Are We In Danger of Losing the Art of Conversation?

9 January 2023

14.8 MINS

The heart of democracy is the ability to conduct civil discourse, teasing out the benefits and pitfalls of various ideas and courses of action. When we lose the ability to make genuine conversation and shy away from robust debate, our society becomes enslaved to soundbites and individuals are easily led astray by propaganda.

A conversation is the encounter of two polished minds: tactful enough to listen, confident enough to express their true beliefs; subtle enough to search out the reasons behind the thoughts. A conversation is a work of art with more than one creator.
John Armstrong, philosopher, The University of Melbourne

Recently I have been pondering the question — are we in danger of losing the art of conversation? If we are, I think it’s more than a great shame — it will be extremely bad for our future, both personally and corporately, on so many levels. This piece examines fifteen possible causes for this clear and present danger, discussed in no particular order of importance:

1. Our Desire for Entertainment

How do we relax? Whatever our age, we all crave entertainment for relaxation. And it is so accessible and so abundant! At the click of a digital button, we can have what we want anywhere, anytime. Remember the days when we made our own entertainment? Many folks could play an instrument or if not, they could sing along to someone who could, on the piano or the guitar.

How do we ‘relax’? Yes, there are still raucous conversations down the pub over a beer, but I find that the most common and regular form of relaxation these days is watching Netflix and binging on the latest series.

2. We Are Too Busy

It’s a badge of honour to be busy! We brag about how many hours we are working in a week. Then someone says, aren’t you getting paid overtime for that? Is this good for us? Are we not simply feeding our stress levels? Meanwhile, what’s happening to our families? Before we know it, our children have grown and flown. When all is done, what do we have to show for our busyness?

When our time has come, all we have left is our relationships. What builds relationships? It’s our conversations, not our busyness. I believe that our conversations are not just the lubrication in our relationships, but the very fuel that we burn to create warmth, movement, and momentum. Starve our relationships of conversations, and we run the risk of shipwrecking our relationships.

3. Fear of Conflict

I think we all know that discussion is good, but we fear that our discussions might lead to conflict, so we play it safe and keep our discussions superficial, and steer clear of any potential avenues that might lead to conflict. We subconsciously avoid the no-go areas or taboo subjects, such as politics and religion.

The result is that important areas and issues that really are central to our core beliefs and values don’t get discussed at all. They stay disembodied and inanimate, as if they are not really that important, and we act as if we are afraid to own them.

I am not suggesting conflict is good — far from it. I am very much against a conversation where one seeks to brow-beat, intimidate, or bully the other into following their view, as if all other perspectives are inferior, infantile, and illogical. That’s not a conversation at all. For me, the hallmark of good conversation is mutual respect and humility. If these are there, we can have healthy, robust discussions and we do not need to fear conflict.

4. Our Media No Longer Present Debate

I am not sure why this is the case, though I have some ideas. The fact is that the mainstream media habitually present ‘facts’, ‘events’, and ‘sound-bites’. The items are invariably short and ‘sensational’ in tone, seeking to attract ‘attention’ as best they can.

We have become accustomed to this diet, and when we have been fed our daily meal of news, we feel well-fed. But I propose that the chef has left out a key ingredient — ‘debate’. I am old enough to remember when the newscaster would quietly, calmly present an opposing ‘perspective’ or ‘theory’ as well as their main ‘headline’. In those days, we became accustomed to allowing our own minds to ‘think through’ the situation, and for the incident or situation to ignite interesting conversations at work or around the dinner table.

5. Alternative Views are ‘Conspiracy Theories’

Late last year I wrote in the Daily Declaration about conspiracy theories. These days, we hear about conspiracy theories all the time, and as I said in my piece, they are not reported as worthy of serious consideration, but rather to be ridiculed and dismissed.

If alternative views are always dismissed as the crazy view of a minority, the average man in the street will get used to no longer thinking of alternatives themselves. The art of conversation is vital for maintaining our cognitive agility. As they say, if we don’t use it, we lose it.

In the video discussion “COVID-19 Censorship: Dr Jay Bhattacharya & Dr Gigi Foster“, Dr Jay reported that he wrote the first draft of the Great Barrington Declaration in opposition to the way governments from around the world were responding to the Covid-19 situation. Within days, he had tens of thousands of doctors from all over the world sign on, putting their names and careers behind him and his courageous stand.

However, the establishment medical practitioners and institutions dismissed all this as the crazy rantings of a lunatic fringe. What a way to respond to the genuine concerns of fellow medical practitioners! This was simply censorship at its worst, with the resultant stifling of debate.

6. Lack of Curiosity

Sir Ken Robinson (1950 – 2020), was a great educator and thinker from Liverpool, England. He has been a great inspiration for my students and me for many years. In his talk ‘Why Schools Need to Embrace Kids’ Creativity’, he describes the God-given creativity and curiosity in every one of us and claims that our education systems are driving creativity out of our children.

My own experience with children agrees with Sir Ken’s. Just think of the most ‘irritating’ question from any child, ‘Why?’ That’s the expression of their curiosity, and surely, we should encourage it as best we can, stimulating their curiosity and feeding it with as much variety of ideas and diverse experiences as possible. Then, from this foundation, I believe will come great conversationalists as they grow into adults expecting to explore and navigate the wonders of the world around and about them.

7. The Pervasiveness of Propaganda

Propaganda: dissemination of information — facts, arguments, rumours, half-truths, or lies — to influence public opinion. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

I think that most of us could point to Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany in World War II as a classic example of the use of propaganda. From our standpoint in history today, it is quite simple to recognise the existence of propaganda in that situation. We probably feel sorry for the Germans who were subject to this propaganda, as we recognise that they could not see it at the time. But could they? Did they really not know what was going on? Did they not see the broken windows of ‘Kristallnacht’ and not have a second thought for the fate of their Jewish friends?

Here today in the ‘West’, can we not see some of the evidence of propaganda in our societies? It is not easy to see — that’s why it is propaganda. But perhaps one of the key tools of propaganda is the stifling and suppression of debate with the aim of influencing public opinion.

A few days ago, I was hearing of the huge crowds coming out to hear Dr Anthony Fauci in massive arenas across the United States as he embarked on his new career as a motivational public speaker, following his resignation from medical public office late last year. This, at the time of the mounting legal challenges to his leadership of the Covid-19 situation. What chance will the legal fraternity have of bringing any successful criminal prosecution in light of the overwhelming support he has from public opinion? Propaganda has clearly been successful!

8. The Lack of a Teachable Spirit

When someone is exceedingly confident in their perspective, it is extremely difficult to teach them an alternative approach. They don’t have eyes to see and ears to hear ideas or perspectives that might open doors for new and better possibilities.

I do believe people should be confident in themselves, self-assured, courageous and strong, so that from their strength, they can reach out and help others less fortunate than themselves. But this does not preclude them from being ‘teachable’, being able to stop and rationally consider alternatives.

This is precisely what, in the early 1900s, Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky described as his ‘Zone of Proximal Development’. His model is brilliant in describing the learning and teaching process, the only necessary ingredient for success being a ‘teachable spirit’ so that the learner will want to learn, and the teacher must be able to teach.

Sadly, I find that our society is producing more and more with stunted or minimal teachable spirits. I have ideas as to why this might be the case, and some of my later points in this piece touch on them. But for now, let’s consider our own lives. Let’s do a self-audit: how much of a teachable spirit do we have?

  1. What books are we reading and how have we selected them?
  2. What is our level of interest in others that we meet — do we really want to know about them?
  3. What is the level of trust we have in the voice of our institutions and politicians?

I think these questions can give us a fair measure of our teachable spirit and perhaps might inspire some areas for growth.

9. Lack of Critical Thinking Skills

Again, late last year, I wrote a piece on “Critical Theory or Critical Thinking“. It seems to me that we have become accustomed to discount critical thinking because we are too busy, and we are no longer curious as any alternative we might propose will only be shot down as a conspiracy theory.

The result is that we simply ‘don’t go there’. There are now new taboo subjects and ideas that are simply not worth questioning. One that comes to mind as a great example, is the theory that the sea levels around the world will rise and flood all coastal cities and islands as a result of ‘climate change’. There is no evidence for this, as reported by Peter Westmore a few days ago in the Daily Declaration.

I think that we don’t naturally reach for our critical thinking tools as much as we did in the past, as the rate of change in society has accelerated so much in recent times. There is a new situation or new crisis almost every day. We have just begun to form a view of the first one when the next crisis hits, and our thoughts are dashed in the wake of trying to come to terms with the new.

I also find that mainstream media does not cover topics that might attract debate. In this way, if our diet is solely mainstream, we are fed a distorted, censored view of the present situation. This stunts our ability to engage in the art of conversation from the outset.

10. Our Desire for Acceptance

It is quite normal for all of us to want to fit in. None of us really say they enjoy being in the minority. Rather, it’s a badge of honour to be on the team.

However, it seems to me that this desire to be normal cuts across the art of conversation, which at its heart, pivots on the asking of, and answering of, questions — the antithesis of acceptance and conformity. To raise a question of another can imply we don’t agree with the other’s stance.

But let’s see it rather as showing an interest in the other, showing our desire to understand the other at a deeper level. Just because we are asking questions should never imply that we are not going to respect and give place to the other’s views.

It seems to me that this desire to be one of the crowd is a reflection of our fear of being left outside, of being excluded. This is sad. I think that the ‘herd’ has become so dominant in our day and age. What has happened to the entrepreneurial spirit, the pioneer, the explorer, that we have all become followers? Surely there are leaders and potential leaders amongst us — we don’t all need to be followers.

Returning to my picture of the Nazi propaganda in World War II Germany. Surely one of the reasons for the success of Hitler  and the Nazi Party was the absence of effective opposition:

Of the Germans who opposed Hitler’s dictatorship, very few groups openly protested the Nazi genocide against Jews. The “White Rose” movement was founded in June 1942 by Hans Scholl, a 24-year-old medical student at the University of Munich, his 22-year-old sister Sophie, and 24-year-old Christoph Probst.

Although the exact origin of the name “White Rose” is unknown, it clearly stands for purity and innocence in the face of evil. Hans, Sophie, and Christoph were outraged that educated Germans went along with Nazi policies. (Holocaust Encyclopedia)

It seems that there is a terrible battle that rages inside of us between the desire to conform and be accepted on the one hand and to take a stand against evil on the other. I am sure that the art of conversation can be a valuable training ground where we can build our confidence in non-conformity amongst friends and family before taking on the world at large.

11. Trust in Our Leaders and Our Institutions

Here in the West, nearly all of us have had the great privilege of being raised in relative peace, prosperity and security. Ever since the end of World War II, we have known the near absence of wars on our shores. Yes, there have been countless conflicts elsewhere, notably in Vietnam, and the Middle East since then, but they have largely not brought the fight to our soil, though thousands of our servicemen and women have been engaged in these missions.

I think this has engendered a subconscious trust in authority. After all, the media arguably brought an end to the Vietnam War, and the legal system brought Watergate to the courts. What’s not to trust?

But I contend that there is a deep-seated questioning of trust in our leaders and our institutions that is now crying out for debate, research, critical thinking and the rise of a new generation of leadership. Not a new leadership intent on a violent overthrow of the status quo, but a leadership that can cut through the propaganda and the overwhelming desire for consensus at all costs.

I am not suggesting we need to become pessimistic, negative, and destructive. Not at all. But rather the direct opposite: positive, optimistic and constructive. I don’t think we can get there without the adoption and practice of the art of conversation.

12. The Anaesthetic of the Internet

The internet is all-pervasive. We can ‘ask’ Google to spell a word; we can listen to someone direct us to our destination in the car while listening to any music of our choice. We can find the ‘answer’ to any question and all without any education at all.

But here is the lie: there are some treacherous reefs below the surface designed to rip the bottom out of the lives of the unsuspecting, the young and the ill-educated.

To survive and thrive in the past demanded that we engage in conversation. We would need to ask directions from real people. We would smile and interact with the checkout chick in the supermarket while purchasing our groceries, and we would have our names checked off on a paper list when we travelled cross-country on an inter-city train.

Not now. We can do all this and much more with the swipe or a click of our digital device. The art of conversation with the perfect stranger is all but history, except for those of us with the time to queue for the one remaining real person checking out our shopping, or the stubborn refusal to use the satnav!

I think the word ‘anaesthetic’ is most appropriate here, as it signifies the removal of pain — the potential for embarrassment or rejection when engaging with a stranger. Also, the word describes being ‘put to sleep’: we no longer have to wrestle and struggle to find answers — they are there on a plate wherever and whenever we want.

However, we don’t always see the knife coming for us while we are asleep. There is no critical thinking here, simply blind submission to someone else’s definitions and content selection to create the narrative they want us to hear. So that, when we wake up, we can only parrot the one line, the one we have been fed — never both sides of the argument!

13. Values Used to be Universal; Now, They are Personal

Let me recount one of my memories from my high school days. It was 1960s England. Girls and boys were becoming ‘liberated’ in their practice of sex. I recall, at the dinner table at school, my classmates jibing me about my values when it came to no sex before marriage. I was personalising the universal values of the Bible, but my classmates were rejecting those universal values entirely in the light of the new ‘liberation theology’ on offer.

Today, it seems that everyone can enjoy their own personal values if they so desire. There is no longer any sense that there are universal values to be appropriated, such as the Judeo-Christian values, as they have been declared ‘obsolete’ by society at large.

With values no longer universal, one of the key measurements for debate has gone. So, when we engage in the art of conversion, it is now a greater challenge, as the measurement of values can be calibrated in any direction the individual might desire. Thus, a debate about the application of universal values can no longer happen, unless the two parties agree upfront.

I would imagine that my grandchildren would now find it very hard to hold the same debate on no-sex-before-marriage with their classmates.

14. Feelings Rather Than Facts

In those days there was no king in Israel. People did whatever they felt like doing.
Judges 17:6 (MSG)

This is a recipe for chaos. Witness the Black Lives Matter riots in Portland, Oregon (May 2020) and the latest migrant riots in Paris, France (December 2022). With the backdrop of ‘we can all do what is right in our own eyes’, law enforcement authorities are hamstrung in being seen to take sides, so all they can do is stand by and allow the carnage. The result: chaos.

It seems to me that this also plays out in the art of conversation. If everyone’s views are valid, then there is no longer any value or point in debating others’ views. Rather, let ‘everyone say and do what is right in their own eyes’.

In this climate, it is clear that ‘facts no longer matter’, as what are facts for one are fables for another. What is important is that our ‘feelings’ are preserved and upheld. All because there is no longer any king in Israel. Or, if you will, as there is no longer any honouring of God in our lives or in our culture. His ‘statue’ has been toppled and cast into the sea!

15. Leadership is No Longer Inspiring — It is Merely Subjugating

When was the last time you were inspired by the speech of one of our leaders? For me, I have to go back to John Howard here in Australia and to Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. Just think back to those days — how we debated ‘turning back the boats’ and ‘smashing for the union’s power’. The people were ‘engaged’. Everyone had an opinion! Those were the days!

Nowadays, it seems that leadership has lost its way. In my view, the last attempt at leadership I can recall in Australia was when Scott Morrison went to Glasgow, Scotland (November 2021) for the COP26 Conference. He came back with the ‘Net Zero’ policy, and suddenly Australia ceased to debate climate change. Scott certainly did not inspire debate; he and the Australian Labour began singing the same song, and no one counted the cost or debated the pros and cons.

I call on us all to take a lead ourselves. In the absence of national leadership with vision, let us rise up and lead. First, let us lead our own lives with courage, passion, and clarity. Then, let us regain the art of conversation and inspire those around us to take up the challenge to lead also.

How to Have a Good Conversation

Let me conclude this piece with a dive into this wonderful little video from the School of Life, “How to Have a Good Conversation“:

Having a decent conversation is something most of us imagine we can do without any problem – and certainly without much thought. These things just happen naturally. Don’t they?

But in truth, truly good conversations come along very rarely; largely because our societies fall for the Romantic myth that knowing how to talk to other people is something we are born knowing how to do, rather than an art dependent on a little planning and a few skills.

We rightly accept that total improvisation in preparing a meal is unlikely to yield good outcomes; but we show no such caution or modesty when it comes to how we might talk over the food once it has been made.

Finding oneself in a good conversation can feel as haphazard and random as stumbling on a beautiful square in a foreign city at night ­– and realising one won’t reliably know how to get back there in daytime.

They suggest that the art of conversation does not normally just happen. I have itemised fifteen reasons why it doesn’t. So, my challenge for us all is to plan to ‘make good conversations happen’. I strongly believe that the art of conversation is essential for our personal health and well-being, and for the health and well-being of society at large.

For me, the starting point has two foundations, but they may well be different for each of us. My starting point is trying to listen well. I don’t simply mean listening to other people’s expressed words, but also reading each other’s body language. My second foundation is to engineer appropriate places and times for conversations. As the School for Life rightly says, good conversations don’t just happen.

I believe that when we are engaged in a vibrant debate with someone, that’s when we are most awake and alert to the world around us. The converse is also true. When we are not thus engaged, we are in fact most asleep!


Photo by Ivan Samkov.

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  1. Kaylene Emery 9 January 2023 at 7:43 am - Reply

    The answer is Yes!
    I will return to read later as this is a very long article. Not complaining I’m just sayin……

  2. Kaylene Emery 9 January 2023 at 6:16 pm - Reply

    I can only settle into this article over time Jim – so I will and thank you. But for now “ long live freedom and thank God for white rose’s.

  3. Jim Twelves 10 January 2023 at 7:38 am - Reply

    Kaylene, I am so sorry this piece is so long! Thank you for your perseverance. I find it a most challenging issue, particularly the reluctance to engage of myself.
    One shaft of light that brightened my day was to realize that the white rose is also the symbol of Yorkshire, from where I was born. Perhaps that why I am so concerned to mount the ‘resistance’ and to seek to recruit new dissidents by engaging in the art of conversation! Shalom, Jim

  4. Kaylene Emery 10 January 2023 at 12:05 pm - Reply

    Thank you Jim.
    Can you tell me what you mean when you write “ reluctance to engage of myself “?
    In appreciation of you and, your time.

  5. Kaylene Emery 11 January 2023 at 5:45 am - Reply

    Got it !!!
    Thank you for making the time Jim.

  6. Jim Twelves 11 January 2023 at 8:43 am - Reply

    Sorry, awkward English! “I find it a most challenging issue, particularly the reluctance to engage of myself.” I think what I was trying to say was that the whole question of ‘conversation’ with family, friends and strangers is a most complex thing. Most of us simply talk and don’t think about the way we are talking, we are simply ‘ourselves’. Unfortunately/ fortunately, I do think about this a lot! I play out the sentence in my head ‘before’ I say it. I ask, how will this be taken. But this approach leads for a stilted conversation often. Another side though is that I do give time for the other to talk. The result is that I am mentally measuring how much they talk vs how much I talk.
    As a teacher of teachers, I used to suggest that teacher talk should be 20% compared to class talk 80% on account of them greatly outnumbering the teacher. If the teacher is 80% and the class 20% then we have a lecture, and a good number may be asleep or focused outside the window!
    I digress, what I am saying is that conversation is an area I am working on in my own life, hence my writing up this piece!

  7. Terry Darmody 25 January 2023 at 8:08 pm - Reply

    A great article, Dr Jim. Very relevant, helpful and detailed. Much appreciated.

  8. Jim Twelves 27 January 2023 at 6:33 pm - Reply

    Terry, thank you.
    Since putting this together I have been reflecting on it myself (I guess that’s to be expected) and I would now add a ’16th consideration’: Its hard to give it a title – but perhaps ‘Headwinds’.
    I have found myself in situation after situation where I would love for a full blown conversation but there is a tangible reluctance to ‘dive in’ on ‘both’ sides. I find it particularly galling for me as I am now so self concision about wanting to ‘go there’. Perhaps I need to work on timing and location and become even more premeditated in seeking to engage others.
    Another thought I have had is that perhaps people who have been inspired by this might like to initiate ‘conversation’ groups, a type of ‘connect’ group if you will. I may well give this a push and write up another article on my experience – good or bad!

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