Food for Thought

The Alchemy of the Perfect Conversation

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The best conversations leave us feeling euphoric. Exultant! As luminous as the inspired artist, as triumphant as the medal-clutching athlete, as unburdened as the post-communion sinner.

This all sounds rather lofty, but the subject doesn’t have to be as grand as the sentiments. A delightful conversation need not entail a high-minded analysis of a pressing national issue. It could be a three-minute rant shared with the woman in the queue for the loo about the soggy pub chips. The rapport, the randomness and – riding on this alliterative spree – the raillery. However trivial and in however short a space of time, your minds have met and been uplifted in a curiously intimate and humanising way.

In fact, really satisfying conversations often have a quality of surprise or revelation to them, and this is their real distinction from simple communication. A communication is straightforward and predictable: it is a downloading of fact, an emission of views, impervious to the listener’s reaction. It’s a one-way route, with no twists, turns or spontaneous stopovers. It’s algorithmic.

Siri and Alexa are supreme communicators.

But they are abysmal conversationalists.

A conversation is fluid, unordered and entirely unpredictable. In a really good conversation you share thoughts or emotions or ideas that you didn’t know you had within you, perhaps with someone you didn’t expect to understand, possibly revealing an emotion you didn’t anticipate or coming up with an idea you had never sensed. You embrace the stopovers and they turn out to be mind-changing.

Theodore Zeldin, an Oxford scholar and philosopher of all matters discursive, says that great conversations can be nothing short of transformative. “When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought.”

So, conversation can be the root of innovation and creativity. On a more prosaic note, it seems that basic biology demands that we converse. Sherry Turkle, a psychoanalyst and professor at MIT, has researched how conversation is key to developing the faculty of empathy. She concludes that, unlike Siri and Alexa, we are “wired to talk. It’s a Darwinian thing”.

Author, entrepreneur and Professor in Networking (yes, really) Julia Hobsbawm has reached similar conclusions from her research. She argues that ensuring we have proper interactions with people should be seen as a matter of “social health”, which should be taken every bit as seriously as our mental and physical health if we want to have a truly full, meaningful life.

All of which is great, of course - and appears to entirely legitimise the hours you spend gassing with colleagues around the kettle - but we know it’s not that easy. Not all conversations are successful; a failed conversation is truly dismal. The ones that leave us flat and disillusioned, more lonely than had we remained alone in our thoughts. We’re let down by the other party, by ourselves, by the whole wretched world.

Perplexingly, it can often seem far from obvious whether a conversation is going to prove a winner or not. The same two people, in broadly similar situations, with comparable agendas, at not-so-very-different stages of digestion, may on one day have a conversation that is purely perfunctory and on another feel like they have plumbed the profound and whipped it into shape.

“I THOUGHT WHAT I'D DO WAS, I'D PRETEND I WAS ONE OF THOSE DEAF-MUTES. THAT WAY I WOULDN'T HAVE TO HAVE ANY GODDAM STUPID USELESS CONVERSATIONS WITH ANYBODY.” ― J.D. SALINGER, 'THE CATCHER IN THE RYE'

Why is it that some conversations soar with the magical artistry of a Michel Roux soufflé, while others collapse with the leaden dullness of a canteen pie? What is the recipe for success?

As a business that gamely throws total strangers with very different backgrounds into the paths of each other (and a plate of eggs), The Hot Breakfast has more reason than most to think about what can be done to ensure that conversations are connective rather than alienating.

We have pondered the question long and hard, studied dense research papers, attended multiple seminars, consulted coaches, watched squadrons of YouTube celebrities with witty, self-deprecating jokes and great hair, and read the whole of the Internet on the subject. Twice.

Perhaps most instructively, we have also played host to around 150 Hot Breakfasts, each with a very different cast of characters and a very different dynamic, some of which were distinctly more soufflé, others more pie.

Part of what we’ll be doing on this blog is to try to distill what we have learned and are continuing to learn. We’d dearly love to hear your thoughts on the subject. What have you observed in your lifetime of talking to people? Who do you have the best conversations with, and why? What do you think makes the difference between an average exchange and something illuminating, uplifting, enriching? Please join in the conversation about conversation.