The Keys to Great Conversations

I’ve posted before on the pleasure of great conversations. This week The Economist notes that the keys to great conversations are timeless.

The principle that it is rude to interrupt another speaker goes back at least to Cicero, writing in 44BC, who said that good conversation required “alternation” among participants… The rules we learn from Cicero are these: speak clearly; speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn; do not interrupt; be courteous; deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones; never criticise people behind their backs; stick to subjects of general interest; do not talk about yourself; and, above all, never lose your temper.

Probably only two cardinal rules were lacking from Cicero’s list: remember people’s names, and be a good listener. Each of these pieces of advice also has a long pedigree. At a pinch you might trace the point about names back to Plato. Both found a persuasive modern advocate in Dale Carnegie, a teacher of public speaking who decided in 1936 that Americans needed educating more broadly in “the fine art of getting along”. His book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” is still in print 70 years later and has sold 15m copies. To remember names, and to listen well, are two of Carnegie’s “six ways to make people like you”. The others are to become genuinely interested in other people; smile; talk in terms of the other person’s interests; and make the other person feel important.

They then cite some interesting findings in "politeness theory":

The Brown and Levinson model says, roughly speaking, that Person A probably does not want to be rude to Person B, but in the way of things, life may sometimes require Person A to contradict or intrude on Person B, and when that happens, Person A has a range of “politeness strategies” to draw on. There are four main possibilities, given in ascending order of politeness. The first is a “bald, on-record” approach: “I’m going to shut the window.” The second is positive politeness, or a show of respect: “I’m going to shut the window, is that OK?” The third is negative politeness, which presumes that the request will be an intrusion or an inconvenience: “I’m sorry to disturb you, but I want to shut the window.” The fourth is an indirect strategy which does not insist on a course of action at all: “Gosh, it’s cold in here.” The first three of those options are plain instrumental speech, and are the sort of approaches that the conversation manuals warn you against. The fourth one alone leads into the realm of conversation as such. Here the purpose of speaking is not so much to get a point across, more to find out what others think about it. This principle of co-operation is one of the things that sets conversation apart from other superficially similar activities such as lectures, debates, arguments and meetings.

5 comments on “The Keys to Great Conversations
  • The fourth option strikes me as a bit passive-aggressive; I’d rather someone just say “is it all right to shut the window?” than try and elicit an opinion from me through indirect means.

  • This is interesting stuff. Becoming genuinely interested in other people is a selfless humble thing to do, not too easy for me in the past….

    One thing I’ve learned recently is to listen for the way someone is speaking from a sensory perspective. If they are visual at the moment “I see what you’re saying” or they you ask them how their trip was and they describe the blue skies and the colorful flowers, speak in their sensory language and you can connect better.

    I’ve tried it already and it works nicely. The three most common are sight, sound and touch or feel.

  • I really think this is advice for a pleasant, or courteous conversation rather than a Great conversation. For extroverts who are naturally good at conversation it’s easy for them to get caught up in talking and stomp over the other person in the conversation. An introvert will just let that person talk, an extrovert will think of that person as rude.

    What I am really interested in are principles that can be used to produce a discussion similar to that which Ben described recently with the person who cold called & met with.

    The best book on this topic I have read on this topic that focused on more than common sense advice was a book by Edward De Bono (whom I worship). The book was a series of exercises which had the intent of trying to get your brain to think more creatively in conversations, to be able to make more interesting connections within conversations. So in undertaking the exercises you were practicing the skill of interesting conversation.

  • Greg — thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    I think the principles excerpted from the Economist article are just as necessary for “great” conversations as for “good” conversations. The difference between good and great conversations probably depends more on the total profile of the participants — compatibility, shared interests, backgrounds, etc. — than on any “principles” that can be employed. In other words, great conversations include the methods listed in my post PLUS compatible participants. Good conversations have just one of these two ingredients.

    All this being said, the book you reference sounds interesting, and I’m curious what specific exercises it prescribes.

  • Nature of conversations also do matter. When you get engrossed in putting forth a point of view in an intelligent debate, your focus is entirely on bringing up the context and getting the participants to see it from your angle and react. It happens in almost all interviews and they say hallmark of a great interview is the one that turns into quality conversations. I liked conversationists like Larry King and Gregory Mantell for bringing the best out of their interviewees.

    During such intense conversations, what matters more is the `point’ itself which could be refreshingly different and unique, than how courteous the exchange has been.

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