Skip to main content

We all need a project in January – it's either that or we wake up every dark cold morning whimpering.

So how about the conversation project: seeking ways to improve what we put into – and what we get out of – both our public and private conversations?

Fresh (or maybe stale) from the holiday season chat-a-thon, we might intuitively agree with one recent study that showed the happiest people are those who engage in meaningful conversation instead of small talk.

Yet so many of our daily conversations are unsatisfying – with our colleagues, with our emotional partners, with our children. We don't get our point across or we miss theirs. Or we avoid the point altogether.

Good marriages and great friendships are about the art of conversation. So is raising a child well. I became a far better mother when the conversation really got going between me and my children.

In the public sphere, we watch our politicians blab away at each other, fudging the truth, taking faux umbrage and spouting platitudes. We gravitate to media – and even friends – to back up our own fallible opinions instead of challenging ourselves to think a different way. Hence the success of Fox News in the U.S. political culture, where facts are trumped by fury. Will the new Sun Media channel here be any different? Only if we demand it to be.

There are real benefits to civility, but who wants to make nice when you can be witty, cutting or hilariously un-PC to drive home your point?

That's why I was inspired by a little book I came across at a friend's chalet over New Year's, called Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives, published in 2000 by British philosopher and author Theodore Zeldin after a series of BBC talks. Educators and conciliators love his key point, that a good conversation "involves risk" because you enter it "with a willingness to emerge a slightly different person."

Conversational revolutions, he writes, "include the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, modernity and post-modernity."

And of course in some regimes, conversation is considered so dangerous it is verboten. Thus the current Nobel Peace Prize winner, Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, sits incommunicado in a jail cell.

Taking it down to the personal, Mr. Zeldin writes, "every time a couple get married they start a conversation between two families which may never have met." Not to mention a (hopefully) enduring conversation between themselves. He wonders, amusingly, why we so often talk of love at first sight, "but never at first sound?"

In family life, writes Mr. Zeldin, "the more we segregate children into a youth culture, the poorer our conversation, and theirs, will get," a compelling argument for inviting interesting people to dinner and requiring your adolescent kids to take some part in the conversation instead of automatically opting for a video.

I agree with Mr. Zeldin that our public discourse has come to a place where "winning an argument became a substitute for discovering the truth." But how do we change it?

Toronto educator and conflict-resolution consultant Elyse Pomeranz points out that, today, the willingness to transform through conversation is particularly needed because "our conversations have become mediated" – Facebook exchanges being a prime example in which, as she put it in an interview, "we are trying to create an image of ourselves – to be esteemed, to be considered right or smart."

Changing yourself through conversation is actually uncomfortable, says Ms. Pomeranz, and "while discomfort is very interesting, most of us are not willing to sustain discomfort in favour of something that's new."

For example, we don't allow our politicians to say "I've changed my mind." We simply vote them out as flip-floppers.

And University of Toronto professor Harriet Friedmann, an expert on the political ecology of food systems (as well as, in private, an engaging and generous conversationalist), now lays out in her syllabus a guide to improving the "culture of discussion." She's done polls, she said during an e-mail exchange, that show students think "they sound more intelligent if they say something negative. So right away, opinions and ego ('I know better than the author')" come to the fore. To counter this, she requires them to summarize readings in discussions and try to bring the attitude of questioning – "Why do you think that?" – into class.

I can think of all sorts of ways to personally embark on the conversation project: start a salon, with some of Mr. Zeldin's ideas the first subject; arrange a coffee date with a person whose opinions provoke you (although in my case Ezra Levant might be a bridge too far) and ask them why they think the way they do; invite your twentysomething to dinner and just let the conversation meander while you refrain from offering advice or wisdom.

And if you're in the, uh, illustrious stage of your life, try not to slip automatically into what has been wittily called your "anecdotage" (although great dinner parties are replete with wonderful stories). Ask humble questions. You most certainly will learn something new.

Finally, a great Zeldin point – introspection may be so last century: "The question Who Am I? cannot get us much further."

Good conversationalists have always known the better question is "Who are you?"

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct