The art of meaningful conversations

The art of meaningful conversations

I remember having conversations with friends and family that lasted so long. Talking until the small hours of the morning, laughing, listening, being excited, sometimes crying. I can’t remember what any of the conversations were about but I can remember who they were with and often when I had those conversations. I can even recall some great work conversations, yes I wrote it, really great, meaningful conversations with people that I worked with and for. I can remember these times and I can recall the people and places because mainly I am still friends with these people now.

Conversations that involve laughter and engagement and emotion and sharing they stay with us as a feeling long after the conversation itself and they become stored credit in maintaining a fruitful relationship. If I don’t see an old friend for a long time, that’s okay because we can go back to a time when we spent quality time together and we can recall laughter and emotion and shared emotion.

Conversation is important and I want to share some thoughts on meaningful conversations because I see and hear and note the difficulties in business and pleasure that arise from an inability to strike up a meaningful conversation. Now I usually put the lessons at the end of the article, to kind of encourage you to read on to the bottom but in this case I’m going to do both, because I am confident that this is an issue that affects most of us at some time or other. SO here they are, three actions to create an environment for more meaningful conversations:

  1. Be interested, not interesting
  2. Be consistent
  3. Be humble

Now if you are nodding your head in a kind of, ‘oh yes, I get all of those and do them consistently, then you are excused and I’ll see you next week. If however, you are like me and the majority that would like to create more meaningful relationships through conversation then read on.

I was inspired in part for this article by a TED Talks video by Julian Treasure and in the main by my experiences as a consultant a facilitator and a trainer.

Julian Treasure in his Ted talk of June 2014 explains some of the barriers to effective conversation. I’m going to list them at the end but right now, I want you to try and recall two opposing situations. the first is with someone where the conversation was stimulating, engaging (you felt part of it, not a by stander) and for a brief moment you lost track of time or the people around you. The second is where the opposite occurs, you feel distanced from the person or the conversation, either they are not listening or you are not listening and the time and the people around you are constant distractions. In other words it’s hard to concentrate. If you then wrote down some words that describe the conditions for the first, positive situation and then the same exercise for the second, would the lists look a little like this?

Stimulating and Engaged

  1. Talking about things that I was interested in
  2. Shared values, experiences, interests
  3. A feeling of being present and of being liked

Distant and Disengaged

  1. Talking about things I am not engaged in
  2. Feels like a lot of effort
  3. Values and experiences misaligned and a feeling that ‘we don’t like each other’

Robert Cialdini the author of ‘the power of persuasion’ explains some of the science at work here before going on to elaborate the 6 ‘weapons’ of influence. Sociology os the study of how people act in social situations and what drives their behavior. By the time we reach adulthood we have a well developed sense of religion, values and beliefs. It might be surfing or science, economics or fashion but whatever it is, whosoever worships at my altar then I will be able to relate to that person. The closer the ties the closer the potential bond, the more in common. Cialdini refers to this as liking, we like each other because we have something, many things in common. People buy people, right? Dale Carnegie also refers to this liking in his seminal read, ‘how to make friends and influence people’ where he writes, ‘there is only one way to get someone to do something and that is to get them to want to do it.’ We do things for other people that we like and we have better conversations with people that we like.

The mistake that is often made here is for us to try and be interesting, like a dazzling jewel, an exotic mystery or dark brooding presence. I’m frustrated to say that this does work for some people and I’ve tried to bottle it but I failed and so if you, like me, fail to attract others by the power of your presence alone then you need to learn to be interested, if you can do this then more often than not you will find something about the other that subscribes to part or all of your religion, values and beliefs.

I wrote that my experiences inspired this article. You can google me and see that I am a keynote speaker, a facilitator at board level, a management consultant and advisor and a leadership trainer. I am confident and I am by feedback, inspiring and engaging but, I’ll tell you that as soon as I am not one of those people (trainer, advisor, expert) I am very much lost in the networking world. I feel uncomfortable and I am utterly convinced that no-one has any interest in what I have to say. If you can relate to this then I can tell you that there is hope and some simple steps, it all starts with being interested. When I was at university I was interested, I wanted to meet everyone and find out where they came from and what they did and why they were there etcetera, as I became older I became more interested in who I was and I lost that interest in others, I forgot how exciting and intimate and rewarding it can be to get to know something about someone else. So here is some practical advice, write down 5 things that you would like to talk about; sport, news, project management, team building, adventure. Now write down the questions that someone would ask you that might get you talking about these things:

  1. What has been your biggest win/success this week/today?
  2. What made you laugh this week?
  3. What would be an amazing team building exercise?
  4. What do you do to switch off from work and maintain your focus?
  5. What is going on in the world?

Got it? Don’t use my questions unless you want to, but write them down and practice them and the next time you meet someone for a chat, find a way to weave your questions in. Change them to suit the circumstances, observe, empathise and be prepared to adapt and finally be tough, get through the other persons natural reserve and take away a connection (something about that person) for the next time. Find something about them that you like and that you can use as an opening next time.

As you start to become interested in other people, so they will start to become interested in you. They will notice that you are taking time to get to know them and be interested. At first they might be suspicious and they will be looking for evidence that you are trying to ‘play them’ that you are not being authentic. My friend and our associate Susanne Madsen wrote an excellent linkedin article a few weeks ago about authenticity, it’s about people being able to believe in you and trust you. Julian Treasure relates to it too and he describes the opposite as dogmatism, where the other person weaves in fact and fiction, the truth and their opinions together so rendering them self untrustworthy. You need to commit and be consistent. I have used the word congruence in previous articles to describe the same thing, a consistency of action and words that build belief and trust in others. Robert Cialdini refers to this as consistency, people like and are influenced by consistency. If you want to build relationships and have meaningful conversations the bad news is, it won’t happen straight away, it takes time because others are watching and if they find you false then they will not open up and you will not have good conversations or trust.

Now my final word is one that inspired me a very long time ago in a book written by Sir John Harvey Jones. He was the Chief Exec of BP for a long time and featured in a television programme visiting other businesses as a trouble shooter. I can’t remember which of his books this point was in but he was talking about the qualities of leadership and one of them was ‘a profound sense of personal humility.’ Hard to picture that in a lot of business executives these days, right? What I read and took from this passage, twenty years ago, was that if he’s not always right, then it’s okay for me to not be always right too. As soon as you think that you know everything, that you don’t need anyone or someone anymore that’s the point when you start to become arrogant, tyranical and judgemental. These are not attractive qualities and it’s hard to like that person much. I once met a family friend who joked, I was very young and he was my age now, that he still had no idea what he wanted to do with his life and that every day, he tried to learn something new.

Humility is an afrodisiac as far as conversational attraction goes. Humility, when allied with presence and a genuine interest in others is the root of that amazing conversational experience and from the root can grow a powerful bond of sharing and closeness and understanding and laughter that we remember from those earlier meaningful conversations.

So in summary:

  1. Be interested, not interesting
  2. Be consistent
  3. Be humble

Below are the seven things to avoid that I took from Julian Treasures TED talk, also a mnemonic on four positive things to do.


  1. Gossip
  2. Judgment
  3. Negativity
  4. Complaining
  5. Excusues
  6. Exageration
  7. Dogmatism

Do employ:

  1. Honesty
  2. Authenticity
  3. Integrity
  4. Love (wish them well)

It is said that Buddah only slept one hour each day as he continued his daily pursuit for the truth of the world. I wonder if, when you know everything and don’t need to learn any more if you can then sleep all day.