Why is Conversation Important?

Conversation is an emotional tool we have to negotiate meaning, to create strategic direction and impact, and much more. Yet we are unlearning how to stay in conversation long enough to benefit from it.

Researcher Sherry Turkle has been studying digital culture for over thirty years. Her prognosis on the effects of digital on conversation is not rosy. In Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age Turkle says it's time to reclaim this face to face form of connection and exchange — it's time to put down our smart phones and re-learn to find out what is going on in our relationships.

In a recent NYT article, Turkle says:

In a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, 89 percent of cellphone owners said they had used their phones during the last social gathering they attended. But they weren’t happy about it; 82 percent of adults felt that the way they used their phones in social settings hurt the conversation.

We cannot expect to bridge our distance in conversation when we don't even try. Lack of conversation means decreased empathy, which is the root of the characteristically human qualities we increasingly need to succeed in the future.

Turkle says:

The psychologist Yalda T. Uhls was the lead author on a 2014 study of children at a device-free outdoor camp. After five days without phones or tablets, these campers were able to read facial emotions and correctly identify the emotions of actors in videotaped scenes significantly better than a control group.

What fostered these new empathic responses? They talked to one another. In conversation, things go best if you pay close attention and learn how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is easier to do without your phone in hand. Conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do.

We find ourselves in solitude because we reclaim the space to be in conversation with our thoughts. When we understand better what we think, we bring more clarity into how we relate to others.

In the sound of silence I made an argument for the dynamic nature of appreciating the moment of pause in between words and sentences. It is the context that gives human interaction its flavor. When we fill that space with something other than being there, we leave much on the table.

Conversation is a reliable tool for thinking, alone and together. The back and forth, listening, building on what someone else said, and getting feedback are all built into conversation to help us accelerate learning.

It is in conversation that we learn why good disagreement is central to progress. But when we avoid even starting it, we miss out on seeing a different side to things. From Turkle's article:

a 2014 Pew study demonstrated that people are less likely to post opinions on social media when they fear their followers will disagree with them. Designing for our vulnerabilities means finding ways to talk to people, online and off, whose opinions differ from our own.

We know that a good conversation in a networking situation means more listening than talking. Our desire to be heard goes beyond the safe harbor of friendship. And it is not just our devices that keep us from having conversations — it's also the busy trap.

At some level we know conversation is important but what exactly is conversation? In an earlier post, I took a stab at looking at what it is and where it comes from. The post was conversation as connection.


Conversation is the most natural, effective, yet most complex mode of human connection. The goal of conversation is understanding between participants.

Understanding in communication is how we behave in front of a translation. We focus and we relax, we zoom in and out at the same time. We entertain the million thoughts and assumptions in our minds while the visual and auditory messages hit us.

The ingredients of a conversation:

1. The content  – what we say. Although this comprises only about 7% of what we pay attention to, it still matters

2. The process – how we say it. It is estimated that 55% of the process is carried through by nonverbal communication with 38% being the vocal tone alone

3. The timing – when we say it. This influences greatly how we process information

4. By far the most important is permission. Are we talking with each other or at each other?

Out lives are based on our ability to communicate. The meaning of communication is the response it elicits, not the intention.

Conversation relates to the Latin root of conversation as sermo. If we look at one of the ancient Greek words for conversation diatribe' comes up, which means use of time, occupation, dialogue.

Conversation is a space where relationships are managed. These relationships may be sudden and invisible to many — relationships between people, problems, solutions, processes, objects, and all of these and many more together.

When attention and authenticity accompany the message we shorten the distance in these relationships as we create something new.

It's interesting to observe here that the other Latin word for conversation is colloquium, which implies a more intimate setting. This became the English colloquial and German umgangssprachlich that literally means “of every day.” 

Communication has Latin root in communicatio as well as one in commercium or exchange between people. The ancient Greeks called this omilia, which also meant commerce, relationship, intimacy.

Our brain is an associative network. It means that our memories record not just the specific details of events, but also our feelings about them. So when it is under the influence of one emotion, it habitually makes connections to past events that triggered that same emotional response.

Emotions affect the way we feel, but they also affect the way we remember. When we relive a memory, we make a new memory in the process, with new connections.

We like twists in a story because we are wired to remember novelty, to recall events that somehow deviate from our expectations. Our brains have a biologically grounded interest in surprise. Add to the mix considerations around context, cultural differences, social circumstances, and environmental noise.

Making a connection is a very powerful proposition. 


[image – the conversation by Edgar Degas]

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