I was at a dinner party last night and had a great time. It was a good mix of people, with good conversation ranging over a variety of topics. Afterwards, my friend and I were discussing what made for a good conversation. I’ve pondered this before, because I really like good conversations, and I previously came up with one semi-bogus theory that it had to do with world-view alignment. After throwing some ideas around with my friend, I have a new idea to toss out, so here we go.
The idea came up in relation to conversational synergy. Conversations among any pair of people in a group may not work particularly well, but when you put the right set of people together, all of a sudden the conversation takes off. Our theory is that you need the right mix of conversational styles. Each style alone may not work, but mix them together in the right proportions, and you have the recipe for a great conversation.
So to take my personal conversational style, I don’t feel like I can carry a group conversation. I don’t like being the center of attention. What I like to do in conversations is riff off of other people, occasionally taking center stage when I have something to contribute, and then fading back into the background when I don’t. Obviously, this is a conversational style that doesn’t work very well in a one-on-one conversation, because such conversations rely on both people taking the lead and working together. But in a group setting, it works great – I can sit back and be quiet, jump in when I have something to say, and then fade back while other people take over.
Other people are more comfortable being the center of attention and can drive the conversation. But everybody can’t be that way, or they’d all be competing for attention. Some people are great conversationalists and have a knack for asking good questions of others to draw them into the conversation. Others are like me, contributing in small bursts. It’s always good to have one person who likes to make completely outrageous statements, because it often drives the conversation forward in unexpected directions. It seems like a good group conversation needs all of these aspects mixed together.
An analogy I came up with while trying to describe this was comparing a group conversation to a jazz combo. You can’t have everybody be lead in a combo. You need somebody who likes to be out front, playing the sax (equivalent to the conversation drivers I mentioned). You have the combo leader, throwing out solos to each of the members (the good conversationalist). You have, say, the trombone, who’s lurking in the background, but occasionally comes out for the solo (that’d be me). The outrageous person is probably the equivalent of the trumpet, able to take over the center of attention anytime they please, but doing so judiciously. And when it all starts to work together, it can really fly.
I think one of the other aspects that applies to good conversations (and jazz combos) is trust. Trust that when you throw the lead to another member, they will take it for a while, but eventually return to the group. Trust that you can put yourself out there, and the rest of the group will be there to support you. This idea came up in the comments to my conversational alignment post, but I like it a lot, and I think it’s relevant here. If you don’t have that element of trust, then everybody starts competing for control of the conversation, and it becomes too directed.
A great conversation flows from one place to the next, guided collectively by the interests of everybody involved. Sometimes you miss a chance to contribute because the conversation has drifted on. But that’s okay, because there will be other opportunities. Trying to wrench it back is like trying to move a river upstream. You just have to go with the flow.
So trust, flow and the right mix of conversational styles. It’s a theory. It gives me the vague desire to start throwing dinner parties in an attempt to figure out the recipe. But I probably won’t.