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I was asked this at a meeting I was facilitating recently. One of the participants, who had lived abroad for many years, said that on returning to the UK they found it difficult to engage people in conversation that went beyond the polite formalities of social chit-chat. When I asked for clarification she said that for her it was hard to have ‘real’ conversations where both people were focused on exploring ideas. Several people in the room put forward theories as to why this might be. I started thinking about conversations that work, compared with those that don’t.

Most of our conversations do work, and a few don’t. The ones that work are enjoyable or at least satisfactory. We feel that there has been a meaningful exchange, and a conclusion or understanding. Some go wrong though. They may go round in circles, or one person dominates, or they end in an argument.

Like so many things we do well, we don’t stop to analyse what makes out good conversations effective. We’d all like to have more of the first kind, and understanding what makes them work – and so have less of the second – is one way of improving things.

A few years ago BT ran a survey on this. The researchers found that people say they have had a good conversation when:

  1. It feels like a genuine two-way experience, with both people equally involved and interested
  2. Both feel that they are being heard and understood, with mutual willingness to be open
  3. The atmosphere feels comfortable, so even difficult topics get discussed and the important things are said
  4. The conversation makes a difference. Something useful or satisfying happens as a result.

When things go right they seem effortless. This is because, when we have mastered something it becomes automatic and we forget how much effort went into learning it. But we did learn it, and like any skill it needs to be practiced and maintained. So next time you have a conversation that seems to be going adrift, these pointers may help you make it more meaningful.

* Bailey, A., (1997), Talk Works, how to get more out of life through better conversations, BT, 1997,

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