Talk to me: the power of conversation

Leo Kempf Conversation Table

There’s a lot of contradictory buzz about the power of online connectivity in our society: depending on who and what you listen to, it can encourage conversation and stimulate new friendships or isolate us from reality and create a false illusion of community.  Online activity is almost always judged against our interactions in the ‘real world’: how many Facebook friends does your teenager have versus the friends they’ve actually met in person?  Does email lure you into firing off lazy and perhaps dangerous off-hand missives that you’d never dare express to someone’s face?  Will your (rather embellished) online profile eventually ‘catch up’ with you in a job interview in a bland London office block in the future?

There seems to be a lot less attention given to what makes a good, face-to-face conversation between human beings – whether that’s in the home, in the office, in the school or a local cafe.  Sitting by my bedside table at present are two interesting books about conversation that have got me thinking about the way we encourage – and sadly, often discourage – students and staff to converse in schools.  

Conversation: how talk can change our lives is a tiny book by the renowned philosopher Theodore Zeldin, based on a series of BBC radio talks.  Two years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Zeldin in Regent’s Park for one of his Oxford Muse Conversation Dinners.  This event was a picnic, rather than a dinner, and I was paired with a woman twice my age on a woollen blanket, and directed to talk about love, loss and hope – challenging topics for strangers, but, with the courage to speak openly and the right conditions to do so, ones that made for a rewarding conversation.

Despite the alarmist introduction about the dangers technology poses to the fabric of our society, The Art of Conversation by Catherine Blyth is a playful book about becoming a better conversationalist.  Blyth makes a strong case for developing the skill of good listening – “[it] makes us articulate, creating knowledge, attuning us to others’ rhythm, helping us feel good”.  Amongst cheeky suggestions for dealing with bores and “trimming the truth”, she explores how to pick up on the nuances of another’s words, target interesting topics to the conversation partner at hand, and manage verbal conflict. 

Imagine a school where the conversational behaviours advocated by Zeldin and Blyth could flourish!  How often do we stifle opportunities for our students to talk, or, for that matter, for our teachers to talk – either to their students or each other?  Whilst many schools focus on skills development for their students, and structure opportunities for peer-to-peer activity or group work that encourages ‘communication’ and ‘interpersonal’ skills, I wonder how often we lose the opportunity to let conversation flow freely – to be unconstrained by time, and  place, and targets and simply … see what happens when we put people together and let them simply converse – to talk and listen – as Zeldin did with a group of strangers in a sunny park?

Technology can always be employed as an enabler of conversation.  As an avid adopter of e-learning platforms when I started teaching 12 years ago, the technology never supplanted ‘real-world’ contact between me and my students, but it sure helped me overcome the physical limitations I faced as one person trying to talk with 30 students in 45 minute slots per day!  Now, in my role as a consultant for school design and e-learning, I talk to teachers about the power of technology to bring quieter students out of themselves, draw together those who might never otherwise have conversed, and encourage students to voice their opinions and hear those of others.

The physical design and furnishing of a space also has a role to play in fostering conversation.  Many schools have created shared dining facilities and eliminated the staffroom, thereby bringing staff and students into closer social contact.   Social spaces for students have been created in old schools from unused, unloved corridors, and in new ones at the heart of learning clusters.  And some schools are mixing staff of different disciplines in the same workspace as a way of encouraging fresh conversations and fresh approaches to learning. 

The thoughtful use of technology, and the clever design of space, is still only part of the journey toward rich conversations though.  Organisational structures, testing pressures, and our own vision of what is possible and essential for young people needs to relax, so that we create the freedom and space for authentic conversations.

A Space for Conversation
A Space for Conversation, The Tate Modern 2000

A simple tool for fostering conversation: light-weight, movable round rugs.  Photo by Effie Paleologu, featured on

2 Responses to “Talk to me: the power of conversation”
  1. Jen says:

    Michelle, great piece! I have in fact started to draft a blog post for my site about the concept of the Human Library, which is all about encouraging open conversation. You might find it interesting, but it’s late so I’ll finish it over the weekend.

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