I often ask people in my Knowledge Cafés whether they think we can have real conversations that are mediated in some way through technology or if conversations are only ever real conversations if they are face-to-face.
Can you have a conversation by exchanging hand-written letters or through email? Or exchanging SMS messages or in an online discussion forum or by telephone or video conferencing? Many people think that all of these means of communicating constitute a conversation.
Personally, I don’t. I feel that the word conversation should be reserved for face-to-face conversation and maybe telephone and video conferencing. Everything else is just an exchange of messages.
There are several factors that help make a conversation a real or true one.
True conversations are in real-time
For a conversation to be an authentic conversation, it must be a real time exchange. You must not be able to edit an utterance, delete it or take it back in any way. You must have little or no time to reflect on it before sending it. It must be real-time speech. It must be spontaneous, dynamic and emergent. Not planned or structured.
True conversations are body-to-body
A conversation must be body-to-body. The other person must be there in flesh and blood and not in some virtual form. Even in real time, e-mediated voice or video so much is lost in the way of body language, utterances, gestures, background ambiance and noise and the focus on each other.
Email and text exchanges are not conversations. Telephone calls come close, video calls such as Skype or Facetime come closer but they still fall short of being real conversations.
True conversations are in small groups
How many people can simultaneously engage in a single conversation? Two is, of course, the minimum but can 100? Can 20, 10 or 5?
Research and indeed common sense show that it’s quite a small number. Anything over about 6 and you don’t have a conversation – you have a series of statements made by each person. People talk at each other rather than with each other.
And with a smaller number, everyone also gets to talk. This is another vital element of a good conversation – broadly equal speaking times among the participants.
Real conversation catches fire.
It involves more than sending and receiving information.
Credit: Theodore Zeldin
A good conversation is often fast paced. There is little time to reflect or plan your response. This may seem at first a negative aspect but when people are engaged deeply in a conversation they are more likely to speak openly and speak the truth. And even periods of silence does not mean that people have nothing to say but that they are reflecting.
True conversations are respectful
Even when the above criteria are met, does chit-chat, an argument, a slanging match or a debate constitute a conversation? Personally, I don’t think it does.
Suppose we were able to share meanings freely without a compulsive urge to impose our view or conform to those of others and without distortion and self-deception.
Would this not constitute a real revolution in culture?
Credit: David Bohm
Theodore Zeldin says that the “The kind of conversation I like is one in which you are prepared to emerge a slightly different person.” He is talking about a learning conversation, about dialogue.
A learning conversation is one in which each person tries to make sense of an issue; where they actively work to understand the meaning the other person is trying to convey and where they are each prepared to change their views.
They are listening not with the intention to reply but with the intention to understand and the aim to help the other participants articulate their thoughts.
There is nothing wrong with other forms of communication – they all have their place – many of them in an everyday sense are still seen as forms of conversation and always will be.
The type of conversation I describe above is rare but has such tremendous potential to change the way we interact and relate to each other and thus our business lives, our personal lives and indeed the world.
To have a conversation, you have to be comfortable being human - acknowledging you don't have all the answers, being eager to learn from someone else and to build new ideas together.
You can only have a conversation if you're not afraid of being wrong.
Otherwise, you're not conversing, you're just declaiming, speechifying, or reading what's on the PowerPoints.
To converse, you have to be willing to be wrong in front of another person.
Conversations occur between equals.
The time your boss's boss asked you at a meeting about your project's deadline was not a conversation.
The time you sat with your boss for an hour in the Polynesian-themed bar while on a business trip and you really talked, got past the corporate bullshit, told each other the truth about the dangers ahead, and ended up talking about your kids - that maybe was a conversation.
Credit: David Weinberger
[Status: Reopened this post and reworking it to include some more recent thoughts and insights]
This page is part of an online book on Conversational Leadership that I am in the process of writing.
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