The Joy of Conversation

The Joy of Conversation

By Bruce Rosove,

Conversation is an art form. But do people value being good at conversations ? Or more specifically, do people want to speak and listen and do they know how to do it well?

Conversation consists of both speaking and listening.

Listening is an art form. Many people pay a great deal just to be listened to. If you’ve ever gone to a coach, a counsellor a therapist, a doctor or even a dentist you know how important being listened to is. Imagine a dentist who does not listen to us before he or she starts work. He might drill or pull the wrong tooth! So listening is important. People value being listened to. But do people value being the listener? Or more specifically, do people want to listen and do they know how to do it well?

The answer varies.

How do you feel about listening to others? How do you feel about being listened to? Do you have a system that helps you listen well? Can you describe the process you use to make sure that you listen well and that your message is heard accurately?

There are at least two elements to good conversation skills. Focus, that is, giving your full attention to the other person and Structure. Both full attention and structure are key to having successful conversations.

The First Element: Focus

To focus, each person must give his/her full attention to the conversation.

This means that both need to let go of all their concerns and focus on the conversation. This is easy to say, harder to do. It takes effort.

So, if you are listening, listen with your full attention. Wait for the speaker to finish his or her thought. Let go of anything but paying attention to the speaker’s words. That is all. Do nothing but listen. Just listen!

And if you are speaking concentrate on offering a clear message and watch for signs that the other person wants to ask a question or to have something clarified. If you don’t pick up on this, your conversation partner will likely miss important information you are offering.

The second element of good conversation, structure, makes it much easier to focus.

The Second Element: Structure

By “structure”, I mean a set of stages in the interaction. Each stage has its role to play in making sure that, if we are listening we are listening attentively, assisting the speaker to get in touch with his or her wisdom and passion about the topic in question. If we are the speaker, structure helps us organize how we deliver our important message.
Being focused means we are speaking clearly and watching for signs from our listener that he or she needs to ask a question or clarify something. This structure helps us be attentive to our listener.

The Five Steps in a Conversation

1. Setting a Contract

Have you ever thought you were in a conversation only to discover that the other person did not really want to speak with you? Setting a contract is designed to make sure that both the listener and the speaker really want to have this conversation. It seems obvious, but, quite often one of the two people in this situation don’t want to talk right then.

Creating a contract for the conversation can be as simple as saying:

“Would you like to spend the next 10 minutes discussing this situation?”

The amount of time and other details of the agreement to have a conversation vary, of course. The key is to make sure the other person is open and able to take part in the conversation. Sometimes the invitation to converse leads to a plan for a conversation at a later time.

2. Identify the Topic
If the other person does agree you can move on to the next stage, Identifying the topic. Again, it seems obvious, but it is important to ensure that you both are clear on what the speaker wants to speak about and that the listener is open to discussing that topic.

It is up to the person wanting to speak to say what it is they’d like to discuss. And it’s up to the listener to reflect back to the speaker his/her understanding of what the topic is.

Once the topic is agreed to it’s time for the speaker to begin speaking about the topic.

As the conversation moves along, it is important to pause and give the listener a chance to ask clarifying questions. And that takes us to the next stage in the structure of a skillful conversation.

3. Clarifying Questions
Once the speaker has described enough of the situation that the listener thinks he or she has a sense of the message. Or if the listener realizes he/she is not clear about what the speaker has said, the listener asks questions either to confirm understanding or to get clarification if needed.

The listener will be asking questions that help him or her understand exactly what the speaker is saying. I often see this stage as the heart of the process. This is where you support the speaker to get in touch with exactly what he or she wants you to know. Often speakers will be surprised or pleased that this part of the conversation has helped them understand for themselves what they need or want. They get in touch with their own wisdom! This can be very empowering for the individual. It’s also very satisfying for the listener!

Note that if the listener has not understood what the speaker has said. Or if the understanding is only partly correct or complete, the speaker will clarify. This can take several sets of the speaker explaining, the listener asking clarifying questions and the speaker providing more information to make his or her message clearer.

The key is that you are both working to gain understanding. I sometimes think of this as a sort of “dance”.

4. Summarize
Once, you, as the listener, feel you have a good understanding of what the speaker has been explaining to you. It’s time to Summarize. This is the fourth stage in the structure. In this stage, Listeners summarize what they think the speaker has been telling them and ask the speaker whether they have got it right. Often the speaker will say that you’ve got it partly right. If that is the case you ask more clarifying questions and summarize again when you have a clearer picture. When the speaker tells you that your summary describes what they were trying to communicate you have completed this stage.

5 Deciding on What, if any, Actions to take.
Once the speaker feels he or she has been heard and understood by the listener, it is time to discuss whether any action is needed and who does what if actions are needed.
This can lead to another stage in the conversation.

The key is that each person in the conversation is heard and feels that he or she has been heard accurately.

Some more tips for Listeners.

In all stages

Ask open ended questions like: What do you think the problem is?
Avoid questions that start with the word “why”.
Questions that ask “where”, “when”, “how” “what” work well to help the speaker be more and more clear about what he or she is trying to explain or explore. These questions are especially useful in the Clarifying stage. But they can be useful in all stages.

In the Clarifying Questions stage

Do not ask questions that are action planning in disguise.

Questions like: “Have you tried x solution to your problem.”
Are action planning in disguise.

If you’re in the Action Planning stage you could ask:

“What would you like to do about (the problem that you have now identified).”

Where are the Conversation Skills Useful?

The skills I have outlined here are skills that we can all use. We don’t have to be professional listeners to benefit from listening in this way. Listening in this way can be of great value when you are doing a job search, when you’re doing research for a project or when you are in a conflict with a spouse, a child, a neighbour or a co-worker. Good conversation skills are important just about any time you are speaking with someone. Generally, the more important the conversation, the more important these skills are.

Good conversation Skills can bring a great deal of peace to your life and the life of those around you.


Three “Communities” That Could Benefit From Each Other: Creativity, Personal Development and Peace.

One of the themes I’ve been working on lately is to cross-fertilize three communities that I feel have a great deal to learn from each other.

They are:  The Creativity Community

The Personal Development/Spirituality Community and

The Conflict Resolution or Peace Community

I use the word “community” in the singular in each case but there are many versions of each of these community categories.

The Creativity Community for me includes:

The Creative Problem Solving Institute (CPSI)   (CPSI) and a whole range of other conferences that seem to all owe their beginnings to CPSI.

CPSI is a conference that has been running for close to 60 years now.  It was started by an advertising executive Alex F. Osborn.  Osborn developed a creative problem solving process using applied imagination and deferment of judgment enabling as many ideas as possible to be expressed (group use of this principle was called Brainstorming). Dr. Sidney J. Parnes further refined Osborn’s work, resulting in what is commonly referred to as the Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving process (CPS).

A long list of conferences have followed in the footsteps of CPSI.  One of my favourites is Mind Camp that happens north of Toronto every year.  There are many others.  See for a list.

There are also a whole range of companies that specialize in providing services to help organizations increase their creativity.

The Personal Development Community for me includes:

Coaching and counselling practices of many types; personal development organizations like the ManKind Project, ; the Inner Journey ; The Oneness University; Yoga; Chi Gong and many others.  In fact there is a huge variety of approaches to personal growth and healing.

The Conflict Resolution/Peace Community for me includes:

Mediation; Peace groups of many types, e.g. The Canadian Peace Initiative ; Civilian Peace Service Canada; USAID; many of the offices of the United Nations and so on.

What these three communities:

  •  The Creativity Community
  • The Personal Development/Spirituality Community and
  • The Conflict Resolution or Peace Community

have in common is that to be successful they need to help people develop new perspectives and behaviours.  The growth is related to personal growth as distinct from growth of knowledge.  It’s not book learning we’re speaking about here.  It’s a change in how each person sees the world and his or her relationship to the world.  These are profound changes people need to make.

I see these three communities as being mutually synergistic.

So, I like to challenge myself and those I interact with by asking:

1.  Do you agree that these three “communities” have a lot to offer each other?

2.  If yes, what can you and I do to make use of each others’ knowledge and activities?

If no, are you willing to learn more about one of the other two communities to see if there is a benefit?

 I’m looking forward to your comments…..!

How Do We Really Find Happiness? A Critique of Martin Seligman’s Latest Book Flourish and Praise for Jeffery D. Sach’s The Price of Civilization

I was excited by Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness.  It offered a theory of happiness that made sense to me.  In Authentic Happiness  Seligman identifies three key elements that contribute to happiness:

  • Pleasant Experiences
  • Engagement and
  • A Meaningful Life

Of course we want to have fun just for the heck of it, that is, Pleasant Experiences.  But that’s not enough to make a happy life.  We also need one or more activities or endeavours that we can get totally engrossed in. That’s Engagement or Flow.

Finally, the ultimate element, or so I thought, is the notion that we need to have a project or series of projects, that are Meaningful to us.  Something we’re doing where we feel we are contributing to others outside of ourselves.  Seligman named this a Meaningful Life.

One of the reasons I liked this model was that it addresses the fact that as we in the so- called developed world have gained more and more material wealth and “stuff” we aren’t happier.

The theory in Authentic Happiness seemed to offer a really powerful explanation of this, at least by implication.  I wrote an article on this  (   in which I pointed out that accumulating more and more stuff does not lead to happiness.  What does lead to happiness is contributing to the good of others.   I saw this as a wonderful approach to changing our behaviour towards our environment.  That is, it provides a rationale for using less stuff and spending more effort just being of assistance to others in ways that are engaging for us based on our particular strengths.

So, when I saw that, in his latest book, Flourish, Seligman had added Accomplishments to his list of elements that contribute to what he calls “well being” I was alarmed.

Then when I read his rationale for the addition I was even more concerned.  He says that people’s report of their life satisfaction is 70 percent determined by the mood they are in and 30 % by how well they judge their life to be going at that moment.

I would suggest that a better way of measuring life satisfaction is to ask people how they judge the totality of their life.  Not how they see their life going at the moment.  Surely, a way can be found to measure this accurately.

A second concern or objection is that accomplishment is really part of the meaningful life element of Seligman’s original model.  If I believe that I am doing things that contribute to something outside of myself that suggests that I am achieving accomplishments.  What is more, placing accomplishment in the context of a meaningful life  is a much more desirable way to frame accomplishment as an element of well being or happiness than, for example, just winning at bridge as he suggests, even if the winner does so by cheating as he also suggests (see page 18 of Flourish).

And this gets at the heart of my concerns about the inclusion of accomplishments as a free standing element in his theory.  I fear it could lead to the type of meaningless and costly activities that create more “stuff” but don’t add to people’s sense of well being.

So when I opened Jeffery D. Sachs’ book The Price of Civilization, Economics and Ethics After the Fall and read:

 “ Our greatest national illusion is that a healthy society can be organized around the single minded pursuit of wealth.  The ferocity of the quest for wealth throughout society has left Americans exhausted and deprived of the benefits of social trust, honesty and compassion.  Our society has turned harsh, with elites …. among the most irresponsible and selfish of all. ”

 I felt I had found a voice for my misgivings about Seligman’s revision of his original theory.

Seligman’s new theory of happiness outlined in Flourish, seems to justify the pursuit of meaningless or even unethical so-called “accomplishments”.

THAT IS DANGEROUS!  We’ve seen how the unthinking pursuit of profit (i.e. meaningless stuff) has created the recent economic meltdown which has led to high unemployment and economic hardship for many.

Sachs argues eloquently that it’s that value system that is leading us away from a caring, mindful and successful society.

So let’s focus on creating Pleasant, Engaged and Meaningful lives for ourselves and others as Seligman suggested in his book Authentic Happiness.  That is an authentic path to happiness and well being!!

Career and Relationships Coach Bruce Rosove is certified as a Master Practitioner in Neuro Linguistic Programming; is an Emotional Fitness Coach and Coach Instructor; has studied Non-Violent Communication under Marshall Rosenberg; has level one training in Inner Journey Facilitation and has studied many other modalities.    

Contact him at: 613 233 8013 email: