is a teacher, not just the happy moments.

Our pain, suffering and grief shape and inform our lives in equally important ways as the inverse moments.

Who knows what cherished memories can be forged in the final moments which at the time may be clouded by pain and suffering and grief.

Avatar for JELG


Yesterday I delivered a light aircraft across the dividing range.  Sitting next to me (and doing most of the flying) was a good friend who is currently battling lung cancer. We had this exact conversaion, talking about the death of conversation.  Nothing wipes out banal vacuous small talk like the big C.

Men may converse less often but I believe that when we do converse, it is considerably deeper than women usually do.  Men converse sitting side by side.  (fishing, football games etc.)  Women converse in groups around a round table facing each other and often talking simultaneously.   And children will more often talk facing down and working on a drawing or something.

My favorite conversation starter is to ask “what is the most impacting book you have ever read.”   Which may not be the book you enjoyed most.   My list is something like Les Miserables, Anna Karanina and that awful book by William Golding, Lord of the Flies.

Avatar for John


@JELG I can see some people’s reponse to your last paragraph being “Umm, like. What’s a book?”

Avatar for C


@JELG Talking about impactful (but not favourite) books…Kay Cottee’s solo around the world sailing book (First lady)…made me confront fear of dying…and also very interesting story.  (…with pirates…)

Avatar for Brian of Piccadilly

Brian of Piccadilly

Nothing is ever simply “go with the flow” with Ruth. I’ve sat at countless business conferences, lunches, etc and if people were really honest in their conversation they would have said how much they would have preferred to be somewhere – anywhere – else.

Avatar for Nici


Great piece

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply