The Lost Art of Conversation

Julian Jenkins talks about what we can learn from the Greeks about problem solving


Most people love a good chat, yet in the world of business, conversation is often dismissed as wasteful — certainly not “real” work. Office spaces are divided into separate rooms or cubicles to enable people to focus on the tasks at hand, and not get diverted into “idle” conversations. Though managers spend much of their time in meetings, seminars and workshops, they often lament that these activities are boring and unproductive — mere “talkfests”.

The Ancient Greeks would have been surprised by our attitude to conversation, as it was a central part of their intellectual process. Socrates is famous for his “dialogues”, and rhetoric was one of the foundational skills sets for thinkers and leaders throughout the ancient world.

To appreciate why the Greeks valued conversation so much, you need to understand an important distinction that Aristotle made between two types of real-world problem. On the one hand, there are problems relating to things that “cannot be other than they are”. This involves any situation where there are fixed circumstances or quantities which can be measured and analysed — the sort of problems that are typically addressed by maths and science. In business terms, you could think in terms of financial reporting, productivity measures or sales figures — which all involve looking back at past performance.

However, there is a second category of real-world problem, relating to things that “can be other than they are”. These are the problems that relate to future possibilities, to circumstances which could be different than they are. Mathematical and scientific solutions are of limited use in this context, because you are not dealing with fixed entities that can be measured, but with options and opportunities that don’t yet exist.

The goal in this second sort of problem solving is not to find the “right” answer, but to create a compelling argument about which option is best out of a range of possibilities. The great insight that the Greeks had — and which we have forgotten in the modern world — is that the key tool for addressing this kind of problem is conversation.

This distinction is highly significant for the world of business and management, because most of the important problems that people face in this environment fall into the second category, the realm of future possibilities — for example, topics such as strategic planning, investment decisions, cultural change programs and design of new systems and processes. Indeed, I would argue that any problem which involves human beings, as opposed to mere numbers, falls into this second category, because in the human environment, nothing is fixed — there is always potential to change.

In these circumstances it’s a tragic irony that modern western culture generally has invested so heavily in the scientific method, yet forgotten how to have productive conversations. We live under the illusion that if we can only get the right numbers we’ll be able to make a good decision, when in reality, what we need is a good conversation. For all our emphasis on technology, we have lost the one technology — conversation — that could make a huge difference to the success or failure of the futures that we create for ourselves.

By Tony-Golsby Smith
Illustrations by John Luckman


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