How to Improve Our Conversations

Truman Capote Conversation

When Susan Cain started research for her book in Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, along with the story of Dale Carnegie's metamorphosis, she found the chain of events that led to the cultural transformation of a whole country. From a Culture of Character, the United States moved to a Culture of Personality. Culture shapes behavior.

The world followed —and now we can't stop talking. Talk shows, reality shows, trade shows, media and entertainment trading places. What are we saying? Do we know were to begin to have a valuable conversation?

It starts with understanding why conversation matters.

Experiencing being heard

In his second book on negotiation, Beyond Reason – Using Emotion as You Negotiate co-authored with Daniel Shapiro, Roger Fisher says:

Perhaps the most powerful way to soothe someone's emotions is to appreciate their concerns. There are three elements in appreciating someone. You want to understand the other's point of view; find merit in what they are thinking, feeling, or doing; and communicate the merit you see.

We can use the model Fisher and Shapiro employ as a framework as we learn to negotiate the speed and frequency at which conversations come at us in the world of social media. Viewing conversation as negotiation helps us become more effective in addressing the context in which the substance of business rests.

When we experience an actual good conversation, we crave more. Terry Gross, host of Fresh Air, has mastered the art of opening up. Her guests relish the opportunity to experience what it's like to have that kind of interview:

Matthew Weiner, the creator of ‘‘Mad Men,’’ has been among the most frequent guests on ‘‘Fresh Air.’’ He imagined being interviewed by Gross years before it first happened, and once it did, ‘‘you’re like: Oh, this is my fantasy of a conversation,’’ Weiner told me. ‘‘I’m not even talking about people hearing it. I’m talking about actually having the conversation.’’

‘‘Having the conversation’’ — that’s what’s compelling about the wish. It’s a wish not for recognition but for an experience. It’s a wish for Gross to locate your genius, even if that genius has not yet been expressed. It’s a wish to be seen as in a wish to be understood.

There is much talking going on, yet so rarely do we feel we connect with each other.

In Dialogue: The Art Of Thinking Together William Isaacs defines the heart of dialogue as:

a simple but profound capacity to listen. Listening requires we not only hear the words, but also embrace, accept, and gradually let go of our own inner clamoring. As we explore it, we discover that listening is an expansive activity. It gives us a way to perceive more directly the ways we participate in the world around us… This means listening not only to others but also to ourselves and our reactions.

How to listen is the most valuable skill nobody teaches. Although most of us acknowledge the importance of listening to improve our understanding, learn new things, we fall short of that ambition. But dialogue goes beyond learning how to listen —as valuable as that is. Says Isaacs:

Dialogue enables a `free flow of meaning,' which has the potential of transforming the power relationships among the people concerned. As this free flow emerges, it becomes quite apparent that no one person owns this flow and that no one can legislate it.

People can learn to embody it, and in a sense serve it. This is perhaps the most significant shift possible in dialogue: that power is no longer the province of a person in a role, or any single individual, but at the level of alignment an individual or group has with Life itself.

Creating white space

He reinforces the idea that conversation is a space. One in which we can create certain dynamics to protect fragile new ideas until they are mature enough for implementation. It is an environment conducive to open thought and exchange for the benefit and growth of all parties involved.

He says:

Respect also means honoring people's boundaries to the point of protecting them. If you respect someone, you do not intrude. At the same time, if you respect someone, you do not withhold yourself or distance yourself from them. I have heard many people claim they were respecting someone by leaving them alone, when in fact they were simply distancing themselves from something they did not want to deal with. When we respect someone, we accept that they have things to teach us.


Treat the person next to you as a teacher. What is it that they have to teach you that you do not now know? Listening to them in this way, you discover things that might surprise you.


Respect is, in this sense, looking for what is highest and best in a person and treating them as a mystery that you can never fully comprehend. They are a part of the whole, and, in a very particular sense, a part of us.

If even silence has a sound, conversations have acoustics. Isaacs says:

Every conversation has its own acoustics. Each one takes place in an environment that has both physical, and external, dimensions as well as internal, or mental and emotional, dimensions. There is, in other words, an invisible architecture to the container.

Most such structures are made for discussion, for thinking alone. We have very few designed for thinking together, for dialogue.

True dialogue

Are we willing to suspend our internal dialogue for a moment and join the conversation in real time?

True dialogue permits inquiry, confrontation, and clarification. No one person owns this 'free flow of meaning', and if we begin to see it that way, then we can think of extensions of what others are saying, instead of anchoring ourselves in our assumptions.

The Internet can be seen as the attempt of your literate and isolated culture to somehow return to community. People seem to imagine that if we are all digitally connected, then we would all be in touch, and the great malaise of the age – the isolation, pace, disconnection that many of us feel – would be allayed. But so far the digital revolution is giving us connection but not contact.


One simple touch of a human hand could far exceed all the impact of all the digital libraries in the land.

The opposite of multitasking is coming out from behind ourselves and joining the conversation in real time.

In Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time, Susan Scott introduces the concept of “emotional wake.” This is the experience we leave behind as we go through our day. Scott believes that the conversation is the relationship and we should handle it with authenticity and warmth.

It is the third risk we fear the most. She says:

A fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real. Being real is not the risk. The real risk is that (1) I will be known; (2) I will be seen; (3) I will be changed.

In fierce conversations together, we create a force field by asking the questions, by saying the words out loud.

Soften your eyes and allow the world to come to you. There is so much more to listen to than words. Listen to the whole person.

Conversation is a way to make sense of things, to negotiate meaning, to learn, and to teach. When we practice going deep, we accomplish more —Interrogate reality, provoke learning, tackle tough challenges, and enrich relationships. The first step is to become more honest with ourselves so we can truly understand our questions.

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