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09th Aug 2019

A conversation expert reveals how we can be better at talking to each other

Rich Cooper

McVitie’s and Mind are encouraging the nation to get together over a biscuit and a cuppa and get talking. To find out more click here

What makes a good conversation? And why is talking so important?

Rob Kendall has spent the last 30 years exploring the nature of thinking and the skills of effective conversation. For Rob, conversation runs to the core of what makes us human.

“Our life is conducted through our conversations,” Rob says.

“An absolutely fundamental concern for human beings is our sense of connection with other people, and the primary tools that allow us to connect with other people are the way that we speak and listen.”

If you go back in human history, we used to live in small communities, where the conversations you were having were with your family, your neighbours – it was a very small circle of conversations that you were engaged in.

“Now, on the one hand, you’ve potentially got the whole world available to you to communicate with. But at the same time the question then is how many of those people can you really have meaningful conversations with?”

We have our working lives and our personal lives, and effective communication is paramount to both. We can talk with our friends about what’s bothering us, but for many people, work is all business.

Those things that bother us still bother us in our jobs, and can have a negative impact on our working lives.

“Take a leadership team with 4,000 people in their division, for example,” says Rob. “They’re under enormous stress. They don’t spend time with each other. Their conversations are very transactional.

“What they’re finding is there are tensions that build between them because they haven’t invested time in more foundational conversations about who they are and what’s important to them. They don’t talk about challenges and issues as they come up and they tend to boil over without being addressed.”

In other words, they’re not being given the space to be human.

Men are notoriously bad at sharing their thoughts and feelings with each other. In Rob’s experience, this comes down to a broad difference between the way men and women look at communicating.

“For women, their primary concern when they are walking away from a conversation is often, ‘What did that do to my sense of relationship with the other person?’ Rob says. “With men, there’s a much bigger consideration for the impact on their status or other people’s regard for them.”

“That has implications for what they’re willing to share. The question for men is if, ‘I share that, does it make me appear weaker? What impact does it have on my sense of status with the other person?’ That often makes men feel more guarded.”

So how do we break down these barriers that prevent us from having open, honest conversations?

“It starts with being willing to take an interest in other people’s lives, to ask questions that go a little bit deeper,” says Rob.

“Particularly with men, there’s often a question about who’s going to go first. If you start a conversation by willing to be authentic, in terms of being able to share your humanity to the other person, it invites the other person to match that and do the same.

“What strikes me is how often, for me personally when I do that and I share some of my own vulnerability, that opens the door for other men to be able to share what’s going on in their lives.”

At work, the key is to break out of our inboxes, and spend more time investing in our relationships with our colleagues.

Rob recalls an example from a construction project.

“Somebody said to me that the project director would come in every morning and instead of parking at the front door and going into his office, he would take the first 20 minutes of his day just to chat to people on his way to his desk.

“The person telling me this said that the sense of moral and relationship that people had on that construction project was absolutely amazing.

“What was interesting was that the project director left and somebody else came in, and the first day he parked at the point nearest to the front door and went straight into his office.

“A month later, everybody wanted to leave the project.”

These small interactions build up over time, and add up into something bigger. Taking this day-by-day approach can help you break down barriers with people who you need to communicate with, but perhaps are resistant to opening up.

“The most important thing in any situation, if you want someone to open up and share, the one thing not to do is judge them or criticise them,” Rob says. “That’s the fastest way to get somebody to close down.

“Ask them questions that invite them to open up. Perhaps it’s not the right time or they’re not ready, but it doesn’t mean that you only do that once. You create a series of opportunities where you can ask them how they’re doing, and when they feel there’s enough trust, at that point they would open up.

“That creates an entry point to a deeper and more meaningful conversation.”

This leads us back to what is at the heart of conversation: creating connections between people. It is one of the things that defines us as a species, our ability to communicate, share experiences, empathise, walk in each other’s shoes.

If we want to be better human beings, we need to be better communicators, and good conversation is the foundation of this.

Find out more about Rob, his work, and his books Workstorming and Blamestorming at