The lost art of conversation

The lost art of conversation

By Renee Martyna | Photography by Heather Bonker

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I am a Conversation Curator. This means I make a living by helping people have meaningful conversations about things that really matter to them: resolving conflict, making a big career move or crafting their organization’s vision for the future.

I gave myself that title after a long period of career dissatisfaction. I realised that rather than filing papers and reports, what I love to do most in life is talk. At first that hardly seemed a virtue, or at least not a marketable one. You have to understand, I’d been blessed with an insatiable curiosity but cursed with an inability to filter. My mom used to call me ‘miss-twenty-questions-who-is-too-impatient-to-wait -for-the-answers’. I used to blow holes in people’s hearts with my tactless queries on what went wrong with their love-lives, or how they ended up with those warts on the end of their nose.

At the age of 30, with more than a few feet stuck in my mouth, I decided it was not only time to learn how to speak, but also how to listen.

I discovered that meaningful conversation is an age old – but decidedly lost – art. Most people need to learn how to do it well. In fact, for most of modern history, they actually did.

Historically, people of a certain privilege (not unlike the expats of Bali) knew how to engage each other with words. Before television and computers, Knowmads who schlepped from place to place were forced to keep the company of perfect strangers. Conversation was not just a pastime, it was survival. It won friends and stayed enemies, it showed prowess and helped determine strategy. As a matter of course, guests would be called upon to share their family history, tell a funny or tragic tale, and recite at least one repartee from literature. They were happy to oblige lest they be perceived as boring, awkward or – heaven forbid – impolite. Travelers would sit for hours, and sometimes days, entertaining each other with words.

Maybe I am the only one who thinks this sounds better than Facebook or endless discussions of vampire and gangland thrillers on HBO?

Don’t get me wrong. I see no reason to go back to the times of oration and elocution lessons. But surely we could raise the bar a bit on the content and quantity of good conversation? In these internet-crazed days, when our syntax is bastardized, our eloquence is sacrificed for economy, when someone will have thousands of followers but few real friends, we seem to be drowning in abbreviations and sound bites. I have to ask: What are we really saying?

I often tell my clients: “What you say, how you say it and who you say it to can change everything.” So best say it well! Here is what I have learned about how to have a conversation that will bring more depth, intrigue and learning to your life:

Start with questions, not convictions. Questions are openings: they invite engagement and connection. Too many opinions can intimidate others and drive them away, even if they appear to agree with you. Short and powerful questions are best. Try to not lace them with judgement or what you think the answer should be. Be sincere: ask the question you are truly curious about and give people time to reflect and answer honestly.

Say what you mean, mean what you say and don’t say it mean. Dip-speak, beating around the bush and excessive political correctness are plagues to real conversation, but the desire to be direct does not give you license to be a jerk. Most people can hear very tough things as long as you choose your words carefully. Remember what the Buddhists say: honesty without compassion is cruelty.

Listen with your whole self. Real answers to important questions are often found well beyond the words actually spoken. They are buried in the way your body feels. So pay attention to your visceral reactions: they contain the most revealing information.

Conversations are not duels. Unless you live your life as if it were a debate club, stop thinking about what clever thing you can say next. Those conversations are more focused on showmanship than results. They benefit nothing but your ego. If you want to get something out of a conversation besides the short-lived high of being right, keep your mind open and really listen. You might learn something.

Be rigorously honest. That means admitting when you don’t know something, or worse, that you may be wrong. Otherwise you risk looking like a liar. Be warned: dishonesty is more than telling outright lies. It’s also not telling the whole truth. So own up to how you feel, not just to what you think.

Sometimes it’s what’s left unsaid that speaks volumes. Silence has a powerful place in a good conversation because it allows sentience to enter the room in place of words. Listen for it: it often precedes the climax of a transformative conversation. On the other hand, punitive silence in the form of pouting, shunning or deflecting is as pernicious to conversation (and any relationship for that matter) as verbal abuse.

Watch who you are talking to. Unless you are asked or have a rip-roaringly funny repartee, it’s best to avoid these conversation killers (and I know this is a tough one in Bali, folks): opinions on traffic or the route you took to avoid it; the finer details of your health regimen or your latest bodily ailments; and any unsolicited advice (especially if it relates to someone else’s route/health/relationships). It’s a sad fact but chances are, nobody really cares -except your mother or your therapist-, so consider your audience. Too much detail or intimacy in the wrong place or at the wrong time can cut a good conversation very short.

I am far from consistent in following these rules, of course. I am human, and maybe like you, I think everyone should want to know how my bowels function or just how right I really am. We can all learn a lot from the Balinese in this regard: they rarely seem to let their attention and patience give way to urgency or self-seeking as we Westerners are prone to do. If I take their lead and remember to make my ears bigger than my mouth, I find that I am often deeply moved by what I learn from a good conversation… and that really does change everything.

Renee Martyna is a conflict resolution specialist who is also the wife of a serial entrepreneur and a mother of two third culture kids.  Check out her passion project at

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