We Chat, Except we Don’t Actually Talk


We don't get paid to have conversations. Conversations are throwaway time. There are plenty of tools and technologies for conversation. We can do away with face-to-face and phone conversations.

In our haste to solve a problem — from collaborating and getting on the same page, to becoming more efficient, from discovering new things and meeting people, to learning a new skill — we forget about the side effects of not talking with each other.

There are three types of problems — simple, complicated, and complex. On the people side of things, it's complex, formulas have limited application and uncertainty of outcomes remains. Talking helps us adapt to individuality and changing conditions.  

What we don't know about conversation is a lot. And it's is much more important to figure out how it matters than we think.

Why have conversations?

Likely the best way to find out is by experiencing what it feels like to have one. It won't be great every single time. It probably will be punctuated by silences, there will be disagreements, and yet, when we stay the course without distractions, we can learn to think more clearly, bridge the distance in conversation and not kill it.

The payoff is the negotiation of meaning, active building of relationships that last, and the sum of behaviors that affect the making of culture.

We build stronger relationships in physical proximity.

Actor, director, and producer Philip Seymour Hoffman is revered for bringing depth and humanity to his roles. He describes what it's like to work with fellow actor Joaquin Phoenix through the intense moments of The Master talking about the exchange that took place as the two shared a physical space:

“What you go through with another actor in a good play or film, something that's well-written and that means something deeply to both of you, is a very intimate thing. It's like, I'm here for you, you're here for me. And you're silently pushing each other forward and up. You'll never look at those people the same way again for the rest of your life.”

When we're in physical proximity, we talk more. When we talk more, we're more productive.

In his official Nobel biography, Daniel Kahnemann reminisces the power of conversations with fellow researcher Amos Tversky in advancing their work:

We did almost all the work on our joint projects while physically together, including the drafting of questionnaires and papers. And we avoided any explicit division of labor. Our principle was to discuss every disagreement until it had been resolved to mutual satisfaction, and we had tie-breaking rules for only two topics: whether or not an item should be included in the list of references (Amos had the casting vote), and who should resolve any issue of English grammar (my dominion).


One consequence of this mode of work was that all our ideas were jointly owned. Our interactions were so frequent and so intense that there was never much point in distinguishing between the discussions that primed an idea, the act of uttering it, and the subsequent elaboration of it.


Some of the greatest joys of our collaboration-and probably much of its success – came from our ability to elaborate each other's nascent thoughts: if I expressed a half-formed idea, I knew that Amos would be there to understand it, probably more clearly than I did, and that if it had merit he would see it.

Dialogue helps make sense of what we're learning.

Which makes it a powerful ally in medical exams says Sheryl Turkle in Reclaiming the Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age. Quoting a senior physician at a major teaching hospital about students using tests to rationalize not talking to patients:

They don't want to take responsibility for the things that might come up in a conversation, things that would come up during a full patient history. They don't want to hear that their patients are anxious, depressed, or frightened. Doctors used to want to hear these things. They knew that the whole person got sick. The whole person needed to be treated.

Today, young physicians don't want to have that conversation. My students welcome the fact that the new medical records system almost forces them to turn away from the patient and keep the interchange about relevant details. They don't want to step into a more complicated role.

One that would include elements of complexity. When empathy is gone, we lose the ability to cure. We get so wrapped up in the technology, that we pay little attention to who needs to use it and in which contexts. Forget personalization, “give me a system that works,” says my physician, “that takes into account what a doctor does.” His strategy? Spend as much time as possible seeing patients.

Conversations are rich with human data.

Stories are data with a soul,” says Brené Brown, a student of human connection. Brown studies vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. The talk that started the conversation about the insights of her research on human connection has reached almost 26 million views.

This is not surprising because between research and therapist stories Brown talks about a universal need, a choice we are called to make. She found that behind the all too real emotions of shame and fear we all experience regularly stands vulnerability. As she learned:

We numb vulnerability — when we're waiting for the call.

It was funny, I sent something out on Twitter and on Facebook that says, “How would you define vulnerability? What makes you feel vulnerable?”

Within an hour and a half, I had 150 responses. Because I wanted to know what's out there.

“Having to ask my husband for help because I'm sick, and we're newly married;” “initiating sex with my husband;” “initiating sex with my wife;” “being turned down;” “asking someone out;” “waiting for the doctor to call back;” “getting laid off;” “laying off people.”

This is the world we live in. We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability.

“The problems is that we cannot selectively numb emotion,” says Brown. Which is why we end up miserable. We try to make everything that is uncertainty certain, shutting out discourse. We don't appreciate how blame is “a way to discharge pain and discomfort.”

The need to make perfect follows. But it's a game of pretend where the pretending impacts other people. For companies, authenticity also means understanding the principles of risk communication, and applying them to learn to listen better and do what makes a difference.

For individuals this means showing up, to let ourselves be seen. Conversation is the place where we practice learning to care about what people think, but not being defined by it. Says Brown, “most of us steamroll over the people whose opinion should matter to get acceptance and approval from people who should not matter at all.”

Sheryl Turkle says screens allow us to feel more in control of our work and lives. Which mask “a much more interesting issue: the susceptibility to erroneous intuitions of intelligent, sophisticated, and perceptive individuals.” But to establish trust, sell something, to close a deal, we need face-to-face.

Paul Graham, a computer scientist, venture capitalist, and essayist known for his work on Lisp, for co-founding Viaweb, and for co-founding the Y Combinator seed capital firm, says, “it's hard to say exactly what it is about face-to-face contact that makes deal happen, but whatever it is, it hasn't been duplicated by technology.”

Conversation helps us develop cognitive empathy, our ability to understand how someone feels and what they might be thinking. Conversations we've had with friends and loved ones are the experiences that shape who we are and make our memories. We never do know when our time is up with someone or something.

We learn how to think through dialogue and note taking, a conversation we have with ourselves. In face-to-face conversations we develop our voice and our ability to defend our opinions. Socratic teaching, using questions to probe a topic rather than giving answers, is the oldest, and still the most powerful teaching tactic for fostering critical thinking.