How to have better conversations

Forget quick quips and one-way declarations. We visit The School of Life to see what we can all learn about The Art of Conversation.

By: Nicola Robey,   3 minutes


A writer in Stranger Collective’s talent pool, Seth Rowden loops his arms through his back pack, sharpens his pencils and heads back to a different kind of school for a Feed on the art of conversation.

When was the last time a conversation really nurtured you? Held your attention to the point where you completely lost track of time? I remember having these conversations with friends, years ago when I had more time, but not recently – and never with a brand. Intrigued by this decline in the quality of my conversations, I decided to take a Feed at The School of Life in London.

The School of Life run classes that explore life’s big questions and help us to lead more meaningful lives by looking to the arts, culture and philosophy for pragmatic answers. The subject for this event was ‘How to have better conversations’, and so I found myself in a group of twenty-something people in a basement on Marchmont Street discussing the golden age of conversation – the 18th century coffee houses frequented by the likes of Samuel Johnson and Oscar Wilde. But instead of thinking about myself, my first thought was…

Are brands stuck in the 18th century?
Wilde is considered a master of one-liners, and it was Johnson who uttered the famous quote: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” But does this make them good conversationalists? No, not exactly. These popular coffee houses were little more than a fencing match of witticisms – the constant blocking and shutting down of two-way conversations.

The 20th century marked a noticeable shift towards open conversations. People were encouraged to discuss their feelings and show vulnerability, to express interest in others rather than waiting for their turn to speak. Frankness replaced humour. Then social media came along and changed everything. Is Twitter a return to witticisms and broadcasts? And how open are brands when posting on Facebook?

“It’s also common to see mobile phones stacked in the middle of restaurant tables. The first one to reach for their phone pays the bill.”

Communication vs. conversation

Instead of facilitating open dialogue, social media often encourages in the opposite. There is a bias and social pressure towards ‘positive’ messages, and profile updates are communication rather than conversation. There is a pretence to our online personalities, a lack of spontaneity, a style of communication where responses are carefully considered and a mild dishonesty prevails. So is technology the answer or the enemy to good conversation? Many believe it’s the latter.

In Brazil they have made a beer glass that only stays upright when balanced on a phone. It’s also common to see mobile phones stacked in the middle of restaurant tables. The first one to reach for their phone pays the bill. This new custom is an attempt to reclaim good conversation, to spend time with people without anxiously checking emails or texting. It’s curious that we have designed technology in a way that creates a new source of stress and pressure in our lives.

A huge opportunity for businesses?
If there is a demand for good conversation, then why are so few businesses offering this? If we look for answers to living a more meaningful life along with doing the weekly shop, then why are brand promises falling short? There is a huge opportunity for businesses that find answers to these questions, and that look beyond short-term profit for long-term gain.

Theodore Zeldin, the thinker and scholar, suggests that we seek out those we least want to converse with, for these are the people we learn from the most. He warns of the dangers of living a divided life, where we change what we say depending on our audience. As well as wasting energy, this also costs us our integrity, and yet businesses do this all the time. They present different messages to customers, employees and shareholders – even categorising these as internal or consumer-facing communications.

“Seek out those we least want to converse with, for these are the people we learn from the most.”

As my feeding day came to an end, I was bursting with enthusiasm, ideas and good intentions.

I had a notebook full of exercises to sharpen my skills, and tips on how to put them into practice. So now I impart them to you; three things you can do right now to improve the quality of conversations – for you and your brand.

  • Manage expectations: plan what you want to say, find ways to start and end conversations, and manage expectations of response times. Twitter and email is 24/7, but you’re not.
  • Build, don’t block: encourage open conversations, be interested in others, talk to people about issues that matter to them, think about how you can make their lives more meaningful.
  • Challenge assumptions: talk to people who are not your customers, find out how they feel about your product or service, challenge assumptions you have about your brand.

Do you have any other tips to share? Then start a conversation right here, right now…











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