The Art of Conversation

Posted: July 1, 2006 at 10:05 pm in conversation

A few months ago, Wes made a comment about my post about good conversations where he linked the idea of flow with what I was looking for in conversation. I’ve been meaning to follow up on that comment for a long time, and tonight’s the night.

Conversation is a topic near and dear to my heart. Besides the post listed above, I have posts about the recipe for a good conversation, a late-night conversation with a friend, a surprisingly stimulating conversation at a party, thoughts on conversational alignment, and thoughts on the connections necessary for conversation. And those are only the posts I can remember off the top of my head. I would obviously love to understand better what leads to a good conversation. And looking back over those posts, I think perhaps the concept of flow is a good place to start.

The concept of flow at work has been described by many people such as the Peopleware guys. In particular, they emphasize how important it is for there to be no interruptions, nothing to break you out of the state of flow. Looking at those conversations, one was a late night conversation, and one was at a party where I didn’t know anybody so I didn’t feel compelled to circulate. Others were at people’s houses sitting around the living room, so there wasn’t the distractions of public places like restaurants or bars. In all cases, there was time for the conversation to develop, to take on a momentum of its own, to carry us all away with it.

Such momentum can seldom be achieved in other environments. There have been several promising proto-conversations I’ve had at work which were interrupted by a customer calling in; the moment was lost, people dispersed, and the conversation was over before it had really begun. I also find it very difficult to have good conversations at bars or parties; it’s generally too loud, so you have to shout to be heard, and people have to repeat comments several times, which destroys the flow of thoughts. Also, people circulate, wander off to get drinks, etc.

The other issue with bars and parties is something I touched on in the mysterious connections post, where I said “If I have to spend several sentences explaining each of my references, then the conversational momentum is disrupted and it’s hard to achieve that sense of flow in conversation”. It’s also linked to the idea of language alignment. If I don’t know people well, as is common at parties, then there are more opportunities for friction between realities to interrupt the flow of conversation. Combine that with the inhospitable (to conversations) physical environment, and it’s no wonder that I don’t enjoy either bars or parties.

Another aspect of good conversation flow is something I touched on in the recipe post, which is the idea that people need to work together for it to happen. We’ve all had conversations where things are starting to roll and gather momentum, and then everything comes to a screeching halt because some egotist in the room starts (figuratively) jumping up and down yelling “Look at me!” Good conversations require a sense of selflessness, of putting the needs of the conversation above one’s own needs. In the cases where ideas are getting kicked around, it means not getting emotionally invested in an idea, or outraged that somebody would challenge that idea. As soon as somebody decides that he won’t accept alternative viewpoints, the conversation becomes a battlefield, rather than a collaboratively constructed work. It reminds me of the book Getting to Yes, where negotiations are much more productive once they are viewed collaboratively rather than as zero-sum positional negotiations.

So what makes for a good conversation in my eyes? Good people, obviously, who trust each other, and have interesting ideas to exchange. A shared idea of the conversation as a collaborative inquiry, rather than an opportunity to enhance egos or flaunt closed-mindedness. An appropriate environment, with minimal distractions to disrupt the flow and momentum of the conversation. Oh, and the time necessary for conversational momentum to build.

I really like the concept of flow to tie all of these ideas together. Thanks Wes!

P.S. Now I just need to figure out how to set up these conditions for a good conversation here in New York. I might have to start throwing dinner parties or something. Yeesh. Or find a good cafe, I suppose. Hrm.

6 Responses to “The Art of Conversation”

  1. Bryan Says:

    I came across your blog from a Technorati search, and read this post with some excitement. I often find myself stumbling for the right things to say, or to fix an interrupted conversation, but you’re right about the “flow” thing. And the issue of selflessness. I think a good conversation must be like a seed that waits for the right conditions, and grows heedlessly. There must first be the proper environment. Second, it has to come naturally…so much so that you lose yourself in the process. All bad conversations seem to be the result of bad timing, interruptions, or selfish intentions.

  2. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Mike Murray on Hacking the Mind || July || 2006 Says:

    [...] The Art of Conversation [...]

  3. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Group flow || November || 2006 Says:

    [...] I think that a similar thing happens in groups of people. Books like The Society of Mind or Cognition in the Wild suggest that our minds act like groups of people, so perhaps groups of people may work like minds in this instance. When people are getting excited about something, that excitement feeds on itself, as if the whole group is getting into a state of flow (I’ve covered this in the context of conversations). But all it takes is one person to be negative to destroy the flow, and force the momentum to start over. The colloquial term is “party pooper”. It may seem as if they’re just one person, but by interfering with the network and multiplier effects of group enthusiasm, they can have a disproportionate negative effect. [...]

  4. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Conversationalist || December || 2006 Says:

    [...] One of the skills I continue to work on is the art of conversation. This seems to be key to so many things I’m interested in, from management to communication to cognitive science. And it has the added benefit of being useful at parties! [...]

  5. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Pitching oneself || December || 2006 Says:

    [...] This is a bit trickier to pitch, now that I think about it. Finding such people requires observing them for a while to see how they react in conversation. I’ll often throw lines out into the conversation that fall flat because they’re too obscure or tangential or referential, but occasionally somebody picks up on them, and that’s always a good sign. But for a conversation to continue long enough to notice such cues, it requires a venue where flow develops, as described previously. This pretty much can’t happen at parties. Or at bars. Or at most venues I can think of. Hrm. No wonder this is so hard. [...]

  6. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Balanced socializing || January || 2008 Says:

    [...] start talking about something else, the group has broken up and reformed with different people. The conversation flow is constantly being [...]

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