Whenever talented people are thrown together, ideas are born and grow. Almost 500 years ago, informal conversations sprang up in London in new coffee houses, where men met to discuss the future of society and politics. Their influence became so powerful that they were shut down for a while in the 18th century when the government of the day felt threatened.
Conversation has always been the crucible for new thinking, and many new ideas emerged from coffee-house discussions, including the founding of the Royal Society, a great supporter of innovation. Royal Society gatherings included a cross-section of famous thinkers, including Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton and Karl Marx.
Some of the most important recent discoveries in science have come about through conversations between different disciplines, both in funded ventures and outside formal channels. The discovery of DNA resulted from conversations between James Crick, a biophysicist, and Francis Watson, a biologist. MRI scanning became possible through the coming together of an American chemist, Paul Lauterbur and an English physicist, Peter Mansfield.
The whole area of cognitive science – combining psychology, linguistics, computer science, philosophy and neurobiology, with the help of medical PET scans and CAT scans – is a huge conversation between scientists from different fields. Interdisciplinary research is now given prominence in many universities.
When two or more people connect in conversation, often at larger meetings, they often make intuitive creative connections that spark new ideas.
Voice of the people
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” – Margaret Mead
When nations allow democratic conversations, change is inevitable. No wonder free conversation is the first thing to go in a dictatorship. Cicero claimed that conversation was impossible to censor and was the essence of free speech.
The American Revolution was simmering away in sewing-circle chat across America well before the War of Independence.
The principles of the US Constitution were created first in committees of correspondence that grew up organically across the continent. In France, revolutionary fervour in Paris grew from conversations in the cafés and the salons well before it exploded into popular revolt. Listen to the conversations and meetings agendas of today and you can predict tomorrow.
Now, conversation has gone truly global. For the first time in history, we can create conversations about issues at the heart of our human existence and they spread at high speed around the planet, often while politicians are still posturing.
Social media means people are listening and influencing each other, and joining forces to create a better world.
Positive conversations are possible when the best aspects of being face-to-face are adopted – becoming curious about each other, listening actively, speaking with courtesy, allowing vulnerability, seeking to connect and understand.
If we wish to avoid the violence and massive inequality of our century, it’s of the utmost importance to keep the conversation going – to overcome our fears and keep the channel open between us; to be willing always to engage in dialogue.
TED Conversations, linked to the highly-successful TED Talks, is one example of a social media platform for quality online conversations. A time limit keeps debate focused and meaningful. Currently there are over 15 million monthly users.
The world has always changed through conversations between people who care and think something matters enough to take steps together to change the status quo. When you get to know someone personally, through conversation, you are forced to recognise your common humanity. It’s the opposite of drones, a deadly technology that obscures humanity.
Conversation is all about connection, and we connect most easily when we speak at the level of heart and soul. At the level of places, possessions and activities, we live in vastly- different conditions and do many different things, but we’re all human. Bridges can be built through common aspirations.
You might say that Silicon Valley owes its entire existence to a private conversation between eight frustrated, energetic and creative young men in 1957.
They were all working at the time for the Nobel Prize- winning, but impossible, boss, William Shockley, and all were demotivated. One evening, downhearted, the ‘traitorous eight’ met at the house of one of them to talk about what to do next.
Without any very clear idea, they made the decision to find some way to work together as a group. Later, they met up with advisors who told them about a novel idea called venture capital, which eventually gave them the backing to start their own company.
If you trace back, that first conversation of the eight brilliant but disgruntled employees eventually left a legacy of several hundred companies in Silicon Valley and a trail of world-changing inventions including laptops, ATMs and iPhones.
This is an edited extract from The Art of Conversation: Change Your Life With Confident Communication by Judy Apps, a communication specialist. The article is published courtesy of Stream Publishing. The Art of Conversation is published by Capstone, price £10.99.
This was first published in the February issue of CN. Any comments? Email Paul Colston