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In my world, conversation is suddenly a very hot topic; I’m suddenly sitting down with my institutional customers and they are all talking about how they can build business and technical systems that make conversation easier – with customers, with employees, with vendors, investors and stakeholders.

And everyone is excited about it, which worries me, because it suddenly feels like the ‘concept of the day,’ which we all know will be replaced by a new one tomorrow. And I think it would be a very bad thing if that happened, because I think the idea of making ‘conversation’ the center of our public activities is a very good thing. Why, you ask?

A starting point ought to understanding what conversation really is. Because when I ask people to tell me what ‘conversation’ is so we can design systems to make it easier, I sometimes get quizzical looks. I mean, everyone knows what conversation is, right? I’ve asked that question, pretty often, and I get two default responses:

Conversation is where two or more people converse (a personal favorite); and Conversation is where you and someone else talk.

Look, let’s get something out of the way.

Talking is not necessarily (or even often) conversation. Standing with someone talking at each other is not a conversation – it might be! But then again we’ve all sat through dinners, or dates, or conference roundtables where lots (and lots and lots and lots) of talking was taking place, and there was no conversation at all. Talking (or writing, or emailing, IM’ing, or tweeting) is simply the mechanism for transporting a conversation; it’s the IP dialtone of conversation if that makes things clearer.

So this post is about defining conversation a little bit. The next post will be about tying the concept of conversation to larger concepts, and trying to explain why it is that I think it’s so darn important. And the final post will set out some ideas about what it means to recenter our institutions around conversation.

Conversation requires a lot more than shoving words at each other.

If you’ve raised children, you’ve spent some time trying to teach them some basic manners. There are manners in a variety of spheres; table manners, bathroom manners, playground manners, library manners. One of the central ones we try and teach are manners about interacting with others: let them finish their sentences, pay attention to what they are saying and respond before making your own point, demonstrate interest in the points they are making, etc.

Those manners are kind of a scaffolding around which conversation can grow. They imply a few basic truths which are at the heart of conversation.

The first is parity. When we engage in conversation with someone, the implication is that their words are as valuable as mine. We’re peers in the context of this conversation.

The next is agency. We have to believe that whoever is speaking owns their words; that they are speaking from their own authentic self rather than telling us what they have been told or deceived into saying. We respect the speaker as the owner of the words and ideas that they are sharing with us.

Next is openness. We have to actually hear and accept what someone else says. In a debate, I will use my opponent’s words as a springboard to make my own points. In a conversation I’ll accept what I’m told, unpack it, think about it, fit it with my own understandings and beliefs and then respond. The difference is that in one case we are listening to the ‘shape’ of what is told us and searching for a foothold to use to push it away, and in the other, we are actually open to the possibility that what the other person says could be true – that it could actually change our views.

There are probably more, but these will be a good start.

My hope is that at some point people will be able to look at their styles of communication and paraphrase Truman Capote (who was criticizing Kerouac) by saying “That’s not conversing… that’s talking.”

Next, I’ll try and tie these concepts to a more serious philosophical framework, as a way of supporting the idea that these are important things to do.