It is true that - in developed countries, at least - less
time is given to, allowed for, meeting and talking face-
"Too inefficient," some say. "A waste if time,"
High tech - High touch
When John Naisbitt published his best-selling Megatrends
in 1982, investors in the film industry worried that with movies
now available on tape, people would no longer attend
theaters. The movie business would be kaput!
argued that as "High Tech" became more pervasive, it would
have to be balanced with "High Touch" – because human
beings craved the contact. They wanted the smell of the
popcorn, schmoozing in line, laughing and crying together,
and talking about the movie afterwards with friends.
Later, reprising this subject in High Tech/High Touch (1988),
Naisbitt counseled us to avoid what he called the "Technology
Intoxication Zone" and spend more time in contact with nature
and one another to remember what it means to be human.
high tech is about shortening time, high touch is about taking time,
time to look at the stars, feel the snowflakes, and reminisce over
a cup of coffee.
Humans need connection
He didn't need to advise us to do so. We humans are hard-wired
for contact. We're social animals. We're tribal. We are born to
acquire language, and we are born to tell stories to each other.
Remember psychologist Abraham Maslow's pyramid of human
needs? Most basic is the survival need (food, water, shelter).
But next is the need to belong, which means to be connected to
and included with others.
For most of our lives, belonging is
accomplished and maintained by bridging and bonding through talk.
(We see evidence of this need in the number of people who prefer
be with others in the workplace than to telecommute from home.)
However, as our societies have become more technologically
advanced, they have become only slightly more advanced in the
in the low-tech, old-fashioned ways of relating.
availability of more and higher education, I observe precious
little evidence that people relate with greater understanding
or more effectively solve difficult and complex problems together.
My five predictions
I believe conversation has 5 important possible futures
that are worthy of our attention and interest:
1. Conversation valued more
Conversation will come to be more valued, less taken for granted.
Fifty years ago we took for granted many important human functions such
as eating, sleeping, and physical activity. Today as much more is known
about optimum ways to eat, sleep, and exercise for health and well-being,
people value them more.
Conversation is coming to be seen not only
as a tool for transmitting information, but also as a means of building
families and communities, enhancing learning, healing emotions, mediating
disputes, and solving complex international problems. All of these are
already happening but are not yet in the foreground of our attention.
2. Conversation skill-building
Conversation will be seen as an skill that can be improved through
instruction, coaching, and practice. Just as many people now take classes,
workshops, and retreats to improve their writing skills, more people will
have an opportunity to take classes and programs to improve their
Much of this learning will take place in informal,
self-help, adult learning programs, rather than in academic settings.
Just as Toastmasters International groups have trained hundreds of
thousands of public speakers, such programs will train millions of
competent conversers. A special professional niche of "conversation
coaches" will emerge to help people who want to learn greater skill in
3. Facilitators for conversations
More and more, facilitators expert in interpersonal processes
will be called upon to help people talk to one another more effectively.
While in the past using facilitators was thought to be a sign of incompetence,
it is now being viewed as an indicator of wisdom. We call in specialists
for many tasks: CPAs for accounting, architects for building, physical
therapists for rehab.
Business, governmental, and nonprofit organizations
will come to see that facilitators can enhance their meetings and will
consider using them for meetings to be standard and usual.
4. The great, good place
As the perceived value of people connecting and sharing ideas
grows in business organizations, towns, and even educational campuses,
more "third places" will emerge. These core settings for informal public
life are where people can meet old friends, make new ones, and talk
about the issues of the day. Pubs, parks, hair salons, coffee houses,
and bookstores are examples of such places.
Their essential ingredients
include that they be free or inexpensive, highly accessible, and welcoming.
Such places are alternatives to first places (home) and second places (work).
These are places where, as the theme line of the TV show Cheers
announces in its re-runs, "Everybody knows your name."
these informal places will be built into – or added on to – business
settings and will be areas where employees can "shoot the breeze,"
meet co-workers from other units, and – very likely – grow the
organization's knowledge by mutual sharing of ideas in settings
that suggest "this is friendship" and "this is play." (See Ray
Oldenburg's book, The Great, Good Place, 1999).
5. Allowing ourselves to be changed
Conversation will begin to be seen not only as a way to
influence others, but to be influenced by others.
culture" that linguist Deborah Tannen describes in her book by
that title will no longer be seen as the highest value. Thus, when
you and I are culturally, politically, or generationally different and
enter into a deep conversation with a goal of mutual understanding,
we should both expect to come away changed.
In his fine book Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking,
Listening, and Creating New Realities (2004) Adam Kahane describes
a meeting in post-civil war Guatemala in which a participant says quietly
to a general who had been involved in mass murder: "I know that nobody
enrolls in the military academy in order to learn how to massacre women
and children." Following this utterance of reflective dialogue,
the group sat in deep silence for a long time, and after that there
occurred a perceptible shift in the minds and hearts of all.
I have a sense that these futures for conversation are emerging.
I know that I will do my best to help bring them about.
cohesive and healthy societies, we need these changes.
need them for a less violent and safer world on this little blue
planet we all inhabit.
Loren Ekroth © 2005
Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life. His articles and programs strengthen critical communication skills for business and professional people. Contact him at Loren@conversation-matters.com. Check resources and archived articles at http://www.conversation-matters.com.
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