How to have a conversation

Perhaps it was the opium talking, but Thomas de Quincey once wrote that an evening in the company of Samuel Coleridge was “like some great river”. The poet “swept at once into a continuous strain of dissertation, certainly the most novel, the most finely illustrated, and traversing the most spacious fields of thought, by transitions the most just and logical, that it was possible to conceive”.

Most of us have hopefully felt the unmoored elation of staying up all night talking with a friend or a lover. But Coleridge was that rare thing, a conversationalist: eloquent, witty, with a seemingly bottomless reservoir of cultural knowledge. Nor was he the only one back then who could claim his company was a performance art. David Hume once engaged in so much raillery at a dinner party he left Jean-Jacques Rousseau clinging to a table leg.

What makes a good conversationalist has changed little over the years. The basics remain the same as when Cicero became the first scholar to write down some rules, which were summarised in 2006 by The Economist: “Speak clearly; speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn; do not interrupt; be courteous; deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones; never criticise people behind their backs; stick to subjects of general interest; do not talk about yourself; and, above all, never lose your temper.” But Cicero was lucky: he never went on a first date with someone more interested in their iPhone than his company.

And so I found myself one cold Tuesday evening in February talking to complete strangers, nibbling on vegetable quiche and sipping blackcurrant cordial. I had enrolled in The School of Life, an academy of “self-help” on Bloomsbury’s Marchmont Street, co-founded by philosopher Alain de Botton. For about £30 per session, students can take classes with resident “fellows” of the school on subjects such as “How to fill the God-shaped hole” or “How to make love last”. Tuesday’s topic was “How to have a conversation”.

I had arrived about 20 minutes early but the rest of the class was already there, talking to each other in the school shop that served that evening as a reception room. On the walls were shelves stocking manuals for how to be a better person. I felt like I was in Richard Curtis’s London: diverse, sincere and hip. I overheard an American accent.

Another pupil shuffled over and kindly invited me into her circle. A freelance television producer in her early forties, she was wearing a blue puffer dress covered in images of stars and planets. She was finding it hard to have meaningful relationships. Technology was partly to blame: “Sometimes you feel the BlackBerry is like a third person,” she said. This was a generational issue, too. Her nieces and nephews barely looked up from their gadgets when she entered a room. Another new acquaintance agreed, and described how Google had blocked off avenues of conversation with her boyfriend. “Before we would argue about this or that, but now we just look it up on Wikipedia,” she said.

Worries about the effect of technology on conversation are not new; George Orwell bemoaned houses having a radio in every room. And this was no class of Luddites. Everyone said they were on Facebook and several were avid tweeters.

However, there was unease about how email, instant messaging and texting had crept into the space formerly occupied by conversation. What was the point, asked a young man, of asking how someone’s day was when you’ve been emailing them from the office?

My classmates also spoke of more personal reasons for their attendance. An IT worker in her fifties had found that her conversations with her husband “meandered” and wanted to learn ways to become a better partner. A man in his late twenties, who had bought his girlfriend an annual pass to the school as a Christmas gift, said he wanted to have fewer rows. Two other classmates later mentioned they were trying to help someone overcome bereavement.

Listening to these stories, I felt slightly disappointed. My idea of a good conversationalist was an erudite entertainer. I had ambitions of learning how to host a good table. I had imagined finding out how to emulate Christopher Hitchens, quoting Yeats and quaffing scotch. But none of my new friends said they wanted to be a raconteur in the Coleridge or the Hitchens mould. Instead, there was a genuine, quiet determination to learn how to be better friends and better lovers. And to have a bit of fun on a Tuesday night. We were Boswells, not Johnsons.

The basement classroom looked as if an avant-garde theatre company had designed a corporate training room. I descended the 14 steps of the white staircase that formed the back wall. In the middle of the room, two elliptical rows of 15 spindly chairs poked into a plush aubergine carpet. They faced a white wall that had been attacked by black paint, which had left behind a monochromatic mural: countryside, trees, bookshelves, paintings, the cover of David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane and a racing bike. A blood-orange velvet curtain covered the wall to the class’s left; on the right, the mural made way for a pantry gently warmed by magnolia-coloured walls.

Our teacher was Cathy Haynes, an elegant woman wearing a Rothko painting of a dress, all scarlet block and magenta stripe, who surprised the class when she said she was approaching 40. She was a “fellow” at the school. Haynes flicked to the first slide in her PowerPoint presentation and we sat attentively as she talked about how the nature of conversation had changed over the past 300 years.

The Enlightenment was the age of conversation, when ladies and gentlemen in Scottish pubs, English dining rooms and French salons could become famous through eloquence alone. In an age of humours – the idea that bodily fluids determined character – conversation was seen as a corrective to a melancholic temperament.

A similar view continued to be held throughout the 19th century (we were told to think of how Elizabeth’s incessant chit-chat finally cures the aloof sadness of Mr Darcy) but with the publication in 1936 of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, conversation became a more manipulative pursuit, according to Haynes. “Be a good listener” and “encourage others to talk about themselves” made up item four on Carnegie’s list of six ways to make people like you.

Carnegie was said to set the tone for conversation in the 20th century. I happen to have a copy of Reader’s Digest’s How to Write and Speak Better from 1991. The cold war may have averted nuclear meltdown but it was radioactive to small talk, according to the Digest: “People will converse happily about the weighty matters of the day, such as what is happening in Moscow and Washington ... but discussing the weather with a stranger is beyond them!” the book exclaims. These days are not so different, though we are more distracted and more open about our feelings, Haynes said.

Thus contextualised, we were told to break off into groups of two and answer the question “Which three words describe your conversations with A. Friends, B. Family and C. Colleagues?” My partner said “banter”, “sarcastic” and “sporadic” were the words he would use to describe all three types of conversation. His social circle had been the same since university; self-referential stories and in-jokes had accumulated, making casual talk easy but shutting off more emotional discussions. I was about to share my three words, but then it was snack time.

After 10 minutes in the pantry with cordial, lemon cake and more quiche, we retook our seats. Haynes continued her PowerPoint presentation, asking us to reflect on the meaning of a René Magritte painting, a picture of a Welsh miner-cum-opera singer, Monty Python’s argument sketch (“Is this the right room for an argument?”; “I told you once”; “No you haven’t”; “Yes I have”), the Danish political drama Borgen and a book called Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love & Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships, by the presumably happy David Schnarch, PhD.

All of these examples were meant to encourage us to stop seeing conversations as a means to an end, and to avoid stereotyping the other person. And once we had done all that, we had reached the final part of the class. It was time to learn the “six ways to have a better conversation”. These, according to the school, are: 1. Be curious about others; 2. Take off your mask; 3. Empathise with others; 4. Get behind the job title; 5. Use adventurous openings; 6. Have courage.

Again, there were examples to go along with each instruction. Haynes told us of a man that shared his bubble blower with fellow passengers on the New York subway.

In our groups we were asked to come up with ideas for unusual openings. A man in his early twenties who joked that he had thought of this before, as a chat-up line, suggested: “Tell me something I want to know.” A more challenging opener came from another group member: “If you were coming to the end of your life, what would you have wanted to have done that you hadn’t?” Someone in a different group had the most popular suggestion: explaining how you felt about something and asking your companion what they thought.

After this enjoyable burst of role play, Haynes put up a slide that said: “What conversation are you not having?” and the class was over. She said there was a pub across the road if anyone wanted to continue talking. I brushed the crumbs off my lap and retrieved my coat from the pantry. I watched my fellow graduates gather their belongings and climb the stairs; they left alone or accompanied by the people they had brought along. I didn’t hear much conversation now that the class structure had been dismantled. It was as if a permission-to-speak slip had to be returned at the door.

Despite our excellent teacher, I suspect the class was too abstract to be useful. Nearly three-quarters of the session was spent listening to theories of conversation. Genuine discussions were stopped in mid-flow, with the class asked to return its attention to the presentation. Frustration grew. Perhaps all this intellectualising reflected the school’s keenness to avoid a US-style “self-help” model, complete with charlatans peddling snake oil for the soul. Perhaps Brits would find a more direct approach too cheesy.

But I suspect my classmates were after that most basic thing, human connection. Whatever it was – technology, break-up, bereavement – that made them attend, all wanted stronger relationships. They just weren’t sure how. It would be sad if we needed to dress that up in an intellectual costume. Sad and unhelpful. Nowhere in Cicero’s rules does it say good conversation requires a mastery of literature.

For I had misjudged the evening, too. I was wrong to think of conversation primarily as a performance art, mastered by the likes of Coleridge and Hitchens. Indeed, conversation needn’t be anything. It needn’t have a purpose. The very act of talking and listening and learning is what my classmates sought. It’s what Ian McEwan said Hitchens wanted in his final days. And that desire is as pure and right as any Coleridge poem.

John McDermott is the FT’s executive comment editor

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