Food for Thought

The Three Commandments of Conversation


Short of planning a wedding proposal or brooding on how we’re going to hand in our notice at work, it’s rare that we plan the way that we’re going to conduct a conversation.

This is quite remarkable, given that our lives are - to a large extent - the sum of the conversations that we’ve had.

We're not going to pretend that an internet listicle is going to help you hack your way to becoming a master of the art of conversation: it’s an expertise you earn with practice, not a formula that can be coded.

That said, we have found that there is a basic trinity of considerations that have a significant bearing on the success (or failure) of a conversation. They are simple, often overlooked and sometimes difficult to implement; but by taking them into account you could transform the way a conversation pans out.  Happily, they are as relevant to your board meeting as to your Sunday lunch gathering.

1. Thou shalt be scrupulous in selecting the stage

Nancy Kline, a coach who is renowned for her analysis of how to create the ideal “thinking environment”, is emphatic about the impact of our setting on how we interact and think.

Kline argues that wherever you are must convey the message that you “matter”, because people who feel valued are more likely think creatively, deeply and confidently – all attributes that are critical if you want to make your conversational sparring lively rather than flat, stimulating rather than specious.


At the very least, this means you need to ensure that you and your companions are in a setting that is physically comfortable. You will not relax into thought if you are straining to lip-read, so busy trying to hear that you can’t actually listen. Nor will your companion be able to focus if the lumpy chair is making his sciatica squeal, or if her brain has been leadened by the cheese-with-mayo sandwich served at lunch.

However, the more interesting (and less obvious) nuance to Kline’s research is that we need to think well beyond mere physical ease and utility of a room’s design, and instead focus on the effect that it has on the minds of its occupants.

Some people will flourish in the twentieth floor meeting room, relishing its classy, glassy airiness and ergonomic brilliance. Others, however, will find it generic, sterile and possibly intimidating; their minds will clamp, and your conversation will suffer.

If you go to the trouble of selecting a setting that makes everyone feel appreciated then you stand a much better chance of panning conversational gold.

2. Thou shalt connect by disconnecting

So assuming you've primed your stage for conversational nirvana, how do you proceed?

The answer is painfully simple: with utmost attentiveness.  You need to commit to paying attention to the person that you’re with – and, separately - but essentially - to leave your companions in no doubt that they are - momentarily - the apple of your eye.

Like flowers in sunlight, people blossom with attention. If you bestow attention on someone, you are endowing them with value – and they will respond accordingly, giving you the best of themselves. The more you invest in a conversation, the better your return on that investment.

That means you need to make it brilliantly and boldly evident that you’re focused on what they have to say, and that you are committed to the conversation.

"If you want to be interesting, you have to be interested" - Austin Kleon

And, of course, the ultimate sign of commitment in twenty-first century encounters is that most unnerving of states: the state of phone-less-ness.

Unless you are entirely socially witless (and if you are then welcome), you will be well aware that being assaulted by a buzzing, pinging, flashing, vibrating reminder of the people in your future does not make it easy to focus on the person in your presence. And it’s just as disruptive (and even more maddening) if it’s not your phone, your future, your friends.

However, what is less appreciated is that a phone that is muzzled or face-reversed can still be distractive.

A mass of recent research suggests that the mere sight of a mobile reduces our cognitive capacity and can undermine our ability to focus on each other. In the words of one MIT Professor, Sherry Turkle, “even a silent phone disconnects us”, so if you really want to set a good stage then you need to banish your smart phone to the crumby depths of a bag or coat pocket, and insist that everyone else do the same.

3. Thou shalt bide by the laws of time

The third critical commandment for a proper conversation borders on the metaphysical: having a clear sense of the laws governing time.

Time is often the reason we fail to have a conversation in the first place. We resist meeting someone, or hold back from calling them, because we feel that we don’t have enough time to speak with them. We delay, and suddenly three months have passed, the opportunity has been missed or the relationship has withered.

What’s mistaken here is the notion that we need an endless expanse of time to have a really good conversation.

Far from it.

Time constraints help sharpen the mind. They give a narrative arc to a conversation, setting a clear framework of beginning, middle and end, within which we can act.

Five minutes can be enough to find and say what needs to be said – provided that both parties know at the outset that that is how long is available, that 300 seconds is the framework within which they are operating.

In practice most of us are disconcerted by the possibility that a conversation could bloat into our day like a Christmas waistline. We find it easier to relax into an exchange knowing that our attention need only be focused for a belted, fixed period. The key is to ensure that everyone is aware of the constraint before you embark on the conversation proper.

Got something to add to this canon?  Think there's stuff that's more important than arena, attention and agenda? We'd love to hear your thoughts!