Last Wednesday evening I attend my first “Knowledge Café” hosted by David Gurteen. I have heard a lot about these cafés at various information events and so was pleased to finally be able to attend one in person. The idea appears to be twofold – firstly that knowledge and information professionals can find out what such cafés are for and how to run them and secondly simply to participate in them for their own sake.The “meta-ness” of the theme – conversations about conversation – appealed to me. (I’ve always like metacognition – essentially thinking about thinking, too).

We had plenty of time to get a drink and network before the event started, which is always a good thing, then David gave us a short introduction to the topic. He talked about Theodore Zeldin‘s book about Conversation: How Talk can Change our Lives and reminisced about a conversation from his own childhood that had held personal significance. He then set us three questions to discuss, about whether conversations can help us to see the world differently and how we can use them to bring about change for the better.

We then had a quick round of “speed networking” and formed groups to talk about the first question, moving on to different groups subsequently, so that we were well mixed by the end of the evening. To conclude we gathered into one large circle to talk further. This way we spiralled out from a single speaker, to speaking in pairs, then small groups, then all of us together.

Some common strands that everyone seemed to touch on at some point included discussing whether conversation was medium agnostic. Some people felt quite strongly that only a face-to-face discussion was a real conversation and that chatting via email, by text, by IM, and even by telephone were not the same. Others felt that the medium was irrelevant, it was the nature and quality of the communication that mattered. They agreed that signals, such as body language, shared environment, and instant interactivity were lost when not face to face, but that other factors, such as power imbalances between participants, could be minimised by talking remotely and unseen. Most people agreed that it was far easier to chat in highly constrained media, such as texting, with people one already knew well and had talked to frequently face to face, as that acquaintance helped smooth over misunderstandings due to lack of tone of voice or hastily chosen and ambiguous words. Clarity of vocabulary was also seen as key, especially when dealing with diverse groups or communities of practice.

Trust, power, empathy, and the ability to listen were noted as important factors in productive conversations, as was persuasion, but also that people needed to be open and receptive if change – and perhaps even communication at all – were to be achieved.

I was surprised that fewer people mentioned the physical surroundings and settings of good conversations. I remembered Plato, with Socrates sometimes in the marketplace and sometimes going off to sit in a quiet place under a tree. I find the best conversations need a calm neutral space, without interruptions, where participants can be comfortable, can hear each other clearly, can see each other easily, and have space to move about, perhaps to draw, gesture, etc. if they want to emphasise or illustrate a point. Poor acoustics in restaurants can be disastrous for dinner conversations if all you can hear is clattering chairs and clinking cutlery. Chirruping mobile phones, staff requesting answers, and children needing attention break conversational rhythm and flow, not to mention trains of thought.

Interestingly, in the group discussion, and as so often happens in all conversations, people drifted off topic and became increasingly animated by discussion of something unintended and not particularly relevant. In this case it was a purely political debate about whether the competitive nature of humans was a good or bad thing. Despite mutterings that we are becoming less politically engaged, people seem to want to wear their politics very much on their sleeves.

On the way home, I wondered whether the conversations I had participated in that evening had changed me or the world. In a small way, every experience we have changes the world. I met some interesting new people. I had some new ideas and learned a few new piece of information (apparently it is less tiring to listen to a telephone conversation using both ears – e.g. through a pair of headphones instead of a single earpiece). This blog post exists as a result of the evening. However, I took to heart the point that change has to come from within and I resolved to try to remember to stay adaptable and open to new viewpoints. I also resolved to listen more attentively and to try to facilitate better, more productive conversations while at work. I certainly hope this will change the world for the better, albeit in a very subtle way.